Creating sustainable change

Published on April 27, 2022   11 min
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Hello. I am Richard Dunford, Professor of Management in the UNSW Business School at UNSW Sydney. Today, I'm going to talk about the topic of creating sustainable change.
Most people who have tried to change a habit, perhaps in regard to building regular exercise into one's daily routine or eating more healthily, will be aware of the difference between making the change and sustaining the change beyond an initial period of dedication and enthusiasm. Returning to one's old ways is often only too easy. A similar challenge exists with organizational change. It's one thing to bring about the change. It's quite another to have that change become so embedded that it's now standard practice. A key challenge in the management of organizational change is to make change stick. Unless the change starts to become the new normal practice, the change may soon become just a temporary disruption to business as usual.
What can be done to increase the likelihood that a change will be sustained? The following eight actions will help. First, redesign roads. Organizational change often involves the creation of new positions in order for new things to be done. In doing so, the change becomes embedded in normal day-to-day practices. Even where the person given the new role is initially not a complete convert to the change, carrying out the redesigned role on a day-to-day basis can give the person much greater clarity as to how the change can bring about improvements. A second action is to redesign reward systems. It's very important to avoid a misalignment of incentives. It's no good to ask for A, but reward B. In the context of organizational change, this means that the reward systems of an organization such as embodied in promotions and financial rewards should reinforce the behaviors required in the changed organization. Employees will often see decisions by senior management as to who gets rewarded and why as the best evidence as to whether talk about the importance of change is genuine or just talk. If employees see that rewards systems have actually been realigned to be consistent with the advocated change, they are much more likely to conclude that the talk of change is for real and as a result, to change their own behaviors. The third link selection to change objectives is the experience and characteristics of people recruited into an organization post-change can provide both a material and a symbolic boost to the prospects of sustained change. The material boost can come from the experiences and skills that people bring to the organization. The symbolic boost comes when employees can see that those experiences and skills are consistent with the requirements of the post-change organization. An example that I know well involved a bank that was seeking to differentiate itself from other banks. It became much more inclined to recruit people who, before the change, would not have been recruited because of their lack of banking industry experience. Because innovative thinking and a fresh perspective were required, recruits from outside the banking industry were seen as having much to offer through contributing to a diversity of perspectives. A fourth action that can help sustain change is to ensure that deeds match words. The expression 'walk the talk' has become a management cliché, but it is a concise way of reminding us that one of the most guaranteed ways for managers to lose credibility is for their actions to fail to be consistent with what they are espousing. For example, a CEO who announces the critical need for a major organizational cost-cutting campaign but who still flies everywhere by private jet risks losing all credibility. Actions speak louder than words. Encourage acts of initiative, voluntary acts of initiatives. Change is more likely to be sustained if employees are encouraged and supported to take actions at the local level that are consistent with the general direction senior management wants the organization to move. Through such involvement, people throughout an organization achieve a level of buy-in that's unlikely to be achieved if they are merely implementers of changes dictated from above.