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Three Secrets to Making Organizational Changes Stick

Three Secrets to Making Organizational Changes Stick

Toward the end of 2020, I made a resolution to cut down on my intake of fast food. I was almost resolute never to bring another juicy slice of pizza to my lips ever again.

I had always known the truth - it was counterproductive to my gym routine and one slice always led to another, which eventually culminated in a sick feeling at the end of the day.

No more!

But on January 5th, without even thinking twice, a mouthful of breathtaking barbecue chicken pizza went swooshing around my mouth and I had no regrets.

Funnily enough, being a part of an organizational change is quite similar.

  1. We know the pizza (the way we’ve always done things) is not the best option for us.
  2. We’ve made a decision to avoid it in future and possibly even have a full-proof plan in place to do.
  3. Every now and again, we find ourselves stomaching mouthfuls of delectable pizza with no contrition in sight.

We console ourselves with the idea that a change journey is hard in the beginning, messy in the middle, and beautiful at the end - the messy middle just happens to be really drawn out.

Although this does well to summarize the crazy journey that is an organization’s attempt at turning the ship around, it doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of the process.

The "messy" middle is messy because although the facts lay uncovered on the table and the change in behavior has somewhat begun, it hasn’t stuck just yet. Hence members of the team are see-sawing between their new company practices and outdated company dogmas.

I have become all too familiar with this, having worked with teams navigating some of the trickiest transitions in business today. With that, there are three things your team can begin to apply today in order to get off the see-saw.

Align the changes to a relevant, trackable vision.

The human brain is quicker to perceive a threat because we are wired for survival. Many neuroscientists say the brain categorizes experiences into one of two categories: threat or reward.

Unfortunately, organizational change initiatives often get thrown into the "threat" basket.

This is because, in many cases, we do not see how we will actively play a meaningful role in the renewed identity and how these changes align with where we wish to progress in our own career goals. As a result of this, there’s a disconnect and an inconsistency that results in closing ourselves from making any behavioral change progress.

What to do?

  • Draw clear, unambiguous parallels between the change strategy and the organization’s shared vision.
  • Use tools such as gantt charts that allow team members to track their progress.
  • Help team members maintain their sense of autonomy by encouraging them to relate their career and personal aspirations to the direction and ethos/agenda of the organization.

[Related: Plotting a New Course]

Rig the environment.

You might have realized this, but energy is a limited resource in the body and especially in the brain, so the automaticity your brain establishes within habits is done for efficiency purposes - to save energy and promote ease.

Teams who are successful in their change initiatives are great at setting up the work environment so it makes the newly designed rituals and practices easy to perform. The environments can be seen as "rigged" in favor of the change that the organization wishes to make.

The other side to this is that the environment doesn’t just make the new ways of doing and being easy, it is also "rigged" against the outdated ways, making them more difficult to perform/relapse into.

What to do?

  • To introduce ease to a process, break the system up into its parts and identify the parts that could be either bypassed or serve a purpose that could be integrated into another part.
  • Ask the team to detect aspects in the systems, processes, or overall working environment that introduce friction.
  • As you introduce further ease into your systems, consistently track how they affect your change-related KPIs.

[Related: Why a Crisis Should Change How You Lead]

Wrap it in rituals.

Rituals are fantastic for growing teams for two main reasons.

They help cement a culture that team members often only read about on paper or briefly hear rattled off in meetings. When the incoming culture/strategy is practiced by us, this justifies its relevance and makes it more real for those who perform it and for those who are watching. We tend to have an easier time buying into actions than words.

The other reason rituals are a game changer is because they help teams change together. A study done at Colorado State University concluded that the number one variable for making lasting behavior change is "social influence." Being social creatures (who socialize first and reason later), when we feel we are on a change journey along with others, we can relax some of our "threat" and "competition" responses and be one with the group.

What to do?

  • Think of rituals (group practices/activities) that allow the team to execute the change strategy, and also verbally reinforce its underlying objectives.
  • As a leader, walk the walk and talk the talk. Become a consistent billboard for the change through what you say and do. Inconsistency is highly detrimental to change efforts.
  • Allow the team to co-create these rituals - this way, they can take ownership of them.

After all is said and done, one of the key weapons to implementing a successful change strategy that remain, especially at the scale of an entire organization, is empathy. This doesn’t just apply to organizations, but even when we set the "less fast food" goal or anything like it for ourselves.

Empathy is what allows us to realize that the journey will be made up of times when the pizza slice accidentally slips on the glossy counter and falls directly into our open mouth. Further, empathy implies that when this does happen, we can regroup and recalibrate by ensuring:

  1. This change is aligned to a vision that aligns to the values of our team.
  2. The work environment is positioned to support the change we wish to achieve.
  3. We have tucked helpful rituals into our daily interactions and operations.

Because what’s the point of change if it doesn’t last, right?

[Related: Is it Impostor Syndrome or Incompetence?]

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If you're navigating an organizational change/transition, just changed functions, or moved homes and want to do it right, Zanele Njapha is who many such as Vitality Global, Marsh & McLennan, Saint Gobain, and Volkswagen are speaking to.


Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.

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