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Back in the elephant’s saddle again

How to navigate your organization’s successful path to change

A Fortune 500 company was changing its time sheets from paper to electronic forms and it felt like a major change that would be difficult for many employees.

The shift involved staff reduction, job-assignment changes and major alterations in methodology. In all, the head of payroll said it would have an emotional impact on more than 15,000 people.

So a plan was hatched to try to reduce the stress and get buy-in: to address the change with respect – and humor.

Those most involved were invited to a funeral for the paper time sheet. Sincere eulogies extolled the virtues of the old system. The pain of its passing was acknowledged.

When the new system came online, the tone was upbeat: birth announcements were sent out.

Everyone agreed that the transition went more smoothly because leaders anticipated the stress brought about by change-and addressed the emotional content. 

This is just one example of ways we can work to engage our employees as we confront the challenges of leading through periods of change.

And change is top of mind for many Wunderlin Company clients. They continue to ask us regularly: How do you accelerate the pace of change?

While the Great Recession is behind us, most organizations are still fighting for every inch of success, and the need to excel at leading change is stronger than ever.

The problem is, many leaders are perplexed about how to go about leading change successfully.

This newsletter offers our observations about how to be successful driving change in your organization.

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Change Is a Process

A study of change projects concluded that 100 percent of successful change initiatives had good technical solutions. Not surprising.

But it also found that 98 percent of unsuccessful change initiatives had good technical solutions.

So success is not about whether we have a good idea for change, but whether we can get the right people to support it ( just as employees wound up supporting the time-sheet transition).

Because we are engaged in influencing our people as well as changing the way we work, change is not a one-time event. When we work with clients, we focus on leading change as a four-step process:

  • Initiate change by grounding it in a solid purpose and a shared need.
  • Mobilize commitment by engaging employees in shaping the outcomes and understanding what the change will do for them.
  • Transition to the new systems and processes.
  • Make change last by monitoring results and having the change become a way of doing business.

Change acceleration works in tandem with project management to assure that your change is delivered on time, on budget, and with support in the organization.

A savvy change leader understands the complex interplay of these four elements, and realizes that the success of any change depends on the support of those affected.

Switch elephant's saddle article wunderlinSwitch!

A recent book by brothers Chip and Dan Heath provides a compelling metaphor for creating effective change. In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, the Heaths argue that implementing change is like getting a rider to control an elephant along a path. Lots of things have to go right to get the elephant where you want it to go.

Imagine you want to make a change, they say: Every person – or team – has an emotional side, “the Elephant,” and a rational side, “the Rider.” To accomplish change, you have to reach both. And, of course, you have to clear the way for them to advance. Using example after example, the Heaths focus on ways to “direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path.”

For example, two researchers in West Virginia wanted to try to find ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet. Milk was identified as a pivotal part of the problem. Almost everyone drank it, and whole milk was the single largest source of saturated fat in Americans’ diets. If people who drank whole milk switched to 1 percent or skim milk, they would reach the recommended levels of saturated fat in their diets.

First they appealed to the elephant – emotions – by showing grocery shoppers a tube of fat equivalent to the fat in a half gallon of milk and by explaining that one glass of whole milk contained saturated fat equal to 5 slices of bacon.

Everyone’s reaction, of course, was that the fat was gross. Having monitored milk sales before the reduced-fat milk campaign began, the researchers knew that the market share of low-fat milk in the area was only 18 percent; during the campaign it rose to 41 percent, then leveled out at 35 percent.

The experiment covered all three bases: It clearly and simply directed the Rider to buy 1 percent skim milk, it motivated the Elephant with images of tubes of fat, and it made the path easier by allowing people to make one simple change that started them along the road to better life-long health.

Direct the Rider

A few years ago The Wunderlin Company worked with a major airline identifying 40 changes that needed to be made in the reservations division in the post 9/11 environment. Laura Butcher, a Wunderlin Company senior consultant, explains the challenge:

"Making 40 changes in one year – with many having impacts on the skills, compensation, and efficiency metrics – required substantial planning. We worked with a cross-functional team to put together plans to integrate the most significant initiatives first so that the airline minimized disruptions, overcame resistance, and realized efficiency and cost savings more quickly.

“We helped the team complete a gap analysis for each of the initiatives to describe the current and future states, and we helped them identify the specific gaps that needed to be addressed.

“We also guided the team in completing analysis of the stakeholders – what their needs, concerns and influencers were on each of the change projects. In dealing with these issues, we helped to construct adoption strategies, communication plans and action task lists to ensure that the initiatives and teams remained on message, integrated, and aligned in purpose. Finally, we facilitated the group in identifying risks to successful execution and action plans to mitigate them."

Clearly, managing change is not all about the change itself; in fact, most of our work deals with the more emotional, less rational side of the ride toward change – motivating the elephant.

Back in the Elephant's Saddle WunderlinMotivate the Elephant

A couple of years ago, in a newsletter written at the depth of the recession, I discussed Ram Charan’s book that offers “Six Essential Leadership Traits for Hard Times”. The same skills needed to weather the changes brought about by a downturn are valuable in leading a company into better times.

But as a change leader, you might also want to evaluate your team’s skills in dealing with the emotional aspects of change:

  • How are my team’s influencing skills?
  • What about their communication skills?
  • Can they address the right questions? Among them: Where are we meeting resistance?  What do our employees need to affect this change? How can we influence them to support the change? What is the next milestone?

Failure to bring the organization along with you can ensure individual and collective resistance, along with reactions to the change ranging from apathy to downright sabotage.

So inspiring a buy-in is absolutely essential. So how do you handle the inevitable resistance?

In recent months, we have been working with a global company whose senior team wants to achieve some dramatic culture changes and give opportunities to a number of "next generation" leaders. The executive team elected to launch a number of change initiatives simultaneously.

Senior team leaders had spent a good amount of time handpicking the team members for each initiative and providing resources for their work, but issues and resistance still arose.

For example, teams feared disagreeing with senior management. The first time such an issue came up, the team took the risk, presented their case, and let management decide whether to accept what ended up being a very modest change. And they did.

Another team made a recommendation that actually was very significant – involving a change in the company’s logo and tagline – and after robust conversations, senior management supported them.

All these issues were more about the elephant than the rider. As senior leaders proved they were serious about letting the teams do their work, commitment increased.

The early experiences with change management helped senior management and the change acceleration teams understand how to really "bake in" a culture difference across the globe.

TWC's “Equation for Success” had turned into the company’s mantra for change: the Quality of a solution times its Acceptance in the organization determines the Success of your result.

Shape the Path

Once changes are formulated, and individuals and departments have bought into the changes, leaders have to shape the path to make the changes last.

The Switch authors suggest that you tweak the environment to make right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.

Think about Amazon's 1-click ordering. With one-tenth the effort of dialing a phone number, you can buy a new book or DVD. Talk about instant gratification. Amazon's site designers have simply made a desired behavior – you spending money on their site – a little bit easier.

Here's how Wunderlin Company consultant Carol Schifman explains our approach to helping leaders shape the path for change:

"Change is never easy, but the process and likelihood of success improves measurably when leaders understand how to initiate change, mobilize commitment for it, make the transition, and make the change last. We help get them to this level of understanding."

Final Words of Advice

Switch authors Chip and Dan Heath get the last word:

"For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Maybe it's you, maybe it's your team. Picture the person. Each has an emotional Elephant side and a rational Rider side. You've got to reach both. And you've also got to clear the way for them to succeed."

Direct the Rider • Motivate the Elephant • Shape the Path


If you'd like to hear the Heath brothers talk a bit about change:

Listen to Chip Heath talk about change as he addresses a meeting of the Council on Foundations and Dan Heath offer ways to "shrink the change" so it becomes more manageable.

Here are some additional books we recommend:

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, the latest book by Chip and Dan Heath.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

 The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.

Harvard Business Review on Change. A Harvard Business Review Paperback.

Change the Way You Lead Change: Leadership Strategies That Really Work. David M. Herold and Donald B. Fedor.

Radical Change, the Quiet Way. Debra E. Meyerson.

Leading Change: An Action Plan from the World's Foremost Expert on Business Leadership, John P. Kotter.


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