How to predict if your change effort will succeed or fail

Change is always guaranteed to succeed. But according to Mark Murphy, there are ways of assessing who is, and who isn't supportive of it in your organization:

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Nov 17, 2023

There’s an old adage in HR that says ‘nobody likes change’.

This, of course, is a gross simplification; because there are actually some people who actually love change.

The problem, however, is that there are not that many of them, and when you find them, they’re far more likely to be in the executive suite than on the frontline.

Another problem is that for some companies, change is a constant, and any new initiative is old hat. In other companies however, even small tweaks to technology or minor changes in operations are met with lamentations and catastrophizing.

So how can you predict if your change project will hit those who love change, or those who hate it, and need more support?

What the stats say

Based on hundreds of thousands of people who’ve taken the online test What Motivates You?, we know that about a third of people are actually motivated by security. In other words, they desire consistency and predictability.

By contrast, a paltry one out of ten people is motivated by adventure – that is, they enjoy risk and change.

(Relatedly, the online test How Do You Personally Feel About Change? discovered that top-level executives are about 50% more likely to enjoy taking risks than frontline employees).

But while these numbers may no sound all that encouraging, they are – at least – a good place to start, and if you assess what the composition is in your own organization, there’s a pretty good chance you can win with your change project.

But, even if you don’t do this, what follows are two steps you can easily take to accurately predict to what extent your current change effort is likely to succeed or stall:

Target your change effort in a survey

By far the fastest way to get a read on the vast majority of your workforce is by doing a survey.

If you already have some questions designed to measure your change effort, then you’re in great shape.

But if you’re like most organizations, questions about change management are in short supply.

Here are a few ways you can approach the issue:

If you have a specific change management effort, and it’s already been defined and discussed, you can test both to what extent it’s understood and supported.

To test how well people understand your change effort, try this technique from the book Employee Engagement Survey: Busting The Survey Myths That Are Undermining Your Results.

Use an open-ended survey question and ask something like, “Please describe the goal(s) of the XYZ change effort,” or “Please describe the two most important parts of the XYZ change effort.”

You can tweak the specifics of the question to match your change effort.

Just remember that what you’re really testing with this question is the extent to which your workforce can correctly repeat back the goals or features of your change effort.

It’s truly shocking when you learn that, despite months of communication, a significant chunk of your employees still can’t correctly identify the purpose of your change.

Testing support for a specific change is a bit simpler.

Using a scaled question, ask something like, “I believe that the XYZ change effort will make this company more successful,” or “I believe that the XYZ change effort is necessary.”

If you know that change is coming, but a specific initiative hasn’t yet been unveiled, assess general change readiness with a question like: “I believe this organization needs to change in order to remain successful.”

Pinpoint your pockets of support and resistance

Once you’ve got your survey questions ready, you’ll need a better way to analyze the results.

A Leadership IQ report on employee surveys identified three demographic variables that you should be using to pinpoint just how much support your change effort does or doesn’t have.

First (and easiest), is to simply look at your levels of change support across departments (or workgroups, divisions, or however you organize your company).

You’ll typically see wildly varying degrees of support and that will give you an easy roadmap for applying your change management resources.

Second, you should look at the differences in support between those with and without management titles.

You’ll typically find that senior executives are more supportive of change than frontline employees, but middle managers are the wildcard.

There are lots of organizations where middle managers are less supportive of change than their employees.

When this happens, it’s a giant red flag that you need to do some serious coaching and support-building amongst your middle managers.

If managers aren’t bought in, there’s a high likelihood that they’ll ultimately erode whatever support you have from the frontlines.

Finally, to take this to the next level, match your employee survey scores to performance appraisal scores.

This will show you the extent to which your high performers are more or less bought-in than your middle and low performers.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but your change effort is at high risk if your high performers hate it and at much less risk if the resistance is coming from low performers.

Ultimately, your people will always determine whether your change effort succeeds or fails.

But the world’s best change effort won’t work if a majority of your people are resistant.

So, while it seems like a bit of extra work, it’s well worth investing the time to pinpoint exactly where and how much your change is supported.

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