What Makes Change Happen?
by Lauren Keller Johnson

You have been charged with implementing a significant new initiative. Perhaps your company has defined a new competitive strategy—such as entering new markets or going global—and you need to align your group behind it. Or maybe you’ve identified stubborn problems in your unit—order-processing mistakes, duplication of effort, budget overruns—that need solving. Your goal may be clear, but how clear is your strategy for reaching it? If you’re like most executives, the answer is, not clear enough. Indeed, most major change initiatives fail, many of them soon after implementation begins, says Larry Bossidy, coauthor with Ram Charan of Confronting Reality: Doing What Matters to Get Things Right (Crown Business, 2004). The reason? Executives commit one or more of several common errors, all of which stem from insufficient planning and follow-through. Some leaders assume that their unit’s culture has the flexibility and openness required to accommodate major change. They ram the initiative through their group—only to encounter stiff resistance that ultimately sabotages the effort. Or they fail to articulate the initiative’s benefits. “If people don’t understand the purpose of an initiative,” Bossidy says, “they’ll be skeptical about devoting their time and energy to it.” Some leaders also don’t realize they must stay involved during implementation and continually communicate the initiative’s importance. “They just announce it and walk away,” Bossidy says. The result is initiatives that do little other than “wander and drift.” Executives who want to avoid these and other prevalent mistakes when implementing new initiatives should look to these five steps:

do you like about the unit (or company)? What don’t you like?” Solicit opinions about what’s causing your group’s or enterprise’s most pressing problems; for example, “Why does it take so long for us to get products to market? Why do we make so many order-entry mistakes?” Listen for answers relating to your group’s flexibility and openness to change. Do people feel encouraged to take risks and learn from their mistakes? Are they comfortable talking about problems?

Building momentum through smaller changes is particularly potent. It shows people they can rise to the challenge and enables you to begin more complex changes later.
While assessing culture, resist any temptation to bury your head in the sand because you don’t want to hear uncomfortable truths. “A lot of managers don’t ask these questions because they’re in denial,” says Bossidy. “Deep down, they feel that their culture can’t be changed,” so they decide that diagnosing it is a waste of time. Based on your cultural assessment, decide whether your team is capable of embracing the initiative you’re considering.

Before launching any change effort, carefully assess your unit’s or company’s culture. “Get outside opinions,” Bossidy advises. “Ask people you trust—a consultant, customer, supplier, former executive of the company— whether they think the culture can fulfill the objectives of the initiative.” External opinions are valuable because “people on the inside see the culture as they want to see it—not as it actually is.” Also get a read on your culture from internal sources. Ask employees and managers questions such as, “What

If you’ve decided that the current culture is a poor match for the effort at hand, you must condition the culture. “Make the business case for change—in compelling terms,” Bossidy says. “Then start with something simple, to build confidence and demonstrate that people can work effectively together.” Building momentum through smaller changes is particularly potent. “Succeeding on a small initiative, no matter how simple, provides a foundation for the next,” Bossidy says. It shows people that they can rise to the challenge and enables you to begin more complex changes later. This phenomenon works on every level within an organization. For example, while serving as CEO of Morristown, N.J.–based AlliedSignal (which later acquired and took on the name Honeywell), Bossidy conditioned

Copyright © 2007 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

you’re introducing a new customer relationship management system to your group.” or “total quality leadership. giving them the confidence needed to tackle bigger challenges. and analyze work problems in a classroom setting. A successful change effort shows people how to “unite in action. and show them the quantifiable benefits of the changes they’ve made so far. don’t let pushback from these folks stall the initiative. hard work. making introduction of the next change far more difficult.” 5. once implemented. As the novelty wears off. CALL ON YOUR COURAGE Initiatives require people to think and act in new ways. As he writes in Confronting Reality. consider the outcome of a well-led initiative. tremendous time. and endless physical and emotional energy.Making Change Happen continued the culture for the company’s eventual adoption of Six Sigma by introducing an increasingly challenging series of starter initiatives first. “There are no free throws with initiatives: if one is important enough to launch. for instance. These included “TQL. “Let them know you’re depending on them.” Constantly remind people of your appreciation.” Bossidy says.” Leading initiatives will never be easy. Bossidy maintains.” says Bossidy. “Leading an initiative requires intense focus. A change leader needs to constantly breathe new life into the initiative. it cannot be allowed to fail. Assembling the right team to carry out an initiative is the most difficult yet most important imperative for change leaders. And help them find ways to reassign responsibilities. They can require a leader to change some individuals’ or units’ responsibilities or remove them entirely from the team 4 HARVARD MANAGEMENT UPDATE | OCTOBER 2007 . “Appeal to these leaders’ camaraderie. Failure costs time and money. after Bossidy helped Six Sigma take root at AlliedSignal.” contends Bossidy.” If. gain experience with problem-solving tools. “Kickoff speeches and delegation are not enough. you can sweeten the odds that your initiative will survive the most common hazards. It can breed cynicism and damage a manager’s credibility. 3. Whatever you do. It also helps people face down fear of failure. “Naturally. “If it’s good. reach a plateau. and pride in the company. And “it gives you a picture of how people respond to the demands of change in a defined context”—thus providing a sort of working model of your group’s or company’s functioning. but you also need to make sure they’re functionally suited to the job and motivated to make things happen. If you’re entering a situation where your predecessor had begun a major initiative. Look for new angles to introduce—anything to keep the effort fresh in people’s minds. he ensured that new generations of black belts (individuals who can explain Six Sigma philosophies and principles) were trained. be prepared for resistance from their leaders—many of whom don’t want to lose their best people to an “outside” project. But by applying a few potent principles.” which encouraged people to work as teams. CONSTRUCT AN ABLE IMPLEMENTATION TEAM A change leader needs to constantly breathe new life into the initiative. He also recommends celebrating achievement of THE PERILS OF POORLY MANAGED INITIATIVES A badly led change initiative can wreak havoc on a unit or entire company. To combat this tendency.” 4. the best change leaders stay involved throughout implementation of the entire initiative. you want people who are enthusiastic about leading initiatives. And if your implementation team needs the participation of a few individuals from other departments. where you recognize and reward people’s contributions to carrying out the initiative. But put your own stamp on it. commitment to teamwork. COMMIT TIME AND ENERGY key implementation milestones.” Bossidy says. Some initiatives. Reassure them that they won’t be losing a talented employee forever. evaluate its merit. “Have an end-of-theyear or end-of-the-quarter party. As Larry Bossidy claims in Confronting Reality.” Now. people’s energy and enthusiasm wane. ensure that the people who will be carrying out the initiative have a strong customer orientation—as well as a comfort level with and knowledge of the technology. For example. “keep sponsoring it.

you can sweeten the odds that your initiative will survive the most common hazards. “30% of a business-unit leader’s bonus was tied to progress on Six Sigma. deal directly with any “aggrieved constituencies and [make] sure that good people aren’t discouraged or driven out when their part of the business is cut down.Making Change Happen continued or company.” Let people know that there will be consequences for not supporting the initiative. u Lauren Keller Johnson is a Massachusetts-based business writer. To ensure the initiative stays on track. Your message? “We’ve thought about the pros and cons.” Changes in rewards can also “add muscle to the message. HARVARD MANAGEMENT UPDATE | OCTOBER 2007 5 . Your challenge here is to remain “both inspiring and unrelenting. At AlliedSignal. there will have to be changes made.” he says. call 800-668-6705 or 617-783-7474. and concluded that this is something we must do… If people aren’t on board with us.” Bossidy writes in Confronting for instance. Such changes in structure will create “real or perceived winners and losers.harvard.” Leading initiatives will never be easy. But by applying a few potent principles.” Bossidy explains. She can be reached at MUOpinion@hbsp. Reprint # U0710C: To order a reprint of this article.

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