Leading Strategic Change

Hope is a powerful motivator. That’s why executives continue to sponsor
improvement initiatives despite knowing a vast majority of programs fail to reach their potential — up to 70% of them! That rate of failure is totally unacceptable. Think of the money that gets lost — both in investment costs and in unrealized benefits.

The failure rate can be seen as an indictment of leadership because these common problems are allowed to recur time and again:
  • Strategy without a roadmap
  • Expectations without commitment
  • Sponsorship without engagement
  • Compliance without acceptance
  • Management without leadership
These are not technical issues; technology is often the least of a change project’s problems. Instead, these barriers to success involve human behavior; they are cultural in nature. So why don’t we learn? Why do these problems continue? Good question.

My experience has been that once initiatives are commissioned, executives often turn things over to their project teams and hope things will turn out better this time around. But, as the former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan wrote about leading change, “Hope is not a method.”  
Successful executive change leaders go beyond hope; instead, they follow a method. They:
  • Tie the initiative’s goals to overarching strategy
  • Redefine reality and challenge current assumptions
  • Engage the whole organization and insist on cross-functional collaboration 
  • Communicate a compelling vision that creates broad demand for change
  • Live the change, staying personally involved and committed to success
  • Instill a business-focused project management and governance regimen
  • Adapt and coach others to success by remaining flexible and focused on results
They also assign respected business people to lead the effort, supported by IT and HR experts. Initiatives will deliver their promised benefits only if they gain acceptance from front-line associates. Putting business leaders in charge is critical to achieving the culture changes necessary for success.

One definition of corporate culture is that it is simply what employees believe their leadership believes in. It establishes an organization’s theoretical priorities — what it says — and, more importantly, its operational priorities — what it does. We all know of sports teams and other organizations with cultures that create a competitive edge. What do they share in common?

Culture involves the whole organization, so successful change initiatives require engagement from all business functions. I suggest that retail programs be led by the operations department to insure practicality and front-line acceptance.

I close with a reminder on culture from Aristotle. In Nichomachean Ethics he wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” Having a method will create a habit of success. The alternative is just hope.

Lynn Olsen, Ph.D. is CEO & Principal Consultant for The Innovation Group, Inc., a Minnesota-based leadership and organization improvement consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected]