News & Insight
February 2013

Leading Successful Change

​WJM talks to WJM Faculty Member Cassie Solomon about her new book written with Gregory Shea, Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work (Wharton Digital Press, February 5, 2013)

Why do so many change initiatives fail?

We read studies going back about 20 years, and the findings are alarming – between 50-70% of change initiatives fail; people who describe what they are trying to accomplish as “culture change” report the highest failure rates of all. This is all hindsight, of course. When companies launch these initiatives there is so much energy, commitment and resource committed upfront – so much emphasis placed on the “big launch” and on motivational beginnings, the appearance of the CEO – we know that it’s not commitment or hard work or energy that’s missing. But when you ask people to reflect back six months or a year later, they report that after the initial excitement has died down, a lot of these efforts have just petered out and they didn’t get the real benefits they were seeking. It’s heartbreaking.

How can failure be avoided?

Companies place a tremendous amount of emphasis on formulating strategy, but they under-attend to what comes next – strategy execution. We are saying to people that to be successful with execution you need to make sure that you have tremendous alignment of the work system – the messages that you’re sending to your people, or you will be wasting your time. Changing one element of your system at a time - though it may seem more feasible – is actually much more likely to be a waste of your valuable resources.

Greg Shea and I have two insights we want people to take away. First, in the planning stages, focus on how people’s roles are going to change and on specific behaviors you want to see. This requires you to move beyond fuzzy conceptual thinking into much more concrete, execution-focused thinking. Second, be a systems thinker. Examine the environment around your people and design that environment to encourage the new behavior. We break the environment down into 8 levers that you can use to influence behavior –in our experience you need to pull at least 4 of the 8 levers to get the change right.

Can you say more about the 8 levers of a system?

Change often fails because companies focus on intervening in just one or two systems at a time. They might focus on re-engineering processes using lean or six-sigma techniques (the TASK lever) but they don’t go far enough and integrate that work with role change and technology change. Or companies will focus exclusively on the PEOPLE lever, sending employees to a great training session, or motivating them with an inspiring kick-off; believing that change will happen because we will develop what’s inside of our people All the work on skills and competencies fits here. But when you think about how most New Year’s resolutions fare, you see that this kind of intervention usually fades very quickly. A newly-motivated person steps back into the same old environment – the physical space and available technology are the same (that’s WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT), the way they are rewarded both financially and socially is still the same (that’s REWARDS), the things that get measured (MEASUREMENT) and the feedback and information they get about what’s working and what’s not working (INFORMATION DISTRIBUTION) are the same. Their responsibilities and accountabilities are the same (DECISION-MAKING) and their place in the organization hasn’t changed (ORGANIZATION.) So most of the environment around them is telling them, “The status quo still makes sense” and they revert to it. You hear managers complain that “my people are resistant to change” when really, they’re just doing what has always worked well for them, and still does.

What are the implications of what you’re saying?

Well if you think each change initiative through using this model, the senior team will often realize that they have to do a better job of prioritizing and focusing their efforts. This doesn’t mean that you need to select just one initiative from the menu of things you want to accomplish, but it does mean that you need to align the company’s efforts so that what you are doing works together, is holistic. That takes good critical thinking and it takes leadership.

Many of the cases in the book deal with whole company change. Is the advice only pertinent for CEO’s?

No! What I found so exciting about Greg’s model when it was first introduced to me is that you can apply it at any level. We have examples in the book that range from changing personal health behaviors to a foreman in a union environment using these ideas on the shop floor, to a McKinsey study where they used similar ideas to transform an entire industry. Once you know how to take a systems approach to change, you can do it anywhere and at any level.

You sound really passionate about reducing change failures.

Often the people who get tapped to lead change initiatives inside companies are the best and the brightest and so they have a lot of hopes pinned on them. Too often, the way the initiatives are structured, these high potential leaders are being set up to fail. That’s what we’re passionate about – saving all the human capital that gets squandered when change efforts fail.

WJM Faculty Member Cassie Solomon has over 20 years experience as a coach, organizational consultant, trainer and facilitator. She has taught change leadership and leadership development at The Wharton School of Business Aresty Institute since 1993.

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