The Sustainability of Results: Part I

by Tom Devane

Evidence of Sustainable Change

changeAll too often when a large-scale change effort is nearing its end, some bright-eyed change agent asks, “What shall we do about sustainability of this effort?” It’s a great question to ask; it’s just the wrong time to ask it. Research supports this. Studies show up to 70% of all change initiatives fail. Perhaps that’s because almost 30% of change initiatives are attempted without the proper skills or the structure to sustain it.1

It’s time to start thinking about sustainability at the beginning of a change effort.

Pay attention to a few key elements at the start, and you can dramatically impact sustainability in a positive way. In this three-part series, I’ll show how you can move sustainability from “back of mind” to “front of mind.”

First things first. How do you know you’ve got a sustainable change occurring?

It’s difficult to come up with one sentence that defines sustainability as it relates to large-scale change efforts. Here’s a handy four-part checklist of characteristics you can use to assess whether or not change is sustainable:

  1. Direction
  2. Energy
  3. Distributed Leadership
  4. Appropriate Mobilization of Resources

Direction

Direction is the general path forward, with appropriate boundaries that guide what action people can—and can’t—take. Evidence of Direction includes:

  • Belief that the change effort has legitimacy.
  • Cross-functional/cross-group/multi-stakeholder interests are acknowledged and addressed for the good of the whole moving forward in a common direction.
  • Not tightly clinging to a previously designed and implemented solution. 

Energy

Energy is the drive people have to advance the change initiative. It manifests itself in such ways as people organizing themselves to do continuous improvement, staying/working late, and collaborating across functional boundaries, even though it has no direct benefit to them. Evidence of energy includes:

  • Gut- and head-level engagement.
  • Good ideas that come from anywhere.
  • Experiencing genuine opportunities for new and big things to happen.
  • Satisfying some key personal concerns.
  • Appreciating others’ uniqueness through authenticity and respect toward others.
  • A thirst for learning. 

Distributed Leadership

True sustainability requires that people at all levels and in all locations are authorized to own their own problems and solutions. It also implies they have the information, skills, and reward systems to support the new desired goals. Evidence of Distributed Leadership includes:

  • Genuine internal commitment to advancing the change.
  • Better results and changed behaviors.
  • Upward push back and mutual accountability.
  • Decreased dependence on the top leader for vision or solutions.

Appropriate Mobilization of Resources

Where sustainability is high, resources such as time, people, money, and technology are mobilized and deployed to places they most benefit the organization. Evidence of Appropriate Mobilization of Resources includes:

  • Change that draws on resources at a rate that matches the availability of resources to support the change.
  • No backslide when external or internal consultants leave.
  • People who are anxious to move forward based on common ground.
  • Distributed leadership actions and local initiative taking.
  • Communication of important facts, issues, and beliefs.

Are you able to check these boxes?  If so, chances are you have a sustainable change occurring. If not, hopefully this list will provide you with guidance you can use throughout your change effort, from the planning to pulse checks, post-project evaluations, and lessons-learned sessions.

Next up in the Sustainability of Results series, tune in for Six Factors that Work Against Sustainable Change. I’ll give you some management shake-up tactics you can put to immediate use.

Source: The Change Handbook

1Mastering the Art of Change by Ken Blanchard.

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