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Too often change programmes over-emphasise a focus on what to say to convince people to change. Instead, pausing to listen can help programmes deliver better transformation results.

Studies continue to show that most organisational change efforts do not succeed – a fairly consistent trend over the last 15 years. This is typically cited to be because of a lack of sponsorship, inadequate communications and/or no vision, poor solution design, or unclear accountability. We know the reasons, yet so many programmes continue to make the same costly errors.

Reassuringly, more organisations are evolving their change capability – facilitating ‘change sponsor’ training, investing in stronger project managers, trialling new communications mediums, considering behavioural economics, etc.

What organisations are still missing – and what could really make a difference – is a deeper investment in listening and adapting to the needs of the people impacted.

The other side of ‘communicate more’

Advice to improve change programmes often includes communicating more – more often, more thoroughly, more quick wins, more hero stories. In many cases this is good advice – on some programmes, we tell clients to ‘communicate until the message is boring!’. The point isn’t to saturate people with messages, but to help remove fear, uncertainty, resistance or apathy. Another key way to do this is to improve listening and adaptability.

And we’re not talking about ‘fluffy stuff’. Listening is a skill very few professional leaders, change sponsors or programme directors actively focus on – regardless of intent. The world is busy, deadlines loom, and sitting down for a chat can feel like the last thing you have time for. However, the absence of listening often results in missed opportunities and can ultimately mean your change is designed or delivered poorly, eroding your programme’s ROI.

In the increasingly digital world of organisational change, listening can take many forms – one-to-one conversations, chat forums, surveys, roadshow Q&A, ‘voice of people’ data analysis. In all cases, questions need to be asked with intent and value. Many change surveys ask irrelevant questions for the sake of gathering data to present back to management. This is not listening to what is important to your people. Once responses are understood, these need to be acted upon across all stages of the organisational change lifecycle.

Wagging the dog?

I was once told by a programme manager when encouraging him to consider what the frontline was saying, that I “shouldn’t let the tail wag the dog”. That was some years ago now, but I still hear similar bullish sentiments – views that a series of directorial emails, mandatory eLearning and performance management should be all that is required to get people to fall in line with the expected change.

Delivering those interventions might allow a programme team to close out on paper, but it doesn’t truly embed new behaviours and ways of working. Too often, those who delivered change at pace, without listening to their people, find it has unravelled 6 to 12 months later.

Organisations do need a disciplined transformation engine to push programmes through funding stage-gates – and these can’t always cater to every voice. But an engine that provides space for reflection, interpretation, emergent design and broad ownership can produce better transformation results. This doesn’t necessarily mean a longer process, just a different one.

Listening more, in practice

It’s easy to say ‘listen more’ but what does that pragmatically mean across the transformation lifecycle?

1. Vision

At the outset, change sponsors and programme team members should review the lessons learned from previous attempts at organisational change and listen to what the business leads are saying their teams will need this time around. Leadership alignment workshops can provide forums for peers to listen to each other and create a collective vision that is more compelling in the breadth and nuance of opinions it incorporates.

2. Roadmap

As the programme shapes the change roadmap, listen to the broader business – what else is going on that needs to be aligned to or poses a risk? Think about which audiences you really need to hear from and involve them in co-design workshops.

3. Solution design

Embrace people-centric design and listen to what teams need. What helps the frontline to delight customers? What makes back-office work more efficiently? What helps support functions better connect to strategy? How can the solution build quality from the beginning, to drive ROI once delivered?

4. Implementation

As the solution is introduced, set up two-way feedback channels to listen to what impacted teams are saying. Is the solution working for the frontline? For customers? What barriers need more attention? But don’t just listen – adapt fast. Have the resources ready to respond to emerging needs and develop ongoing improvements in an agile manner.

Rather than over-investing in push communications or ignoring people’s views in fear they will ‘wag the dog’, change leaders and programme teams could deliver more long-lasting change by shifting their focus just a little. Listen to your teams and they will give you the stories to shout about.

Caro Ruttledge

At Gate One, we are change experts. Our team will equip you to drive culturally-aligned, innovative change programmes.