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How to create an environment of continuous change, learning and improvement

15 Feb 2018 By Natalie Gordon

Natalie Gordon explains the main forces that hold businesses back, and what they can do to conquer them

February is traditionally a time when our new year’s resolutions begin to lose momentum, and we start to slip back into our original habits. Change is hard, after all. The same is often true in business – in order to do something new, other things generally have to change. Or, to be more precise, we have to change, and as everyone knows change is hard. Or is it?

Not if you know how. Change doesn’t have to become something that is endured or avoided if you approach it in the right way. And, really, there is no choice. Doing nothing or trying the same thing each year only to fail just doesn’t cut it anymore. The goalposts always shift, our customers always expect more, and as individuals we stagnate if we don’t move forward with a renewed purpose.

So, how do you reframe change? How do you make it part of what you do every day, helping yourself and others to take control of change before it tries to take a hold of you?

Change is a way of life – it’s about understanding and recognising those forces that try to anchor you in the way you currently do things. You need to able to anticipate these forces using tools or ‘change principles’ that will help you to choose your actions from a deep-seated sense of purpose, rather than from a sense of fear or resignation.

There are eight main forces that hold you back as an organisation, a team or an individual. These are:

  • Fear
  • Complexity
  • Presentism
  • The status quo
  • Over-optimism
  • The herd
  • Habit
  • Impulsiveness

Let’s briefly apply a principle to each one in turn. 

Tackle fear of failure by encouraging team members to take action and make a plan. We can’t move forward or take control if we do nothing or resist moving forwards. Help them to understand what’s in it for them. Encourage them to speak out about what currently frustrates them. Get to the root of any fear by asking the question: ‘What’s stopping you?’ and being curious together about how to work through the response.

Eliminate complexity by aiming for clarity about the real problem to solve. Use statistics and stories to get under the skin of the organisation and find out what has to change and why. For example, you may know you need to be more customer-centric, but what is it exactly that’s getting in your way? 

Look with fresh eyes at the present state and embrace curiosity about what the end state needs to look like. Start with the future and work back. What could it look like? What impact will that have on your customers, your organisation, your team and you? Create the reason for change and a positive destination to move towards.

Challenge the status quo and create a sense of anticipation by telling compelling stories of how things could be. Be clear about what will happen if you don’t change and why that matters. Be courageous and face up to the truth – don’t hide from any brutal facts. Use them to help you really understand the barriers to change.

Reject over-optimism in favour of realism towards group priorities, plans and timescales. Create a clear link between strategic objectives, initiatives and actions. Be focused and realistic about what it’s going to take to create change. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. 

Break away from the herd to make a connection with what needs to happen and why. Actively critique the direction and choose to be a part of it. Help others to be active followers, rather than passive sheep. Be transparent and clear about accountabilities, get the right people involved and let them shine. This is about active engagement top-down, bottom-up.

Overturn old habits by reinforcing new ways of working and making any changes ‘business as usual’. Create new routines to support the new state and connect new ways of working to performance management. Then practise, reinforce and practise again.

Confront impulsiveness and instil resilience by building self-awareness and noticing what’s going on around you. Recognise the triggers that cause you and others to react in the way you do. Stop, breathe and think. 

This way of being is not the exclusive preserve of an internal change team. It should become a way of life for every member of your organisation. By unlocking the potential of every team member you will create an environment that is able to move with pace and flexibility, and a team that wants to continuously learn and improve. That’s the hallmark of a changeable organisation – one that is on a journey that has no end and has unlimited possibilities that you are not yet aware of. 

For leaders facing change with trepidation, in this changeable environment, you need to lead with care, curiosity and courage. If you let those be your guiding principles, the rest will follow.

Natalie Gordon is chief of staff at Egremont Group

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