Large scale transformation - how to get the buy-in you need

Large scale transformation - how to get the buy-in you need
By Paul Clifford

As a Senior Executive, making a commitment to significant transformational change in a large organisation is akin to setting a challenge to climb Everest.  If you spent too much time analysing the potential obstacles or if you looked at the track record of previous attempts, you’d probably decide against it.  However, if you have embraced your role as having responsibility for driving change and you want to leave a legacy as a successful Senior Executive, you have the motivation to make it happen regardless. 

However, you can’t make the change happen alone.  You need your workforce to do a lot of the lifting.  Trouble is, in organisations many employees feel like they stand to lose more than gain by participating in a large scale change process.  They have skin in the game so to speak but maybe not in the way you’d like. 

There are many potential reactions to large scale transformations, many of them negative, and it is important to understand what they are and to diligently work through them in order to help turn the negatives into positives so that you have as many constructive change agents as possible working with you rather than against you.  It’s no good labelling staff as resistant and writing them off.  Like it or not, it is the role of leaders in change to turn those attitudes around.          

Purpose plays a critical role in forming attitudes toward change.  A common reaction to change is “Will this change achieve anything meaningful?” or simply “Why are we changing?”  Whilst claims that change is necessary to bring greater efficiency or to improve customer outcomes may be right, in most cases, particularly in large organisations, this is unlikely to inspire the workforce.  It’s simply too abstract and too global.  Instead leaders need to make the change meaningful by explaining the tangible impacts that will be seen more locally to the employee.  “The change will enable you to spend less time on paperwork and more time direct with customers” or “the change will give you much greater say in decisions about what products and services we offer”.  Employees are more likely to feel they are doing something purposeful and meaningful, and therefore become engaged in change efforts, when they see a direct link between what their role and positive outcomes they value at a local level.  On the other hand, employees are likely to be left cold if someone tries to link their actions with a corporate goal such as ‘efficiency’.       

Another significant factor that can form opinion about change is history, or the perception of history.  “We’ve seen this before, we’ve seen big restructures and they haven’t worked”.  This statement is all about belief.  Do we think the organisation has the capability to make the change successful, to achieve its purpose?  If employees say no to this, leaders need to convince them otherwise.  Where previous attempts at change have failed, leaders need to be specific about how it will be different this time.  “This is why it failed last time, this is what we have learnt, and here’s why we will achieve the desired outcomes this time”.  A detailed explanation clarifying how actions have and will link to outcomes is required.  There is often a high degree of skepticism amongst employees about the likelihood of ‘successful’ change particularly when things have fallen short of expectations for so long despite previous attempts.  If leaders are to overcome history, they need to be assured that they have the plan right this time, explain how it will produce success and demonstrate how the change is working at regular intervals once implementation has begun.          

Whilst understanding and being satisfied with the purpose of change and being convinced the organisation has the capability to achieve the change are important, arguably the greatest impact on attitudes toward change comes through involvement.  Large scale change efforts often fail because employees are not involved and feel they have little control in determining the direction of change.  Change often happens to employees.  They don’t create it or shape it, they are given it.  No input into it, no responsibility for it.  Psychologically this allows them to be far freer to critique it, find holes in it or even trash it.  As a strategy in change implementation this is disastrous.  You’ve created an us and them situation.  You’ve just put yourself behind the eight ball in enlisting the efforts of the very people critical to the success of the change effort. 

The more involved people are in shaping change the more likely they will be to support it.  If they shape it, they buy-in to it.  People usually don’t trash their own work.  And if they are involved the change process is likely to be more successful because it is employees who are more likely to know what changes will work.  Involvement also gives one control and when we have control anxiety is reduced and this facilitates constructive behaviours. 

If we want history to applaud us there is no better way than being central in reforming an organisation.  Large scale change will only succeed if we enlist a coalition of supporters within the organisation.  The more the better.  Give employees some control over their future, explain how your plan will work and give it meaning at a local level and you’ll go a long way to securing the outcomes you’ve wished for.      


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Guest Wednesday, 26 June 2019