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Posted: October 13, 2009

Six keys to making change

It's tough, but smart business owners know it's necessary

Sean McBride

Change is difficult to apply and even harder to sustain in a business. Yet all seasoned business owners understand its importance. At some point in the life of every organization, it will be imperative to successfully execute change. The prosperity and even the survival of the business will depend on it. Here are six ways to implement impactful, sustainable change.

1) Be truthful and weigh the impacts.

First, focus on the facts that directly impact your business. Misguided changes can come from well-intentioned leaders who attempt to implement the latest strategic management concept or react to broad fears in the national marketplace. Stay focused on the things impacting your business and your specific market.

Second, it is imperative to understand the magnitude of the impact of the issues. Don't change for the sake of changing. You may quickly recognize that a particular business function or process is not as efficient as it could be. However, change has a cost. You must weigh the payoff of each change against its cost. Without a clear understanding of its value, it is difficult to sustain the commitment and energy needed to change.

2) Create an inspiring vision.

Significant, lasting change requires inspiration and motivation. There must be a connection between the benefits of change and the desires of those it impacts. This may include your customers, your vendors or your employees. Before committing to any change, you must consider the challenges and benefits it presents to stakeholders. As a result, you will be able to anticipate resistance and promote the opportunities involved.

Whenever possible, include impacted individuals in the change process. Asking, "Would this make your life or your job easier?" is an effective way to empower others to be a part of the change process, rather than a victim of it. People will not take ownership of a change if it is forced on them and they have no reason to believe in it. Without a connection, there will be no motivation.

3) Identify action steps and assign ownership.

To turn a vision into real change, specific action steps must be clearly defined. To execute the plan, each step must then be assigned to the appropriate person. Each step should be specific, measurable and time-bound. Many leaders struggle with this level of detail. It is difficult to make the transition from a concept to actions and results, but it is in the execution of these detailed tasks that change actually happens.

4) Plan your work and work your plan.

Due to the dynamic nature of change, there will always be obstacles. It is important to discern the "speed bumps" from the major obstructions that require a detour. Diligence in planning and tracking your progress will allow you to recognize the need for additional resources or adjustments to your course. The more detailed your plan, the more accurately will you be able to make adjustments.

Create a culture of accountability within your team, in which each member is expected to do what they say they will do. When they don't, the team will hold them accountable to making new commitments and keeping them. Accountability for successful change exists in the simple act of making and keeping promises and a team that holds each other responsible for keeping them.

The earliest sign of trouble that I see when working with teams is members arriving late or completely missing meetings. While competing priorities are frequently accepted excuses for this behavior, that team member's participation in the meeting is not the only thing missing. The larger danger is that without acknowledging this as a "broken promise," the team slips into a very subtle complacency. Little by little, the commitment of individuals and the team is in question and eventually the integrity of the entire change process erodes one promise at a time.

5) Share your successes.

Change can take a significant amount of time, so it's important to share successes along the way to maintain motivation and commitment. It can be as simple as a discussion of results produced since the last meeting. Whatever the means, it is important to acknowledge progress. When extraordinary results occur or major milestones are reached, take time to do something extraordinary. Organize a group lunch or arrange tickets to an event. Do anything you can do to make process fun and recognize people for their successes.

6) Measure results and re-establish action steps.

Finally, check in from time to time on your vision and the pulse of those involved. Do the results still lead to the impact and the benefit you desire? Are your people still committed to change? If not, make the necessary adjustments. Remember, you're not just measuring performance; you're checking the inspiration and commitment of your people to making change happen.

Change is never going to be easy. But with a well-considered plan, committed employees and a disciplined approach to sustaining progress, you will be successful. 

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Sean McBride is a senior manager at EKS&H Business Consulting, providing management consulting services with an emphasis in strategic consulting, executive coaching, process change and improvement. He can be reached at 303.740.9400 or smcbride@eksh.com.

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