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The Four Phases of Change

Over the last 18 months we analyzed 1,188 changes in 11 global companies to see what works best when leading change. We made two interesting discoveries about how changes unfolded:

  1. There were 4 change phases that the leaders needed to pay attention to - most leaders were good at some (the phases they liked) but neglected others (the phases they didn't).

  2. Depending on your company (and culture) different phases were more or less critical to get right

Here are the 4 phases and what we learned about each:

  1. Change selection: The actual change that leaders decided to enact, had a massive impact on the likelihood of its success. A critical factor in selecting the right change initiative was: did the initiative have the support of the people who would implement it? Our research showed that change initiatives that were initially supported by the majority of staff had a 66% rate of success. Those that did not had only a 33% success rate. Implication: Leaders should think carefully prior to launch, about how broad and deep support is for the proposed change. If support is low you can still succeed but you will need to execute everything else about the change flawlessly.

  2. Pre-communication: How much and how clearly leaders communicated before the change began was a critical element of success. Many leaders thought that this meant that they needed to tell people about the change. In fact, we found the most successful changes were driven by leaders who spent less time talking and more time asking questions and carefully listening to those who would implement the change. Those were the leaders who built the strongest front-end support and quickly identified roadblocks to remove. Implication: Go out to your key stakeholders, share your plans and listen. The best change leaders didn't communicate through speeches, they shut their mouths and listened for the reactions of the implementers.

  3. Barrier removal: While good change leaders may look outwardly positive we found the best to be productively paranoid about what could derail their project. They were vigilant about monitoring and addressing systems, processes, staff anxieties and anything else that could cause the change to falter. They also made sure that the right resources were available to the right people throughout the change process. The best leaders understood that change can be unsettling in the best of circumstances and once it becomes too uncomfortable or distressing, staff will begin to distance themselves from it. Implication: Keep asking 'What could get in the way of people implementing the change?' Then obsess about removing it.

  4. Implementation: Most leaders focus massive amounts of time, energy, and resources on this phase without realizing that their project might already be seriously crippled due to neglect of the previous three phases. Implementation should be a continuation of the first three phases with an increasing emphasis on leaders modeling the right behaviors and empowering staff to hold each other accountable for change success. Key Insight: The most important success factor we uncovered in our research, was how well the change team pivoted its approach based on early feedback and results. Successful teams tended to iterate constantly whereas the teams that failed, tended to stay the wrong course too long--until it was too late.

So just do all the phases right? Interestingly, it turned out these phases were not equally weighted. In some organizations (mainly relationship based cultures) our analysis showed that the key leadership behaviors fell more in the first two phases of the change (early buy in + pre-communication). In other organizations (more task focused cultures) the key behaviors fell in the implementation phases ('We'll make it happen just give us the support and resources').

If I was to summarize our research I would say - you need to help leaders see what behaviors matter most in their organization.

OK, there is much more to share - but if you want to know more read the Change Equation whitepaper. You'll see how you can give your leaders a map of what tends to work best in your company culture and how to tilt the odds of success in their favor.

Whitepaper: If you want an copy of the whitepaper sent to you email and write ‘Preview Change Equation’ in the subject line.

Webinar: If you want to hear all we learned and how you can use the Change Equation tool sign up to the Change Equation webinar - Wednesday Dec 12th at 3pm EST.


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