We were all brought up with fairy tales that had happy endings – ‘and they lived happily ever after’. In the world of consulting, a fairy-tale ending is every client’s dream. In short, they all wish for positive results that last forever. Is sustainable change an impossible pipe dream? One of those concepts that we only hear about in myths and legends? Or is it actually achievable in reality?

Here we’ll take a look at what sustainability really means when it comes to change management and the essential elements that need to be in place to make achieving it a realistic possibility.

What do we mean by sustainability? The word ‘sustain’ comes from the old French verb ‘soustenir’ which in turn comes from the Latin ‘sustinere’, meaning to hold up, support or endure. The term sustainability is often used these days to refer to responsibility towards the environment and society, including while conducting business.

However, in the arena of change management we see sustainability as the final milestone of any successful project. This means successful adoption and continuation of the changes initiated by the consulting team. Based on our learnings from 25 years of change management, we’ll explain some of the crucial things to consider when working to bring about lasting change.

Resistance to change is most often touted as the biggest bottleneck in change management projects. However we have come to believe that this is a convenient carpet that all failures can be brushed under.

As human beings, we have been adopting changes since time immemorial. True to the Darwinian principle of evolution, humans make choices to adapt and innovate in order to survive and thrive in our environment. Just as people have quickly embraced online shopping and smartphones in recent years, employees will readily adopt changes that they can see will benefit them.

So rather than resistance to change, the real issue is an inability to sell the change, to ensure employees understand the reasons behind it and to make it relevant and meaningful to them.

The CEO of a company we were working with recently remarked, as we were planning the project kick-off, that our presentation should address the question ‘What’s in it for me?’ for all employees. He was exactly right.

Very often the goals of a change management programme are determined just by the priorities of the top management and not enough thought is given to what the change really means to employees down the line. How will it impact them? And what will it entail? Employees often get jittery at the thought that changes might mean more work for them, force them out of their comfort zones or make their inefficiencies more visible.

While change programmes can never comply with the wishes of all stakeholders, if you want yours to succeed, you need to factor in how the lives of the people involved will change, then sell the plusses and provide solutions for the minuses. Only if your key team members are convinced that the changes will be good for them will there be real hope for sustainability.

During one project we were keen to convince shop floor workers on the benefits of adopting a new system for recording production. We conducted an open session to gather feedback about their existing problems on the shop floor. While we couldn’t do much about eight out of the ten issues raised, the action that we took on two of them convinced the workers that we and their managers cared about their needs. They then showed much greater willingness to start implementing the changes.

Also: it’s not just others that need to change. Many managers believe that other employees, teams and departments need to change but forget that the change process has to start with them. As self-help author Mike Robbins reminds us, nothing changes until you do.

Denial that change needs to begin at the top can spark a crisis of leadership that can spin a change programme into a quagmire of frustration and hopelessness. When clients ask us what is the major cause of change programmes failing, I always reply that it’s a lack of commitment from the top management. In our experience this is the single biggest factor that can make or break any programme.

Employees look to the leadership for vision and direction and they are continuously interpreting the behaviour of their management teams. Imagine a situation where the CEO is harping on about the merits of the changes required while the leadership team is seen to be continuing with old templates of behaviour. It is bound to send a message of dissonance to the team below. Very soon, they will see through the chasm between speech and action and begin to doubt that any of the promised benefits will materialise. It’s crucial to make sure the leadership team are fully on board and aligned with the change programme. Only then can you actually hope to start sending messages down the line. Remember, actions will always speak louder than words. Once the results start to become visible, even the sceptics will convert to your camp.

One more thing: we have all heard stories of leaders hailed for leading from the front and marshalling their troops to achieve success in their respective arenas. When you’re trying to bring about sustainable change, you have to do the opposite and lead from the back. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front”.

The programme should be run by the team members for the benefit of the business as a whole. You have to let them take credit for the positive results they achieve and encourage deep introspection into any failures that happen along the way. Earnestness and sincerity of purpose can make all the difference here. Achieving sustainable change is largely about people management. Crucial elements include:

• Making the change process participative and inclusive
• Providing training, coaching and counselling
• Being available and empathetic to the team while being true to the programme objectives, and
• Most crucially, building the belief that the programme is for the collective success of the employees and the organisation.

Slow and steady definitely wins the sustainability race. But remember, when the change is sustained, the impact remains.