Bringing about successful organizational change will never be a swift and simple undertaking. Even today, when a majority of companies report that they have begun digital transformation efforts, the business of digital change is just as confounding as it was more than a decade ago.
In fact, the latest McKinsey study of digital transformations suggests that success has become even more difficult to achieve—only 16 percent of respondents say their digital transformations have improved performance and equipped them to sustain changes in the long term, while an additional 7 percent report that performance improved but was not sustained. In previous McKinsey studies, the success rate was nearly 30 percent.
Among the top reasons cited for digital transformation failure is resistance to change. Organizations can develop the smartest strategies and implement the latest technology, but neither will matter if people don’t know how to use the technology or don’t want to use it.
To reduce resistance, business leaders must first understand what’s driving it. A 1979 Harvard Business Review article—“Choosing Strategies for Change” by John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger—is a fine place to start.
The article was written nearly 40 years ago, yet it remains an essential read for business leaders. In it, Kotter and Schlesinger highlight four main reasons people resist change:
- Self Interest: People believe they will lose something of value because of the change—status or power, for example.
- Misunderstanding and lack of trust: People do not understand the change’s implications and think that it will cost them much more than they will gain. This is more likely when there’s little trust between employees and those initiating the change.
- A different assessment of the change: Employees don’t perceive the change in the same way their managers do—they see it creating more costs than benefits for themselves and the organization. This happens when business leaders fail to effectively communicate the change and assume that employees have the same amount of information they do.
- Low tolerance for change: People fear they will not be able to learn the new skills that will be required—technical or emotional.
The world was a different place when Kotter and Schlesinger first published the HBR article—change happened less frequently than it does today, and at a slower pace. Nevertheless, the concepts and assumptions are still highly relevant—more so today, than ever, due to the increased pace of change. Reducing resistance—no matter which century, no matter what the reason—starts with communication and learning.
We designed our PROPEL Methodology to increase technology adoption and foster change by focusing on the human element. Built around Prosci’s ADKAR model, PROPEL includes four key project stages—discover, plan, adopt, and empower—which enable us to gain an understanding of where a client is and where they want to be. We create solutions based on that knowledge to help our clients achieve their transformation goals.
After all, focusing on the human element is the most effective way to assuage the anxiety associated with change—the fear of losing status or power, the misconceptions about why change is taking place or what the organization hopes to accomplish with it, and not knowing “what’s in it for me?” (“WIIFM”). With clear, consistent communication, business leaders can reduce resistance and gain critical buy-in across the company.
Learning also helps foster enthusiasm about change. Training and support enable employees to learn the skills they need to keep up and get ahead of the changes. Ongoing learning opportunities ensure they have the knowledge and confidence to innovate and drive success.
But business leaders should keep in mind that learning is no longer optional offering or an occasional perk—it’s something employees need today. In a recent Deloitte study, 90 percent of employees surveyed said they need to update their skills yearly to work effectively in a digital world. Nearly half of those surveyed said they need to update their skills continuously to be effective.
In the same study, only a third of respondents said they are satisfied with how their organization is helping them prepare for working in digital business.
In the McKinsey study referenced earlier, the survey authors note that developing talent and skills throughout an organization is not only a “fundamental action for traditional transformations,” but also “one of the most important factors for success in a digital change effort.”
Change may feel different today—the technology increasingly complex, the pace more frenetic, the end goal less evident—but people are still the key to successful transformation. Organizations that recognize this and focus on the human element of change will be better equipped for success in digital business.
Barry is responsible for leading the day-to-day business operations, as well as providing strategic oversight as Vitalyst continues to advance its legacy of outstanding client service and progressive growth.