Making Strategy Stick: How to Master Sustainable Change

As an aviation enthusiast and engineer, many things make more sense to me when compared to what I know about flying. I look at strategic planning like a company taking off into the sky on a journey to an exotic destination. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief as they settle in for the flight after take-off. People go back to their mundane thoughts and tasks, and expect the flight to be smooth and straight. But what else has to happen to ensure the aircraft reaches the right destination? In the business world, how do you go from having the strategy defined to making sure that it gets executed properly?

You only need to go through the strategic planning process once to realize that it’s not easy. The hardest part is motivating people to embrace and engage in the process. You know the look on their face when you mention the phrase strategic planning. They wince and fidget, think about all of the extra work it will take to accomplish and silently hope you will give the task to the anyone else but them.

Having spent much of my career in one of the premier strategy organizations, I can tell you challenges exist in every business. GE is a large, complex and very competitive place. Most of us had little patience for anything that did not add long-term (which we defined as six months or more) value. I can remember days of frustrating discussions and trying to get alignment before moving forward. It was not until we developed a disciplined change leadership philosophy to go along with the process that we could move confidently from strategy to execution, and eventually to sustained performance.

Sustainable performance is the ultimate final destination for a company with an already-articulated strategic plan, but even the most experienced leaders (pilots) can have difficulty navigating their companies (aircraft)—and its people (passengers)—to it. Every strategy has a destination in mind, and someone has to guide it all the way there.

You see, strategy is change! If you plan on doing essentially the same thing next year that you did last year, then you really do not need a strategic plan. Your organization is perfectly designed to continue to produce the results you are getting. You just need to do the same things over again, but with better tactical execution. This is a viable strategic choice, but normally when change is involved, making it sustainable becomes all the more important. If you need to make fundamental changes to markets, customers, operations, technology or people management, then you need to think hard about how you will sustain the change implicit in true strategic planning.

What produces sustainable strategy?

Sustainable strategy relies on the principles of change leadership. The reason is simple: people. Numerous studies have shown that people limit change. Not because people are bad, but because we ignore their influence on sustaining the change we (as leaders) want to put in place. We miss simple things like remembering that people actually need to bring the strategy alive daily. As a result, at the very least, their involvement is essential early in the crafting of strategy, so they understand and embrace it. They must believe in the direction of the change, the vision for what it looks like when you arrive, and have some way to measure progress toward the destination.

An organization only moves forward when the people in it find ways to embrace the strategy because it brings about positive meaningful benefits to them. Sustainable change starts with leadership, just as the pilot guides an aircraft on the journey to its final destination. The principles of change leadership are simple, but what can be difficult is leading the organization, by staying the course through to that final destination.

So what are the core elements of change leadership when we consider how to make change sustainable? A simple acronym helps: OPEN.

Ownership: You have to take the risk.

Inevitably, someone has to carry the vision for the change, consistently communicate goals and guide the team when it naturally wants to fall back to its old way of working. Sustaining the change means making it a business priority, and that is inherently risky. If the change fails, careers can become derailed. But, if you believe in the change, you must take the risk and provide the energy it needs when the organization becomes unfocused.

Passion: You must believe it and drive it.

As the leader, the change has to be something you master and then you teach. It must have practical value and that value must be presented to the key stakeholders in the organization. More than that, they must have time to assimilate it into how they work. Many leaders make the mistake of thinking that it should be obvious to people that the change needs to happen. But you have to make it clear how it helps the organization.

Engagement: Politicking is required.

People are motivated by a host of different needs, the biggest of which may be to have input on the direction of the organization. They most certainly need to understand how the strategy will change their daily lives. Sustainable change occurs when leaders understand core needs of the key constituents and help them meet those needs in the change. It is part understanding and part negotiation. You might need to dig into what is important to them to help them support the changes. Ignoring the key individuals who can help drive the change is one of the key reasons change efforts fail.

Navigation: It will never be what you thought, so think your way through it.

Change is non-linear. As much as you try and make it fit the project plan, following the expected path, you will run into turbulence while on route. Sometimes leaders have to divert around the storms, land for more fuel, change altitude or inform the passengers of a new arrival time. There is only one person who can see all of the dials and is holding onto the yoke. When a change to the (change) plan is needed, the leader has to call the organization together to re-plan the flight. The leader must pull the team together, discuss the implications, and then get them behind the new plan—similar to how the pilot informs the crew and then the passengers when he changes the flight plan. Only then can we be sure that we stay on track to the destination.

Like the captain of the aircraft, the leader is critical to making change sustainable. Without the foregoing principles, the people can become disoriented and disengaged. An otherwise great plan simply remains a plan, and nothing actually changes the direction of the organization. More importantly, the energy with which you start the process won’t be sustained because you aren’t willing to step in, sit down, and own it until we all reach the final destination. This is why the people in the organization can become so jaded and frustrated with change—they have seen too many leaders put it on auto-pilot.

We have all heard the message over the speakers aboard the plane that allows us to relax, sit back and enjoy the flight. It is only then that we can confidently start our journey and there is only one person aboard who can give us the confidence to embark. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your leader speaking. I will be guiding you to our final destination. Welcome aboard!”

As the change leader, just as the captain of an aircraft, you will have to take some professional risk, drive the key strategic elements, politick to reduce resistance and adjust to the changing issues as change is implemented. That is the only way we will get where we need to go, and it simply cannot be delegated.

Safe flying!

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