Overcoming the (arguably) hardest transformation risk – changing human behaviour

Focussing on five areas of colleague involvement and engagement can help to stack the odds of a successful transformation in your favour and deliver rapid and dramatic performance improvements, says Karen Thomas-Bland

It’s well documented that most efforts to transform corporate performance don’t succeed. The biggest and most unpredictable risk is people – the natural human instinct ingrained in the human condition is to resist change.  We have all seen leaders not getting on board or worse derailing efforts, the Board not engaging or being engaged, behaviours not really being embedded sufficiently to make them really stick and people reverting to old patterns of working. 

These people risks cost organisations millions of dollars in wasted effort, not to mention the reputational impact of efforts failing. On top of which the new norm is a hybrid and asynchronous model of working.

If you want to deliver rapid and dramatic performance improvements with a distributed workforce, then there are ways to de-risk your transformation effort by focusing arguably on the hardest transformation aspect of all – changing human behaviour. 

From delivering numerous complex transformation programmes both physically and remotely, there are a number of steps to de-risk your transformation effort by putting people front and centre.

Involve and engage

It’s important to involve all levels of the organisation from front line workers to the board of directors in a big transformative idea and create a sense of purpose for the change.  Any transformation needs a ‘big idea’ that people can buy into and linked to a larger purpose that inspires loyalty from the beginning. This requires harnessing creativity, data and insight in tandem and encouraging moonshot ‘anything is possible’ thinking. 

Then it’s about building a campaign based on the big idea – which involves creating a compelling story and engaging people to shape the final destination, so they don’t feel change is being done to them, but instead are actively involved and engaged.

Throughout the life of the transformation the best organisations deliver communications frequently which cut through noise and create and reinforce the mindset for change. They also make communications more human centred – personal, meaningful, open and they don’t just rely on logic to persuade. If you want to change human behaviour, rational or benefits-led messaging just doesn’t cut it – a common failure in many organisations. To connect with and change people, you need to create an emotional state.  

Finally, any change becomes institutionalised through bringing ideas to life through stories, competitions and social cues that keep people engaged and motivated to change.  When resistance happens it’s important to address it head on and fast, otherwise it will fester.  As you promote critical new behaviours, making people aware of how they affect the company’s strategic performance is important, through formal approaches like new rules, metrics, and incentives combined with informal interactions.


Diagnosing people’s preferences upfront to develop a highly personalised approach to the change increases adoption rates. This includes change profiling to identify team change roles for example, determining who are influencers, champions, leaders, behaviour profiling to ensure you hyper personalise your change efforts to people’s preferences thereby accelerating adoption rates and transformation readiness, assessing how ready an organisation is to undertake the change effort, including assessing capacity, capability, and agility.

It’s then about creating a change development plan based on the initial diagnosis at all levels, identifying activities that will increase change adoption and address behaviour change gaps. This includes development activity against priority behaviours. The best transformation programmes support the formation of change coaching relationships that will live through the life of the transformation.

Connect communities

Any change needs to be supported through creating the right environment (both physical and virtual), with the right nudges and reinforcement to ground the change in day-to-day activities people and teams perform to ‘make it real’ on the job. Using behavioural nudges for example, prompting people to take action and reinforcing and hardwiring behaviours so they become habits can all help. We know from our personal fitness trackers that nudges and reinforcement can work if executed at the right time in the right format. 

Taking time to build communities, supported by collaboration platforms can also pay dividends as communities that are set up to support each other through change become self-sustaining. Community interactions provide more ways to engage stakeholders, broaden social learning, facilitate peer-to-peer exchanges and surface expertise. A community for change also gives leaders and executives a view into the breadth and depth of the change program’s effectiveness.

In my experience over-performing companies understand the transformative power of communities when it comes to transformation. They create a culture of psychological safety so there can be open dialogue, debate and time given to people to adjust and form new habits and ways of working.

Lead with purpose

The distributed working world we find ourselves in needs an even greater focus on leading with purpose and humanity. This is about linking the transformation ambition to the organisational purpose.  As organisations take stock and tackle their company’s vulnerabilities, they also need to set bold aspirations and push for specificity on the alignment between purpose and value. 

The best leadership I have seen involves putting people first, getting in front of the situation, taking action, over communicating, leading with the values set out and explaining ‘why’ with greater compassion than ever before.

Create a culture of ongoing change 

We never likely achieve perfection when we’re doing something new. It’s about creating a culture, so people understand that it is not a problem if they try something new and it doesn’t work at first. It’s about being open to sharing failures, so ideas get stronger, and companies learn to innovate at scale.

Organisations need a critical mass of people in their workforce who are naturally change orientated.  This requires hiring and developing key strengths such as adaptability, comfort with ambiguity, creativity, experimentation and then creating a culture that encourages ongoing change.  It also involves considering work patterns, moving from a 9-5 culture to an asynchronous way of working, shifting when the work is done and creating greater flexibility around this.  Some organisations I have worked with have successfully adopted a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) where you measure team members by their performance, results, or output, not by their presence in the office or the hours that they work. Once embedded and managed this can have a positive impact on employees and elevate delivery for customers.

Finally, in encouraging ongoing change, it’s essential to measure and monitor cultural progress at each stage of effort, just as would happen with any other priority business initiative. Rigorous measurement allows you to identify back tracking, correct course where needed, and demonstrate tangible evidence of improvement, which can help to maintain positive momentum over the long haul. 

By focussing on these five areas, it helps to stack the odds of a successful transformation in your favour and deliver rapid and dramatic performance improvements.

Karen Thomas-Bland is Founder of Intelligent Transformation Partners. She is a global board level advisor, partner level management consultant and Non-Executive Director with more than 24 years’ experience in creating break-through strategies, transforming, and Integrating organisations.

Karen Thomas-Bland

With a track record in creating sustainable long-term value creation in FTSE/Fortune businesses and PE Funds, she is a trusted advisor to Boards, Executive Teams, and Investors and founder of Intelligent Transformation Partners.  Her clients include IBM, Accenture, EY, KPMG, WPP, RELX Group and Private Equity Funds.  She operates globally and has worked across all 5 continents. Karen is a chartered organisational psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.

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