Change initiatives can fail even before they start – here’s why

Change initiatives are challenging, therefore it´s absolutely necessary that they start correctly.

Not all leaders are aware of it, but change initiatives can fail even before they start. But why? As you will see in this article, it´s all about creating meaning in order to engage employees in the change: that´s the first thing a leader needs to do when setting up a new change initiative.

It´s hard to imagine something worse than working 40 hours a week for something and actually not understanding why. But it could happen to anyone. Indeed, one of the executives we interviewed in our Future of Leadership Initiative 2014 on change management told us the following:

I think 100% of my people know what they do every day, a lot of them also know how to achieve what they are doing, but only few people actually know WHY they are doing what they are doing, and if I want to be honest I don´t know either.”

Well, that is definitely a motivation killer. Same goes with a change initiative: above all, people need to know why a change initiative is being brought up to the table. So, leaders need to ensure that everybody understands the reason for the change initiative. Otherwise people won´t see the point to embrace it and will be unable to contribute to its success. One of our interviewees actually told us that in his company, before the execution of any new strategy, all 500 top managers get together and essentially talk about the WHY for 2 days. And “only when the WHY is not only understood, but also literally grasped, will the executives be able to take actionable steps for the HOW and WHAT of the new strategy in their respective departments and regions.” If you want to learn more about the importance of defining the WHY, check out Simon Sinek’s TED Talk!

But it isn´t enough to merely explain the WHY. Leaders also need to keep the change simple, and make everybodfeel related to it. Too often, leaders are over-complicating change initiatives, thus they are often confusing employees with the many different goals and changes they have in mind. Worse, executives tend to legitimate their change initiatives merely by enumerating the quantitative results coming out of them. This inevitably leads employees to disconnect from the initiative, as figures are not going to make them feel personally related to a mission.  Stating for instance on the program that “Our goal is to take 2% additional market share” creates no personal meaning at all and isn´t going to inspire anyone. Leaders therefore need to convey that it is much more than about achieving quantitative results when presenting a new change project: it´s also about improving the company culture, the ability to cope with the uncertain future, or being at the frontier of innovation. As one of our interviewees stated, leaders need above all to transpire passion:

meaning@work leadership futureofleadership

Anyone can blather about facts & figures. Only few have passion and an own stance for the future. “

Another leader interviewed during the Future of Leadership Initiative 2014 stated: “I once held our new mission statement in my hands. I don´t want to know how much that cost. The first sentence: The German market is the largest one of Europe with 82 billion people. Of course, we sell also to babies and retired people. The text continued like this. Forced rhetoric which didn´t make sense, and then -the cherry on the cake- every second page was blank to make personal notes. I really felt fooled.”

meaning@work leadership futureofleadership

Not even a bank executive we interviewed believed that figures motivate employees in any impactful way: “Everything focusses on figures in our company, and it´s not easy to make people not think about it. It´s a shame, since figures -even for bankers- are only abstract values and not stimulating objectives.” It may feel reassuring for executives to stick to the “hard facts” only and to wrap themselves up with a cloak of protection by evoking exclusively abstract figures, buzzwords, and vague statements. But ultimately this puts the initiative on shaky grounds, because employees won´t feel inspired to support it. So, genuine inspiration is the keyword to ensure that a new change initiative starts on a good basis.

But how can employees concretely feel inspired to contribute to the company´s change initiative? One good approach is to visualise the message (i.e. a thought or even the whole strategy), since it clarifies the overall vision of the initiative. Thus, employees understand the WHY of the project and embrace it more easily (as explained earlier). An example of how to visualise the message is the Knowledge Map, created by the Future of Leadership Initiative (FLI), that illustrate the key findings of each FLI edition. What leaders also ought to do when communicating with employees is to tell inspiring stories and to illustrate their thoughts and visions through examples. This really drives employees to be part of the company´s future and therefore to contribute to its initiatives. Netflix for instance has this great habit to celebrate their own success stories and to motivate its employees by naming their conference rooms like successful Netflix shows.

meaning@work leadership futureofleadership
Our Knowledge Map about “Meaning@Work”, encapsulating all the insights gained during the FLI 2016

So, as you see, setting up a change initiative with success in the beginning really boils down to rallying everyone to the cause of the initiative. Because if the people who ought to make it happen don´t embrace it, the initiative becomes a house of cards that is doomed to crash down sooner or later.

About the author:

Stella Veneziano futureofleadership

Currently doing her Masters at EMLyon Business School, Stella Veneziano is a curious and open-minded person who is particularly passionnate about social innovation. As Global Operations Manager at the NGO Ampion for instance, she fully organized the “Venture Bus” tours through several African regions, a 7-day incubation program for entrepreneurs. Today, she is responsible for the Future of Leadership Initiative, whose aim to foster inspiring leadership.

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