Change is inevitable but successful change isn’t: 10 essential ingredients to successful change

Successful change is not about systems, processes or business models; it is about people, says Campbell Macpherson

According to ‘The What, Who and How of Delivering Results’, a survey of 250 large companies by Bain & Co published February 2016, 88% of change initiatives fail to deliver what they set out to achieve. The same is true for busines strategies, mergers and acquisitions: seven out of eight fail to live up to expectations. And the over-riding reason is leadership.

Leadership today is all about leading change. If you are not leading change, you are not leading anything. You are just managing the status quo – and if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that the status quo no longer exists.

 Therefore, the question on every leader’s lips should be: ‘How do I make sure that my next change initiative or strategy is the one in eight that succeeds?’

To answer that question, here are my ten essential ingredients to successful change – taken directly from the ‘Leading Change’ workshops and webinars I run for Henley Business School and clients worldwide, approved by The Institute of Leadership & Management.

1Clarity of what you are trying to achieve – and why. If you are not crystal clear about the outcomes you require, nothing will be delivered. But you can’t only opt for numbers; numbers are easy. If you want your change to succeed, you must also provide your people with a credible and motivational narrative that describes what success will both look and feel like. Just as importantly, they will need to know why this change needs to be done – both the logical reasons and the emotional reasons why they should embrace and deliver the change you desire.

2Identify the magic, the sacred cows and the elephants. This is a critical step that too many change leaders forget. Engage with your team to define the current ‘magic’ you wish to retain after the change is in place; to identify the ‘sacred cows’, those things that appear to be set in stone that no-one dares question; and to call out the ‘elephants in the room’, the questions no-one dares ask.

3Understand the implications of the change. Every decision, every change, has consequences. The moment you announce the change to your people, their heads will be swarming with concerns, challenges, potential obstacles and implications. You must get all of these out in the open – and engage them on how you will all collectively address and overcome these implications.

4Genuine engagement and communications. Most change leaders rely far too much on ‘broadcast communications’. This is woefully inadequate. Genuine engagement involves active listening (i.e. listening to understand not just to reply) and acting upon the insight you receive.

5Find the emotional triggers. Emotion is four times more powerful than logic when it comes to change. You must appeal to your people emotionally if you wish to succeed.

6Laser-like focus on the outcomes. ‘The operation was a complete success. Unfortunately, the patient died.’ Process is important but it is just an enabler. It is the achievement of the business outcomes that is paramount. Never lose sight of them.

7Set your people up to succeed. Give your people the clear decision-making processes, project governance and support they need to succeed. Make sure accountabilities and responsibilities are crystal clear to everyone.

8Pause for reflection. Large change projects inevitably develop a momentum all of their own and it can become politically impossible to stop or re-direct them – even when everyone knows that is precisely what should happen. Save yourself countless hours and enormous sums of money by building in formal pauses to assess what has changed, what is working, what isn’t and whether the original outcomes are still valid – without blame or consequences.

9Strong, committed, aligned and unwavering leadership team. Successful change demands leaders who genuinely and actively embrace the change – and are seen to do so. It requires a leadership team whose members are completely aligned and working together to achieve the desired outcomes; outcomes that every one of them genuinely cares about delivering. It requires leaders who will ‘stay the course’ in the face of future obstructions and challenges.


0Establish a change-ready culture. If your people aren’t ready, willing and able to embrace change, no-one will succeed. The creation of a culture that embraces, encourages and rewards change is our final key ingredient for success. But your people will need help if they are to willingly embrace change. They need help to deal with their emotions, to overcome their fears and concerns. To enable this on an organisation-wide scale requires the establishment of an environment where people eagerly look for improvements in the way things are done, are allowed to question the status quo, are encouraged to learn from failure, and are open to new ways of working.

The ability to embrace change is also the key life skill that every one of your people needs – for their personal well-being and mental health. It is the single best skill for combating anxiety and coping with uncertainty. And of course, no-one works well when they are anxious or worried about the future.

This is why organisations worldwide have commissioned my Embracing Change workshops and webinars – to help their people develop the resilience they need to be content and successful at work and in life. The ‘Thank You’ notes and emails I have received from the employees delegates have been both heart-warming and life-affirming.

Successful change is not about systems, processes or business models; it is about people. Too many times leaders forget that they are dealing with a collection of messy, irrational individuals who need to be motivated to embrace change.

No-one changes because they are told to; we only change if we want to. As a leader, it is your job to help our people to want to change.

Campbell Macpherson is an Executive Fellow of Henley Business School and an international business adviser. His latest book The Power to Change: How to Harness Change to Make it Work for You, is out now, published worldwide by Kogan Page, priced £14.95

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