How Executives Help Sustain Organizational Change

As a leader in your organization, you understand the “big two” of successful plan execution: 1. Reliable, effective plan formulation, and 2. An established execution process.

However, as you cruise through thought capital blogs to find the reason why your organization’s results are still less than ideal, how often do you read about the third element of successful plan execution – sustainment?

I’ve been thinking lately about what happens after you’ve effectively executed your strategy. How do you sustain the change you’ve created so that you don’t slip back into old habits? You might achieve your short-term goals, but without a plan for operationalizing those newly formed habits and processes that earned results, how do you suspect your metrics will look a year later?

The more I research the topic of sustaining organizational change, the more it seems like many organizations struggle with this very issue.

As it turns out, the key to sustaining process change that produces results is a little squishier than I’d imagined. And it all falls on the shoulders of the exec to set the tone for sustaining success for the rest of the organization.

The Role of Process, Discipline, and Resources in Sustaining Change

Yes, process, discipline, and resources are important. However, even with all the resources in the world and strict process discipline, sustaining change is still a challenge.

I would compare the idea of strategy sustainment to one most people can relate to – weight loss. Many of us, at some point, have taken up a healthier lifestyle and saw the results when we stepped on the scale. You probably had a goal weight or body fat percentage in mind and, through hard work, you hit your number.

Unfortunately, after hitting that goal, it’s likely that 6 months after reaching your goal, you’ve gained the weight back. This is a known phenomenon.

In an interesting article published by the New York Times in 2016, they took a look at contestants from “The Biggest Loser.” Research showed that the majority of the people on the show gained their weight back. Sustained change is hard. In this instance, there are complicated contributing factors such as metabolism and other biological circumstances, but ultimately, the habits that were formed with lots of resources and strict discipline in order to reach that initial goal were not sustained after that first successful weigh-in.

The core of this issue impacts businesses every day. But there is a way we can break the cycle.

How did we get here?

Recalibrate Your Thinking About Failure

In an excellent article published in HBR, “Stop Using the Excuse Organizational Change Is Hard,” Nick Tasler contends that our brains are already wired to think about failure.

He says that “We assume that failure is a more likely outcome than success, and, as a result, we wrongly treat successful outcomes as flukes and bad results as irrefutable proof that change is difficult.

Does this sound familiar? I’m sure each of you can point to a bevy of examples where you chalked up a success as a fluke and a failure as inevitable. We could even call back to the statistic that’s ingrained in all of us that says 70% of all change initiatives fail.

Does this failure have anything to do with how we define success?

Yes. It’s a “chicken or the egg” argument, but it comes down to mindset.

Tasler proceeds to discuss a change management study conducted by McKinsey where they found, “A third of executives believed that their change initiatives were total successes, and another third believed that their change initiatives were more successful than unsuccessful.” But only “about one in ten admit to having been involved in a transformation that was ‘completely’ or ‘mostly’ unsuccessful.”

Therefore, pointing to the McKinsey study as evidence for a 70% change initiative implementation failure rate is like saying that every time a baseball player steps up to the plate and doesn’t hit a home run, that player has “failed.”

But that isn’t true in baseball any more than it is true in organizations. The McKinsey results show that around 60% of change initiatives are somewhere between a base hit and a home run, and only 1 in 10 are strikeouts.

Even if you’re not hitting it out of the park, your change initiatives could still be successful, if you define success as an improvement. And if you set your mind to focus on seeing any improvement in the absence of failure, you could set your organization up for greater success in implementing change initiatives that work long-term.

Your team will look to you, their leader, to set the tone for success, and your chances of sustaining change will reflect that positivity.

The Key to Sustainment: A Mindset for Expecting Success

It all comes down to mindset.

In a study conducted by the University of Chicago, “researchers reminded study participants how most people do in fact successfully improve with a little bit of effort. In this study, the results were exactly the opposite: study participants were quicker to notice changes for the better rather than changes for the worse. By priming people with a simple fact about the high probability of successful change, the researchers completely eliminated the negative bias.”

Think about this for a moment.

Simply reminding your stakeholders that successful change is possible, and then shouting their successes from the rooftops can redefine your entire process.

One of the crucial 4 Drivers of Execution we’ve defined is visibility. If you see change happening, communicate what you’re seeing. Create a forum where incremental improvement is shared and celebrated as a success. Positive momentum is contagious and that can help executives lead the way in sustaining any strategy you choose to execute.

About AchieveIt

AchieveIt is the platform that large organizations use to get their biggest, most important initiatives out of the boardroom and into reality. Too many great ideas never quite make it across the finish line, because there’s no real way to keep everyone on course and keep everything on track. What does it take to actually guide these initiatives all the way through to completion? You’ve got to:

  1. Get everything in view – so you can see what’s happening with every initiative, at every level, from the enterprise to the individual, in real time.
  2. Get everyone engaged – with an easy-to-use platform that connects your organization from the executive leadership to the project teams, keeping everyone accountable and on the same page.
  3. Get every possible advantage – not only because you have the premier platform in this space, but because you can draw on the experience and best practices of our execution experts.

That’s why everyone from global corporations, to regional healthcare systems, to federal agencies have turned to AchieveIt for their Integrated Plan Management. Let’s actually do this.

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Organizations of all types leverage AchieveIt to connect, manage, and execute their most important initiatives. Replace manual processes & siloed systems with interconnected plans in a single, automated platform.


Meet the Author  Joseph Krause

Joe has helped organizations execute thousands of strategic, operational, and project plans in his 10+ years at AchieveIt. Joe is passionate about helping teams drive successful business outcomes with a focus on practical, easy to use advice. Joe graduated from Seton Hall University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and obtained a Masters of Science in Healthcare Communication from Boston University. Joe recently completed his studies at Rutgers University where he obtained a Masters in Business Administration with a concentration in finance.

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