There is a limit to how much people can change in a short period of time. Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch discuss how the rational side of our brain can quickly become exhausted trying to keep the emotional side of our brain focused on the change. Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling in their book The Four Disciplines of Execution call for leaders to be much more selective in the goals of any change initiative – focusing on one or two “wildly important goals.” If change fatigue is a real problem in organizations, why are leaders often reluctant to recognize that going too far, too fast in a change effort is a great way to get no change at all?
Lack of a Change Methodology
While we often think that leaders should know how to initiate, lead, and sustain change in their organizations, the truth is that most do not know how to actually execute a change initiative – the mechanics elude them. That fact does not mean leaders are incompetent or uncommitted. It means that they don’t follow a proven change methodology because they don’t lead change initiatives frequently. This can cause leaders to have unrealistic or naive expectations of what it actually takes to change both themselves and employees. For example, I recently worked with a group of executives deeply engaged in and committed to an enterprise-wide change initiative. Our discussion focused on the importance of communication in order to build awareness about the initiative among all employees. I described how important it was to have between five and seven significant communications (e.g., events, one-on-ones, e-mails, etc.) before employees even understood what the initiative was supposed to accomplish. The executives were shocked that it would require this many communications just to build awareness of what the initiative hoped to accomplish (not buy-in from their people, just awareness). Most felt that one or two enterprise-wide communications would be enough. Once we began to discuss the amount of e-mails and dialogues that occur in an employee’s daily interactions (lots) and the percentage of those communications focused on the initiative (just a little), they relented and committed to upping their own communication efforts around the change. Change management and organizational development professionals can help leaders by ensuring that all initiatives are informed by a proven change methodology that keeps leaders focused on the mechanics of change necessary for successful execution.
Misunderstanding the Limits of Authority
McChesney, Covey, and Huling point out in their book that often executives mistake “stroke of pen” changes with “behavior-based” changes. The former is all about simply having the authority to commit necessary resources. (I like to call them “So Let it be Written, So Let it be Done” changes after the pharaoh in the movie the Ten Commandments.) On the other hand, “behavior-based” changes are about getting people to commit to actually changing behaviors in their daily routines. Frequently, leaders fail to accurately identify when a “stroke of pen” change becomes a “behavior-based” change. An example of a “stroke of pen” change is when a Chief Sales Officer (CSO) decides to buy a new customer relationship management (CRM) system to keep track of important customer data. The CSO is the highest authority in the sale force and responsible for it producing results. The CSO puts the new CRM system in the budget, builds a business case for why the technology is important to the sales force’s ability to forecast accurately, and defends the decision politically with other executives. The CSO needs planning, resources, and political savvy to purchase the CRM but it is well within his/her authority to do so. An example of a “behavior-based” change is actually getting the sales force to put their customer data into the CRM system in a way that helps the CSO more effectively run the business. For all the CSO’s authority, getting accurate data entry is unlikely to occur simply by mandating this behavior change. After all, high performing sales professionals simply have to say to the CSO, “Would you rather me be out there selling to customers and making our numbers or sitting here filling out electronic paperwork?” Most leaders fail to differentiate between “stroke of pen” and “behavior-based” changes. As a result, these leaders treat “behavior-based” changes the same way they treat “stroke of pen” changes. Worse, they then try to command behavior change, which will always fail to produce sustainable new behaviors. Change management and organizational development professionals can help leaders by encouraging them to accurately identify when and what parts of an initiative are “stroke of pen” changes versus “behavior-based” changes. Additionally, it is important to have frank discussions about the limits of personal authority when trying to achieve lasting behavior change.
Unrealistic Mandates from Above
The third reason that leaders fail to recognize that going too far, too fast often results in no change is that they are often under unrealistic mandates themselves. In this day and age, everyone answers to someone else. A senior leader is frequently responsible to the CEO or to shareholders. If the CEO or shareholders have inflated, unrealistic expectations about what it takes to execute change successfully, they are going to exert pressure for results faster than any leader can successfully deliver them. Change management and organizational development professionals can help leaders to build solid roadmaps for how change will cascade in an organization and coach leaders on presenting these plans to higher-ups. Often reporting on progress on a change roadmap is sufficient to satisfy a CEO or shareholders (at least in the early stages).
Bottom Line: Fewer goals increase the likelihood of successful change. One to three behavior change goals is a good range. Leaders who focus themselves and their teams on a small number of goals have a higher probability of getting better change results.