Putting the Management Back in Change Step 7: Leveraging Improvements and Producing Still More Change

In my series, “Putting the Management Back in Change,” I’ve been looking at what it really takes for companies to successfully institutionalize sustainability and truly be “green firms.” I’ve been using Harvard business guru John Kotter’s 8 step model for organizational change as a framework, but I use it to focus on sustainability initiatives. Previously, I introduced the topic and discussed the need to create a sense of urgency, build guiding coalitions to create buy-in and grow momentum, develop a strong vision of where the company is headed, communicate the vision effectively, address barriers that could derail momentum, and achieve short term wins. In this installment, I’ll discuss the need to leverage improvements and dive deeper to produce still more change.

In my last article, I focused on the importance of creating short-term wins to build momentum and get buy-in. The flip side of short-term wins is the danger of people feeling like you’re “done”. It’s important to think of the short-terms wins phase as an initiation. They are the first step– the on-ramp to the path of long-term change—and not a final result. Significant transformation in a company, including changing corporate culture, can take up to five years so don’t let excitement over early wins cloud the commitment to the marathon ahead! Until changes are part of the company’s DNA, they are fragile and vulnerable to regression.

According to Kotter, there are 7 things to watch out for at this delicate stage and 4 opportunities to leverage greater progress.

First, 7 things to watch out for!

  • Reduced sense of urgency — personalize it so it doesn’t dissipate
  • Losing momentum – “business as usual” is a powerful force
  • Ducking the hard stuff and thinking you can ‘get there’ without going deeper
  • Muddling the clarity and power of the original vision
  • Not maintaining or reinforcing the guiding coalition
  • Forces that stall: turnover, exhaustion & distraction
  • Resistance never goes away

Maintaining Urgency: The most common problem is people thinking that first victories mean you’re “done”. In terms of green building, if your first milestones were getting projects LEED certified or getting staff LEED accredited, and you achieve those, it’s easy for leadership (who may not really understand what sustainable design is in practice) to think that you’ve done enough–especially because, from a business sense, it appears you’ve “met” your clients needs. Partly this is because it’s not yet clear how much hard work still needs to be done internally that impacts how the projects actually perform or how efficiently the team has achieved the goal from a staff utilization standpoint. The initial case may become less potent after your first victories.  If so, it’s critical to re-focus on new perspectives defining the urgent need for further change. Usually this relates to identifying core business connections and “invisible” losses, such as staff efficiency, project outcomes or looking at peer firms and showing the need for getting to the next stage from a competitive perspective. It’s important to make sure the sense of urgency becomes pervasive – and personal.

Losing Momentum: Closely tied to urgency is the tendency for “business as usual” to take over. Early victories are usually those that did not require fundamental shifts, risk or deep changes; therefore the pull of the status quo is still very strong. There has not yet been enough disruption to overcome the inertia or the fear of change. As Kotter says, “Until changed practices attain a new equilibrium and have been driven into the culture, they can be very fragile. Three years of work can come undone with remarkable speed.”

Ducking the Hard Stuff: Most people are not keen on change to begin with, so when you get to the point of having to do the really deep change – involving culture, systems or processes – there may be a loss of enthusiasm. People are busy, stressed out and often fearful of having to perform in their job while things are in flux or they are being asked to work outside of their comfort zone. Many firms have been able to squeak out a bunch of LEED projects without actually institutionalizing the integrative design process and committing to a paradigm shift of collaboration. They think they’re “successful” because they have achieved a plaque but they don’t realize the potential gains they could have achieved if they had gone deeper into their project delivery process. This leads directly to the next caution:

Power of Vision: The vision for the future, the objectives and the SMART goals are the touchstones of the change effort. If the firm’s vision of sustainability was merely “to deliver LEED projects when clients ask for them”…maybe you’re done. It’s a pretty low bar. If your firm’s vision was broader, or tied to specific outcomes like the 2030 Commitment, then the timely communication of the compelling vision – and the gaps that still remain to achieve it – must happen now. This underscores the urgency of further change, refocuses the efforts and motivates people to deal with the next level of barriers. It is very common to talk vision at the outset of an effort, but the communication of the vision must happen in waves. People need to feel inspired and motivated to stretch beyond their current comfort zone and be clear about the purpose and the goal of doing so. Otherwise, they will just feel like they are being burdened by change for change’s sake. Using new and relevant ways to talk about the overall purpose and vision tied to current actions ensures that it doesn’t become stale.

Endurance of Guiding Coalition: Early on, a coalition of people were brought together to help create the case for change, frame the case of why it was urgent and get buy-in to do it. After the short-term wins, this group may be losing some of its energy or, more likely, may not be the same group that you need to dive deeper. If use of computer tools is a critical part of the next stage and the early group didn’t include someone from IT – that person needs to be on board. If the next phase of change focuses on the project delivery method, you may need to have a working group for a short period that includes key external partners. It’s also possible that engaging new people in leading the effort is a good way to raise morale or generate more widespread excitement across the organization – or if the company is large, it may be a way to expand efforts across multiple offices.

Forces will stall you: Change efforts for sustainability never happen in a vacuum. Turnover, exhaustion, distraction and bad luck all happen. Key champions may move on to other companies and if it’s early in the change process, that can have devastating effect because buy-in is still evolving. Business goes on. External forces like workload or cash flow can distract from the focus and usually trump other “urgent” efforts. People can get burnt out.  It’s important to be aware of these things and try to plan for them proactively to minimize their impacts, be flexible and responsive with your strategy, and do mid-course corrections if necessary. Short-term wins are great, but if the sense of urgency is lost, complacency and the status quo are a strong pull and people who haven’t truly adapted to the new direction will contribute to back-sliding.

Resistance is persistent: Last but not least, resistance to change never really dissipates. Even the success and buy-in you achieve early on doesn’t win over the project manager who is uncomfortable with integrative design and thinks it’s a distraction. Or the design principal who loves the look of curtain wall facades and has an aversion to energy simulation. Or the project executive who is afraid to “push” the client. Early efforts may “drive these people underground or into the tall grass” as Kotter says, but they just become landmines that destroy deeper change efforts. The most successful firms have seen that, over time, these people either have their own epiphanies and eventually understand how their work connects to the goals…or they move on.

Those are the potential negatives. On the upside, this stage in the change effort also offers unique opportunities to go to the next level:

  • Build credibility
  • Identify the things that require deeper intervention to change
  • Eliminating needless work so you don’t exhaust yourself along the way.
  • Use model of momentum to inspire people to create wave after wave to achieve vision

Build Credibility: Once you’ve achieved short-term victories — and have trumpeted the triumph far and wide – you can start to build more credibility and get more buy-in both internally and externally with clients and partners. You can demonstrate (through qualitative and quantitative measures) that your successes have made an impact. For example: Once firms got their first waves of projects LEED certified, they were able to leverage that in marketing and in response to RFPs, gain publicity and recognition from the outside world and even, in some cases, see improvements in design and performance. With the 2030 Commitment and the introduction of actually tracking predicted and actual performance – firms began to measure the gap and learn from it, tell compelling stories of their work to clients and enjoy a deep sense of pride at their accomplishments and stewardship. Credibility helps engage leadership more fully. It encourages decision makers to take a little more risk or make more of an investment in the effort. The combination of excitement, momentum and credibility also grows the effort across a large organization and begin to draw in the people who were interested, but hesitant previously.

Effect Deeper Change: With greater credibility and evidence of the value of the early changes, you have more political capital and momentum to look at the next level of challenges. Using the LEED example, once a firm got a few projects under its belt, it was able to look at various aspects of the project management process:

  • Are project performance goals part of the kick off conversation (regardless of LEED)?
  • Is analysis done at the right time, with the right input and as a useful feedback loop to actually inform decisions?
  • What needs to change about how the consultant interactions happen?
  • Are the skills and templates in place to do life cycle costing?
  • Is there any project performance tracking happening?

There are always systemic changes that need to be made to get to the next level of capability and achieve more – now is the time to get better clarity about what those changes are and how to prioritize and stage them over time . As Kotter puts it, “Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems. They go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before. They pay great attention to who is promoted, who is hired, and how people are developed. They include new projects that are even bigger in scope than the initial ones. They understand that renewal efforts take not months but years.”

Eliminate Needless Work: The benefit of this phase is that in looking closely at systems, processes and methodologies, you can  improve efficiency, eliminate ‘legacy’ things that are being done out of habit and provide no value, and help everyone streamline their own work and their team efforts.

Create Waves: After the initial short-term wins, the next effort – and its subsequent success begins a pattern of wave after wave of momentum that can be built on. People need to feel a sense of safety, predictability and control. If the change efforts are clear and understood, and the successes happen in waves – the panic of being pushed out of the comfort zone is minimized and the successes become inspirational. Not all efforts will be successful, and that is also an opportunity. Clear communication about why it didn’t work, engaging people in thinking about what could be done differently – this shows that the change effort is genuine and won’t crumble to dust at the first failure. It encourages people to stretch and reinforces the message that trying and failing is better than not trying at all.

This phase of effort is challenging and obviously not as easy and straightforward as I may have made it sound. However, it is the most exciting and interesting phase where evolution is authentic and deeply meaningful to people. These efforts usually take a few years to be completely realized, and the final stage, institutionalizing new approaches so that they are simply part of the company’s DNA, is the subject of our next article.