There is one quality that can give any organization a competitive advantage: the innovation and resilience of its employees.
A company’s ability to outperform often comes down to how quickly its people respond to continuous change and create new opportunities. Research shows that one of the key reasons 70% of change efforts fail is the time eaten up by traditional efforts to help people adapt. They often result in disruption of productivity, customer experience, and team morale.
This type of deceleration is no longer tenable and leaders are seeking new approaches that keep pace with the world around them. Businesses need their teams and people to be proactive. They need them to innovate ahead of the curve and to make decisions in an empowered, efficient way. These are the traits of the agile organizations that consistently outperform globally. Yet, today most organizations are struggling to make the leap. A recent study shows that only six percent of executives report themselves to be highly agile.
To unlock a faster pace in their organizations, leaders recognize they need to engage and inspire their people in new ways. They also recognize that accelerating and sustaining change needs an integrated approach.
Drawing from behavioral studies and our own experience of working with over 170 major organizations, we’ve identified a set of success factors that deliver the motivation, means, and momentum needed to create lasting behavioral change.
Of these success factors, there are three which are critical to driving the change of pace. They also represent three areas that organizations often either neglect altogether or treat as a tick-box exercise.
1. Set a compelling context and generate real alignment
Today, there are no well-worn maps to guide us. As a leader, it’s no longer possible to set a fixed course and instruct others to follow. But people are struggling to adapt to this new terrain.
According to a multi-year study by the Centre for Creative Leadership, the need to help people cope with ambiguity is the biggest challenge and skill deficit that leaders today experience. These issues create disengagement and burnout, which not only has a negative impact on the wellbeing of a workforce but also represents a huge risk to the needs of a continuously evolving organization.
The antidote to ambiguity is clarity and shared purpose. When embarking on a change journey, many businesses skip this fundamental step in the interests of perceived speed. By taking the time upfront to set a clear and compelling context, leaders can establish a positive narrative around the change – turning challenges into opportunities. Ensuring people are really aligned and engaged in the change journey speeds up decision making. It builds sponsorship and helps teams identify blockers and create collaborative solutions.
All of these are absolutely critical ingredients to acceleration. The quickest and most effective way to achieve these conditions? Narrative. Research has shown that leaders who used a consistent change story to align teams around transformation goals were nearly four times more likely to be successful. It also found that the majority of leaders wish they had invested more in a change story.
2. Engage rationally and emotionally
Great leaders have always been defined by their ability to bring people with them – even when they’re leading them on the most challenging of journeys. But for decades, there’s been no place for emotion in the workplace.
Generations of leaders have been trained to default to rational communication that lands the essential information and leaves the heart out of it. But they’ve been missing a key component. Emotion is the key to motivation. That the root of the word itself – the Latin mot, or move – is also nested in the word ‘emotion’.
This indicates the deep, long-understood connection between these two states. The surest way to change behavior is by engaging people on an emotional and rational level. It falls to leaders to bridge the gap between our rational reflective mind and the primal emotional mind that ultimately governs behavior and spurs action.
Leaders who can achieve this motivational bridge tend to see significant and rapid shifts in performance. When people are more engaged, open and willing to embrace new behaviors, they overcome natural inertia and radically reduce the time between hearing a message and acting on it.
3. Spark a movement not a moment
Successful social and grassroots movements have long understood the power of story to create sustained mindset and behavior change. Many organizations now also embrace the power of peer-to-peer networks to drive change across every tier of their organization. They enable influencers to role-model behaviors, inspire belief, and ultimately shift norms faster.
Drawing a line in the sand and sparking a movement behind a new narrative requires visible, authentic leadership, but it also requires followers and believers. Those who have the social network to amplify their impact and affect change at different levels of an organization. Those who can connect with people and inspire them to move from passive understanding to taking action.
While defining moments may create drumbeats of energy, once started there is a need for a movement of change to sustain momentum. Influencer networks need strategic support from key functions and strong sponsorship and empowerment from leaders. When these components are truly present, an organizational movement becomes part of a powerful model to help accelerate change.
For leaders, these networks allow for insights across the organization – vital feedback loops that inform the wider change. Perhaps most importantly though, they provide a symbolic mechanism by which leaders can signal that the change story they are leading is owned by driven by everyone.
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