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Leading Change: Rocking the Boat and Staying Afloat

A lot of people have been asking me about culture change lately. Questions like: "How do I get people to follow procedures instead of winging it?" or "How can we become more innovative and less focussed on maintaining status quo?" These questions are really about changing employees' group norms and values - in essence, changing the company's culture. There’s a simple truth behind culture change: people change what they do, not because they are given an analysis that changes their thinking, but because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings (Kotter, 2002). My favorite, tried and true method for taking the mystery out of culture change is John Kotter’s 8 steps to change.

The first step is to create urgency – the proverbial “burning platform”. So many executives want to downplay problems, to avoid panicking staff, when they should be doing the opposite. Create a shared understanding of the problem, and why it needs to be solved using different methods than those used in the past. The second step is to create a guiding coalition – those who really understand and feel the pain of the problem, and are best situated or prepared to lead the organization through change. The third step is to create a vision of what you want to obtain or achieve. Not some vague statement like “become a world-class organization” (yawn), but something elegant, specific and motivating. For example, when Steve Jobs was leading the development of the ipod, he referred to it as “a million songs in your pocket”.

The fourth step is to communicate to get buy-in. The goal with communication should be to catalyze people to action, not just keep them informed. Acknowledge what people may be feeling, like anxiety, excitement, confusion, pride or anger. One thing I’ve found to be very effective is to share examples of employees successfully “living the change”. Keep communications simple, heartfelt, and frequent. The fifth step is to empower change agents. Change agents are leaders (with a formal title or not) within the organization who have the ability and inclination to move the organization towards its vision from step 3. Remember that you can’t hand out power in a bag – empowerment means providing an environment where people realize they are empowered. For some leaders, this is VERY uncomfortable. But if you have good change agents, the results can be amazing. The sixth step is to plan for, encourage and celebrate short-term wins. These wins will build credibility and momentum for the longer-term effort. Without them, the cynics and nay-sayers can sink any effort.

The seventh step is to keep going. It’s easy, after a few short-term wins, to declare victory and become complacent. Or, you may reach a point in your change journey where you feel as if you’ve been doing this forever and you wonder if your organization is really any better off than when you started. This is what Gartner refers to as the “trough of disillusionment”. Use the momentum from step six to start tackling the tougher, more deep-rooted problems in your organization. Don’t let up. Step eight is to sustain the gains. Re-inforce the changes you’ve made through promotions, new employee on-boarding, and employee incentives. Don’t let old habits rise up and swallow your work. While you can’t silence the cynics and pessimists, you can drown them out with messages and activities designed to support the changes you’ve made.

Culture change is about shifting people’s behavior. And the key to this shift is to engage people emotionally. It’s messy, but it’s the only way to bring about meaningful, long-term change.

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