Using digital tools to make change stick

Cloud with digital technology iconsLast year, when I was doing research on change management for a book project, I came across a depressing statistic: up to 70 percent of change initiatives fail, usually due to employee resistance or lack of management follow-through.

I first saw that quote in Ken Blanchard’s “Mastering the Art of Change,” but I’ve since seen it elsewhere. As Blanchard comments, it’s “a figure so high it means that most change initiatives are doomed to failure from the start.”

If you read Blanchard or John Kotter, the well-known change expert and former Harvard Business School professor, you know that communicating the need (and urgency) for change is crucial—and so is getting buy-in and feedback from the folks you are depending on to change.

“I believe the best way to help change work is to increase the amount of influence and involvement of the people being asked to change, resolving their concerns as you go,” Blanchard says. That’s not a revolutionary concept, yet many CEOs simply announce major changes and then expect their employees to embrace them without any discussion, input or even a roadmap forward.

That 70 percent failure rate again caught my eye last week when it was quoted by Boris Ewenstein, Wesley Smith and Ashvin Sologar in a new McKinsey Quarterly article called “Changing Change Management.”

The authors suggest that when people are truly invested in change, it is 30 percent more likely to stick. They make a strong case for applying digital tools to promote and accelerate organizational change, making it “more meaningful—and durable—both for the individuals who are experiencing it and for those who are implementing it.”

According to McKinsey, “B2C companies have unlocked powerful digital tools to enhance the customer journey and shift consumer behavior. Wearable technology, adaptive interfaces and integration into social platforms are all areas where B2C companies have innovated to make change more personal and responsive. Some of these same digital tools and techniques can be applied with great effectiveness to change-management techniques within an organization.”

Here are five areas the authors have identified where digital can help make change stick:

  1. Provide just-in-time feedback. McKinsey gives an example of a beverage company that wanted to motivate its sales representatives to sell more effectively. It used an SMS message system to text reps in the field two or three times daily with updated market and customer insights. As a result, sales increased dramatically.
  2. Personalize the experience. A rail yard wanted to reduce the idle time of its engines and cars by 10 percent. It used digital alerts to provide specific information relevant to each worker at that moment such as details on the status of a train under a worker’s supervision or its precise location in the yard. “Providing such specific and relevant information helped workers clarify priorities, increase accountability and reduce delays,” McKinsey reports.
  3. Sidestep hierarchy. Digital technology creates direct connections among people across the organization and can shorten the time it takes to get things done. In the rail yard example, workers received information right away rather through a middleman.
  4. Build empathy, community and shared purpose. With workers and communities increasingly distant from one another, digital tools can help create a higher level of connectivity and commitment. “Those that we have seen work well,” say the authors, “include shared dashboards, visualizations of activity across the team, ‘gamification’ to bolster competition and online forums where people can easily speak to one another (for example, linking a Twitter-like feed to a work flow or creating forums tied to leaderboards so people can easily discuss how to move up in the rankings).”
  5. Demonstrate progress. Digital change tools are helpful in communicating progress so that people can see what is happening in real time. “More sophisticated tools can also show individual contributions toward the common goal,” McKinsey says. “We have seen how this type of communication makes the change feel more urgent and real, which in turn creates momentum that can help push an organization to a tipping point where a new way of doing things becomes the way things are done.”

Digital isn’t a substitute for a well-designed change initiative, but it can accelerate and amplify your efforts to make it happen. The key to change will always be good communication. That is why I have long argued that communicators should be brought into the change process from the very beginning. Adding digital to your change toolkit makes communicators an even more valuable ally since they are the ones already using social media and other digital tools for outward-facing communications.

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