Implementing Real Change

Why coming up with the right answer to a business problem often isn’t enough in a large organisation – and what you can do about it

Change Ahead

“WHY won’t people in this organisation realise that this new approach could make things so much better? Why won’t people implement this idea? This is so frustrating…”

Creating meaningful change at any large organisation can be one of the most challenging things to accomplish – as many new employees or consultants have found out the hard way. It’s also one of the most valuable skills to have.

It’s not hard to see why change can be so difficult. Most people inherently resist changes to their environment – it often equates to greater risk, more stress and exertion of energy in order to adapt. Additionally, large organisations are usually complex, inter-connected and political, with decisions requiring the buy-in of several stakeholders (each having their own personal egos, agendas and fears). No matter how sound your idea, it’s likely to face some form of resistance.

Consequently, while being able to come up with a fantastic solution to a challenging problem or identify an improvement opportunity is certainly a valuable skill, it is just the starting point. The real value comes from being able to turn these ideas into reality and convince key stakeholders to adopt them.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to tip the odds in your favour. Next time you have an idea for a solution or improvement that may require considerable change, consider adopting the following approach.

1. Expect resistance – so prepare accordingly

As great as your idea might be, begin with the presumption that some people will require some convincing before your idea can be implemented. As a general rule, if it requires significant effort or potentially the loss of reputation or influence of a stakeholder (even if it’s relatively minor), then be ready to face resistance.

Consequently, it’s a good idea to spend time developing the idea on your own and with the help of other people whose opinions you value. Your idea should hold up from multiple angles and be logically sound before you begin approaching the right people.

2. Understand who you need to influence and how to win them over

In large organisations, there are often a few key people who need to be convinced before significant changes can take place. You don’t (and probably can’t) convince everyone affected, but you should ensure that most of the key stakeholders are on board. In particular, keep a look out for those who may be inclined to block your idea and identify how they might be persuaded.

Position titles and seniority are a good indication of who needs to be won over and in what area of the organisation, but be ready to look beyond that – some people who have the greatest influence (either directly, or indirectly through influential relationships with the right people) aren’t always the ones you expect. This is where an understanding of office dynamics and connections become helpful.

The next step is to understand what the key goals or concerns for each of these stakeholders currently are – they may be different and occasionally opposing. You’ll need to position the message in a way that explains the benefit to each of them, and this is where proper communication is key.

3. Communicate Effectively

Now that you know who you need to talk to, here comes the tricky bit – identifying how best to deliver your message persuasively.

There is no shortage of information about effective communication, but as a starting point, you should aim to clearly explain how the idea is likely to be to their benefit. Make sure you understand what issues are front of mind for them so that you can link it to your suggestion if possible (this is where listening, emotional intelligence and an ability to read between the lines are helpful).

As for style, consider the language, tonality, location, timing and channel of communication – don’t underestimate the difference these can make. You’ll need to adapt depending on the person and culture of the organisation, but a good approach is to mirror their preferred style of communication. If they like to be short and to point during formal meetings, be short and to the point. If they like to talk about family, friends and everything else over a coffee, do likewise.

And of course, perhaps you might not be the best person to communicate directly with the stakeholder. Consider whether someone else should go in to bat for you who may have more influence.

Regardless of who communicates, hopefully you’ll have buy-in after a few conversations, (and if you’re lucky, create some advocates for your idea too). But there’s still a way to go.

4. Bring them on the journey

As change is implemented, make sure the key stakeholders are taken with you on the journey and are given an opportunity to have their say.

Seek their input on the approach and take these on board where appropriate – chances are they’ll have something helpful to add if you take the time to ask.

No one likes surprises either (when it comes to change, at least), so aim to keep the key stakeholders informed throughout (although adjust your communication frequency and detail according to their engagement level).

5. Be patient. And resilient

Sometimes your approach won’t work the first time.

Perhaps you won’t get all the stakeholders on board. Perhaps a bigger issue will arise and become a greater organisational priority. Perhaps a stakeholder will change their mind for reasons you can’t fathom. Perhaps you’ll start to implement your idea, but it just doesn’t stick over the long term for some reason (…that’s a long article in and of itself which we’ll save for another time).

And sometimes you’ll find out that your idea just wasn’t that great in the first place.

These things happen, but it pays to be persistent, especially if you and others still have faith in your idea.

If your timing was off, perhaps try again later when there is more appetite for change. You can also try running with a smaller segment of your idea that may be easier to implement than the whole – maybe your idea was too “big” in the first place. You may also want to communicate your idea differently, or build on it further – perhaps it just needs to be a bit more persuasive. At the very least, take the lessons you’ve learnt from the experience and apply them next time. It’s a skill which takes time to develop.

Ask anyone exposed to an organisation for any length of time if they can identify ways that things could be done better, and chances are they’ll have no trouble reciting a long list. However, ask them how they’d go about actually making these changes happen and more likely than not, you’ll receive a long story about how it can’t happen or, if you’re lucky, how they’ve already frustratingly tried and failed (and of course, sometimes you just get a blank stare).

Follow the above, and you might join a small category of people who know how to effectively make a change and are able to bring the right people along for the ride.