“If we look only to the past or the present, we are certain to miss the future.” John F. Kennedy is famous for having introduced the notion that we must embrace change and constantly look forward. Organizations that are constantly striving to keep one step ahead of their competition understand this very well. For business leaders, it is important to understand how to manage the process of change, maximize the process of change, and allow for change to positively impact business performance.

The bottom line is that growth and success in organizations cannot be accomplished without change. The key here is that we are talking about positive change, which is created through a proactive process, where trends have been identified; new visions presented, clarified, and implemented.

So, what’s so difficult about change anyway? Well, for systems and processes to change, people have to change. This is the tricky aspect of change management – both research and common sense tell us that change is a natural condition of life. Additionally, as humans we are programmed to naturally resist change! We like things to be in a constant state. Yet, many business leaders know all too well that for their continued success, they have to keep their organizations in a constant state of change. The challenge then is to overcome this natural resistance and get people excited about embracing change. Easier said than done, right?

I’d like to offer suggested guidelines for maximizing change in your organization. These guidelines are based on my work with organizations around the world that embrace change, maximize change, and benefit from continuous improvement.

1. Engage People. For more than 50 years research has shown that “resistance” is negatively correlated to the extent to which people are involved in the change decision. That means, then, that the single best strategy for making change work is to involve and engage the people who will be impacted by the change, where they create change themselves! People must be brought into the process of analyzing the need and rationale for any change; without a sound understanding of the purpose of change, successful implementation is difficult if not impossible to sustain.

Fully engaging people begins by focusing on possibilities rather than problems. It means taking the time to make trial runs and revise plans based on those trials. For this to happen, designated leaders must be readily accessible, share information widely, and allow ample time to plan and implement. While not everyone needs a reason to change, most people do, so make sure the reason is understood or that people have an incentive to change. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the only ones who can make sound decisions or understand the rationale are the senior management team! Engage people in all aspects of the change decision, planning and implementation. Give people a voice. Let them be heard.

2. Create a Clear Pathway for Success It continues to astound me how many times I ask a leader what “success” will look like, only to get a vague, undefined response. Before steps are taken, define success for yourself! Where will you be if you get where you’re going? What is it you really want to have happen? What is the desired future? What will success look like? And finally, how will you know when you get there?

We often find that a company’s desired future is too fuzzy for much of anything but confusion to take place. Clarify. Make the vision concrete. Make sure the people who will be impacted by the change have been active in shaping this vision of success. Conduct a future search or similar activity around whatever the issue, need or concern is. Equally important is having a clear sense of why the change is needed, and whether the purpose for the change has been fully communicated to others. Finally, do people have the information they need to understand why the change makes sense, and how it will fit within existing systems and processes? Don’t determine this simply by your own assumptions . . . find out! I always tell business leaders that what their people need more than any other thing is clarity: clarity of vision, clarity of purpose, clarity of direction, clarity of personal accountability, and clarity of personal reward. If business leaders can provide this or their people, the positive outcomes are dramatic in reducing resistance and increasing engagement.

3. Commit and Recommit. I find that it typically is not the front line people having the most trouble absorbing change, but the managers! Make sure that top leaders are fully committed to the vision and to the necessary changes. And make sure other designated leaders, managers and supervisors are equally committed to making things work. Commitment will filter downward in an organization.

Take into account the political realities. Change often means that some people lose something that may be important to them … some form of structure, a routine, an incentive, relationships, and so on. If nothing else, I can guarantee that at a minimum people are all losing one thing – “the way things used to be.” Make sure you assess who’s toes may be stepped on by this change. Address those needs, and make certain that those people are fully engaged in working with the change decision. Finally, make that commitment visible by allocating the necessary resources. Leaders need to be seen visibly supporting the change. Adequate resources must be provided. Learning opportunities may be needed. And don’t skimp on quality just to try to save a few dollars … what you’ll reap in the long-run will far outweigh what you had to shell out in the beginning.

4. Set Clear Expectations. Defining “success” is important, but don’t forget to define success also in terms of individual and group behaviors. Have the new standards and expectations been established, and have they been clearly communicated? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since the memo went out or the poster posted, it means the expectations were clearly communicated! Different people receive and process information in different ways. Find out what people need, and check frequently with people to be sure the expectations are clear. Finally, make sure that designated leaders are indeed reinforcing the desired actions and making the change a priority. Far too often change fails to achieve the intended results because systems did not support the expectations.

5. Remove Obstacles. People impacted by a change must be involved in identifying obstacles. Who best knows what might make the new form, process or equipment unworkable within the existing system? That’s right … the people who use the existing system every day! Encourage people to share their doubts, raise questions, challenge the decision, and brainstorm solutions!

This can be as simple as keeping notepads around for people to quickly jot down problems, doubts, questions and concerns as they arise, or hanging large sheets on the walls for people to write their questions and frustrations. Establish a process for reviewing these comments on a daily or at least weekly basis. Don’t skimp on the feedback when questions are raise; the doubts and concerns must be clearly addressed . . . and in a timely way. If you don’t know, then tell people you simply don’t know . . . and let them know when you’ll get back to them with more information.

6. Reality Checks. Even transformational change occurs in some type of steps. Most change occurs in smaller increments. Knowing the progress steps and doing some reality testing will allow people to develop their self-efficacy and see that yes, the change will work. This leads to comfort and security.

People gain courage by taking one step, checking their progress, seeing their success, and then taking the next step. Be realistic and don’t make the steps too large at first. Document your progress, and mark the milestones for review (or simply to reassure people that progress is being made!). Are people watching for early warning signs of trouble? Small problems are much easier to deal with than waiting until they’re too large to handle.

Are communication channels to leaders open for all employees? During periods of significant change, managers and especially senior leaders must be seen walking around … talk with people, collect their ideas, and get feedback. Host weekly small group lunches or breakfasts where people can sit down informally with key leaders to raise problems or questions. Meet daily for 15 minutes with your work group to see what has gone well and what needs help. And keep those loops open for continuous reality checking.

7. Provide Feedback & Recognition. As time goes on, how well are people meeting the new expectations? More importantly, do they know how they are doing? For organizational learning and continuous improvement to occur, both formal and informal feedback systems must be present.

Make sure people aren’t somehow being punished for doing the right things, or rewarded for doing things wrong. Legitimize people’s ambivalence about change . . . it’s normal for people to be both anxious and exhilarated, and anxiety does not mean people are being resistant. Publicly recognize the challenges people are facing and the contributions and progress they are making. Then celebrate . . . even the small milestones!

8. Take Quality Action: A change is only as good as the quality actions and resources that support it. Do people have a chance to “try out” the change? Has there been some rehearsal before risk-taking? Can pilot tests be completed before involving a larger part of the system? Can people practice the new actions through role plays, simulations, or visualization? Are systems or task forces in place to frequently (formally and informally) review the change implementation, to revise, and to help people get the resources they need to make change work?

Taking quality action doesn’t demand a great investment in scarce funds … but it does demand an ability and willingness to pause now and then, to think critically about what is taking place, and giving people the chance to try out a new way of being or of conducting work.

9. Sustain Change. It’s tough to keep the momentum going once the motivational speaker has left and people have trudged through weeks of trial and error and more trial. Put procedures in place to review progress and give feedback to people. Set up temporary voluntary task forces to assess progress and help smooth out the bumps in the road. It doesn’t have to be elaborate … it could be a formal learning team in each department or simply that 15 minute start-of-the-day gathering where each person talks about what went well the previous day, what made things difficult, and what would help them be most effective today.

Remember to document and evaluate progress regularly, and be sure that report mechanisms are in place. Know the criteria for progress and for success, then celebrate and make some noise! Focus on what’s going well, and ways to make “going well” the norm. Make plans for the continued development of your internal change agents. Better yet, develop the systems so each person is a change agent, authorized with the knowledge, power, and resources to be successful! Finally, connect with external sources for support to help the organization maintain energy and excitement, and for an outsider’s view of the progress.

Some organizational change has minimal impact on people (changes that do not alter the rights, responsibilities and rewards of all groups). Other change will have a potentially severe impact (those that systematically restructure people’s power, roles, rights, rewards). Use a systems perspective and attend not simply to the change itself but also to how you facilitate and support change. In this way you can cultivate a social system for change that results in a remarkable level of commitment, spirit and energy to make change work!

10. Create a Culture of Growth. Enduring and sustainable positive change only results when systems are changed. I like to refer to this as second-order change. First-order change is simply when surface level policies and procedures change and is usually short term and induces minimal positive impact. Second-order change, on the other hand, creates long-term sustainable growth that changes how and why things are done, not just what is done.

When groups of people are engaged and mutually embrace change, it is very possible to create what we refer to as a culture of growth. In modern days, one of the greatest examples of this being created on a large-scale is the provider of iPods, iPhones, PowerBooks, and a variety of other popular high-tech products. Apple Inc. has always been at the forefront of innovation. They have been dubbed the “Kings of Creative” by those in the business world. Most would attribute that driving success to the mind of Steve Jobs, one of the original founders. His iconic presence for the company has created the constant expectation, “I wonder what Apple will do next?”

From computers, to media players, to phones – Apple is absolutely unrivaled for their ingenuity and vision. What Apple has succeeded at doing best however, is building the foundation for all of that innovation which comes from their culture of growth. People consider it one of the “coolest” places to work. Do you think that when Apple came out with the latest and greatest iPod, and then set out to work on the latest and greatest iPhone, that their employees said, “What? We’re changing? We just created that… can’t we just see how this goes for a while?” Apple has created the ultimate culture of growth from top to bottom. It affects everything they do, and is the underlying reason for their continued success.

Maximizing change is more that capitalizing on new growth platforms. It is about creating positive change for the organization, its employees, and customers. If implemented with structure and precision, change can maximize the potential of people and organizations.

The Growth Principles Company helps business leaders maximize change in their organizations through highly effective training and consulting programs complemented by a series of leadership development programs. We have a series of service offerings ranging from staff training programs to consulting models for mergers and acquisitions.