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Organizational Change is Never Easy - Some Tips to Help

Study shows difficulty of sustaining change, with management alignment key

A new study by Towers Watson has found that only 25% of change management initiatives are successful over the long term. While this may come as no shock – substantive change in organizations with entrenched cultures is always difficult – the study adds new data to an ongoing discussion.

Some highlights from the study, the 2013 Change and Communication ROI Survey, which involved 276 large and midsize organizations from North America, Europe and Asia:

• Employers felt 55% of change management initiatives met initial objectives, but only 25% felt gains were sustained over time.

• 87% of respondents trained their managers to “manage change,” but only (a dismal) 22% felt the training was actually effective.

• 68% of senior managers said they’re “getting the message” about reasons for major organizational changes, but that figure falls to 53% for middle managers and 40% for front-line supervisors.

Over a long corporate career I was part of numerous change management initiatives – often involving worthwhile cultural issues such as increased employee empowerment, less bureaucracy, faster decision making, etc. – and these disappointing Towers Watson figures sound, unfortunately, entirely reasonable to me.

Being in the midst of major cultural change in a large organization is a little like running through fields of molasses: The going is slow, with progress frustrating, messy and hard to measure. But there are things you can do to improve your success odds. Based on my own experiences and observations, here are five suggestions.

The change goals must be realistic – It’s common for new management to come into an organization and be frustrated by what they find. But you can’t expect, for example, a 100-year-old bank to behave like Snapchat (nor should you ever want it to!)… nor would you expect Victoria’s Secret to adopt the risk orientation of, say, a life insurance company. Everyone may want to be the next Google, but is it really in your organization’s cultural DNA? The desired end state has to be reasonable and attainable for the organization.

Rolled-up-sleeves CEO involvement - For any chance of success, the chief executive needs to be genuinely and highly visibly committed to the initiative – something he or she really believes in. It’s not a project to delegate to the head of HR. No cuff links for this one; sleeves need to be rolled up.

Senior management has to walk the talk, not talk the walk – Beyond the CEO, the senior management cadre has to be fully on board and demonstrating by their behavior that this is something they care about, and not lip service paid to a pet project of their boss. Employees sense sincerity, or lack of it, quickly.

Middle managers and supervisors need to know in their bones the reasons for the change - In short, they have to “get it.” All too often such initiatives are like trickle-down economics without the trickle down. As the data above clearly shows, when it comes to change management… the lower you go, the less you often know. As Kathryn Yates, Tower Watson’s global leader for communications consulting, notes, for front-line managers to succeed in these endeavors “companies need to train managers more effectively and do a much better job communicating with them.”

The organization must be in it for the long haul – As this multi-layered management approach suggests, there are no quick fixes. Substantive cultural change in an organization with a deeply entrenched culture is never an easy task. It’s “all hands on deck” – all levels of management have to be closely aligned.

To overstate a bit, it’s a little like wars in Afghanistan. They require long-term commitment and staying power: otherwise the mountains, harsh climate and hostile tribes, I mean skeptical and resistant employees, will just outlast you.

Many will still be there, long after management has grown war-weary, or moved on.

This article first appeared at

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Victor is the author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World (Prentice Hall Press).

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