Six Critical Factors for Successful Change

By Michele Quinn

Successful change leadership is not an easy task. Entire books have been written on the topic. Courses abound on the subject, covering every element of change leadership, including fundamentals, facilitation, tools and team management.

The Lean Methods Group has helped dozens of organizations develop and implement sustainable change. As a result, we’ve been able to reduce change management to six critical factors that are key to enabling a successful change effort. Without all six system factors in place, successful transformational change is unlikely.

1. Shared Vision

When embarking on any change effort, it’s the change leader’s job to develop and deliver an inspiring view of the future state, and enlist others to move towards it. People assimilate a lot easier, and work with greater commitment, when they are guided by a vision. This is the starting point for transformational change. If this step is missing, any one of the other five factors for successful change will suffer.

2. You Are Accountable

Starting at the top and cascading down through the organization, leadership must be held accountable for the change effort. Accountability is all about action. Participation, communication, resource commitment, sharing the vision early and often—each one of these actions demonstrates leadership’s commitment to the change. The saying, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying,“ sums it up nicely. People commit to a change with their hearts not their heads. Leadership accountability is a critical factor when it comes to gaining buy-in for the change.

Accountability is all about action.

3. Stakeholder Involvement

Change Leaders must not only understand who the stakeholders are, but also the level of support each has for the change effort and the degree to which each can affect it (positively or negatively). This information is often tracked in a stakeholder management plan. Change leaders often ask, “Is such a comprehensive plan really worth the time and effort?” The answer is absolutely! Understanding, supporting and establishing two-way communication with stakeholders can make or break the success of the change effort.

4. Tools and Skills

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, writes that “the difference between good leaders and great leaders is that great leaders practice the fundamentals, consistently and extraordinarily well.” So what are these fundamentals when it comes to change leadership? We’ve already covered three of them: creating and sharing an inspiring vision, leadership accountability and comprehensive stakeholder involvement.

Effective communication is another fundamental skill required of a change leader. To be effective communicators, change leaders must understand individual communication styles and conflict modes, as well as be able to recognize resistance and know how to overcome it. Effective communication also means using language appropriate to the audience, and striking the right balance between logic and emotion. A leader’s ability to communicate is called upon over and over again while executing the change effort, making it a critical component for success.

A leader’s ability to communicate is called upon over and over again while executing the change effort.

Similarly, tools such as a stakeholder management plan may be used more than once during the course of one change initiative. Although there are too many tools to mention here, suffice it to say that change leaders need to know what tools are available to help them lead and manage change, and they need to become masters of these tools.

5. Enabling Behavior

Change happens at the behavioral level. Modifying the organization’s infrastructure to support the change effort is key to sustaining the change. This may take the form of realigning job descriptions, performance management plans and measurement systems. But don’t forget that individuals respond differently to change, so change leaders need to provide support, training and coaching to keep the change effort moving forward without alienating stakeholders. Successful change leaders must recognize and reinforce desirable behavior by celebrating small wins, providing constant feedback on the progress of the change, and remembering that each individual moves along the change curve differently.

6. Measures and Processes

Last but not least, the supporting foundation of successful transformational change is how performance is measured within the business. Whether your metrics track process, personnel or financial performance, transformational change requires leadership to examine and realign the current measurement systems to support the change effort in each area. Too often, contradictory metrics exist, driving old behaviors and eroding support for the change.

Michele Quinn was a senior client partner at the Lean Methods Group, with more than 20 years of proven success in leading operational change.