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Change is a contact sport

October 14, 2014

We are all familiar with the change statistic that says 70% of change efforts fail…or to put it the other way around, only 30% succeed. Those are pretty dismal numbers indeed. So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across this article in the Ivey School of Business Journal highlighting one of those “30% succeed” stories. It was written by the CEO of Sanofi Canada about a major organizational change he led after taking the helm in May 2012.

The company was moving to a new corporate headquarters while also transitioning to an open-plan workspace. I won’t go into the specifics of the change and the “lessons learned”…you can read those for yourself. However, the article reminded me of some key change management principles that guide successful change efforts.

Lead from the Top

  • Leading change isn’t something you delegate to the next level down. The CEO of Sanofi developed a very specific 12-month change plan and viewed himself as the driver and catalyst in its execution. He outlined success measures for the change and surveyed employees at the end of the 12-month period. One of the key metrics was to minimize turnover. Turns out, the company not only minimized turnover, they succeeded in retaining all employees during the relocation. That’s what happens when the CEO is leading the change.

Involve Those Impacted by the Change

  • The company selected employees to become Change Ambassadors and used these individuals to inform, promote and support the change with their peers. They also served as feedback loops back to the management team to ensure all employee concerns and questions were addressed. These employees played a critical role in turning employee apprehension, about the move and the new work space, into excitement.
  • The selection of these Change Ambassadors was well thought out. Those selected came from across the organization, selected on the basis of their networks, credibility, influence and the ability to communicate. The company also included some employees who were not necessarily “first adopters” of the proposed changes. Pretty risky move but I’m guessing it paid off in having employees trust this group of Change Ambassadors as being the “real deal”…not just the mouthpiece of management to “sell” the change.

You Can Never Communicate Too Much

It goes without saying that communication is critical to any change effort and no surprise that this was at the top of the list of the CEO’s “lessons learned.” While not explicitly called out in the article, I’m reminded of the basic communication principles we teach as part of our course Managing Organization Transition:

  • Say the same message over and over again
  • Vary the medium
  • Be consistent
  • Understanding is more important than agreement
  • Listening is twice as important as talking
  • Tell them the truth – good news and bad
  • People usually complain before they create

That last one is so important to remember. During times of change, employees typically vent their frustrations. Don’t see this as negative and something to be squelched. Understand that it is a normal and natural dynamic of change. You will find that once employees get their frustrations out on the table (and you have acknowledged them), they are then more open to giving the change a try.

Well-led, well-communicated changes usually succeed. Others, not so much.

What are your leaders doing to make change succeed?

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