I once attended a meeting where an attendee raised a biting question: “We’ve had transformation programmes before, but performance inevitably drops. Why should this project be any different?”
The CEO responded, “Why is it the job of the consultants to sustain performance after they have gone? They aren’t going to be around!”
The CEO got it right: It is misguided to believe that change will be sustained once you’ve finished a transformation programme if you don’t do the work.
Transformation programmes are vital. But even the best-designed processes, training and organisation designs will not guarantee the new ways of working will be maintained. To maintain change, one needs to be vigilant in motivating employees to stick to using new processes, methods, and tools.
Let me give you an example.
I’m a salesperson. I’ve been trained to use a particular sales pitch. I realise that the new way of work gets me more sales, so I’m more motivated to carry on with the method because it works. This is called “intrinsic motivation”.
On the other hand, if I’m being told to produce a report that nobody looks at and doesn’t help me sell, there is a high likelihood I’m going to stop practising that change. It’s because the report is not aligned to my intrinsic motivations – it’s for someone else’s purpose. The only reason I’ll carry on producing the report is if my boss is breathing down my neck, telling me: “I still want to see that report!”
In a perfect world, every worker would be intrinsically motivated to do every task, but in the corporate arena, we know that there are things we do that may not directly help us in our work, but they are still very important to the organisation.
And this is the dilemma we have with long-term sustainability: the changes which are intrinsically motivating, the ones that will directly benefit employees or help them work better, will stick. But a lot of changes require extrinsic motivation, so it lies on the shoulders of somebody else to follow up and make sure that the changes stick.
Many change initiatives fail because, post-project, leadership failed to ensure that the changes were sustained as they were distracted by new initiatives or agendas. As a result, anything that was not intrinsically motivated in the transformation programme may eventually die off.
One company we’ve worked with, however, was very successful at monitoring any fall offs. A huge factor in making that happen was the fact that the KPIs were perfectly aligned to business objectives and any issues with extrinsic motivation were quickly picked up through performance measures.
Making transformation stick
Every transformation programme has bits that stick, and bits that don’t stick.
Ultimately, leaders have to recognise that certain parts of any change process require extrinsic motivation permanently to be sustained. If follow-ups don’t happen, performance will inevitably drop.
In our experience, extrinsic motivation routines take a long time to be embedded in an organisation. Research says that the average timeframe is about two to three years.
One of the best ways to embed these routines is to digitise them.
Over time, leadership will change, and employees will come and go. As a result, agendas will change too as the new leadership looks at different things. Embedding the change in a digital solution helps ensure that best practices won’t leave the organisation when employees leave or leaders change. And as digital systems often come with automated reminders, if tasks are not done, automatic alerts can trigger someone to follow up.
Basically, when the digitisation of changes is implemented correctly, it makes it much harder for people to evade best practices.
Aside from digitisation, another solution is to have resources dedicated to “keep an eye on the ball”—this is often called a Project Management Office (PMO). Not only can they ensure past changes are sustained, but they can also seek new opportunities for change.
The focus on new opportunities for change interestingly helps sustain past change as well. When seeking more change, you invariably end up checking on the past changes as well.
I’ve had the privilege to revisit some of past clients many years after we’ve worked on a transformation project with them. I notice that the clients that did best were the ones who digitised the changes and maintained a PMO function that monitored sustaining change.
Another client scaled up their PMO office group-wide post project and they have enjoyed record-level KPIs ever since.
There’s no silver bullet when it comes to the long-term sustainability of change. To ensure that your business transformation is “sticky”, you will need to recognise that there are post-transformation obligations to be followed.
To quote famous yoga teacher BKS Iyengar, “Change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained. Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practise.”
How can your organisation practise sustainable change?
Krishna Paupamah has worked with companies globally to transform their business for over 35 years. He is the Founder and Group CEO of Renoir Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was first published in Business Today.