Why Many Change Initiatives Miss the #1 Risk-Reducer

Your change initiative has the basics.

It’s got a strong message summarizing your strategy, personal presentations from senior leaders, training to address knowledge gaps, and a heat map showing potential resistance and mitigation efforts.

That’s everything – right?

No. According to our research, it’s only part of the solution. My organization studied 72 organizations undergoing change and evaluated the progress impact of 30 typical change assumptions. These results were repeatedly confirmed over a decade as change practitioners.

The findings?

Organizations that relied on communication as a primary instrument to power their change effort failed to progress over time. Organizations that combined communication with focused accountability achieved significantly better results than the communication-centric group.

Why do leaders miss accountability?

Three assumptions cause leaders to overlook accountability and increase risk:

Communication as effective

Many senior leaders believe their communication is both powerful and influential. It can be, but more so with upper organizational levels. Farther down in organizations experience shows that staff weigh actions and discount words.

Within the organization, employees are more likely to be: fearful about employment, bombarded with corporate team app messages, and influenced by accountabilities and process responsibilities far more than presentations. What communication does get through? Leadership actions, job responsibility changes, and repercussions to individuals who fall short.

Organization as ready

Contrary to common understanding, voicing a ‘change’ message does not ‘morph’ the organization and magically adjust what actions are held accountable. Without intentional adjustment, in-place motivational structures (like accountabilities) continue to promote what used to be important under previous leaders and/or initiatives.

Resistance as personal

Finally, leaders and change managers tend to see resistance to change as arising from individuals who are backward, stubborn, and naive enough to constructively criticize. In our experience, organizational not personal factors create most ‘resistance’. We ignore employees’ past contributions, infer that what they’re doing today is lacking, and interpret questions as insubordination. People primarily resist as they detect a conflict between the ‘new’ message and the activities for which they are currently accountable. By adjusting motivational structures prior to rolling out any ‘new’ direction, resistance can be almost entirely prevented, and risk greatly reduced.

What’s the #1 Risk Reducer

In combination with communication, the real risk reducer is accountability, as it’s applied to two areas:

1 – Leaders accountable to link change and culture – which is easy.

2 – Staff accountable to adjust actions to execute change – which is more effort, but crucial, in terms of delivering expected change.

1 – Leaders accountable to link change and culture

Leaders, you must convey that the desired change:

“If you honor their past, they’ll let you take them to the future.”

  • Is a natural reaction to industry/ market pressures just as previous successful organization or system changes were responses to internal/external demands.
  • Has NOT been caused by staff negligence for staff perform as directed by their leaders.
  • Can be accomplished by committed, talented staff, if the same previously demonstrated passion, diligence, care, and/or perseverance is again applied.

In short, it’s about showing respect for staff’s previous (and current) efforts. As I tell leaders, “If you honor their past, they’ll let you take them to the future.”

Linking change and culture is relatively easy, while the next step takes a little more time and investigation, it is crucial and yields engaged change.

2 – Staff accountable for adjusted actions

It’s important to remember staff are already being held accountable for actions that support the old way of doing things which may or may not specifically support the intended change. Adjustments are needed to ensure staff actions support the new.

In addition, this step involves limited process analysis so be sure the change team has process and not just administrative experience, otherwise their suggestions may impede rather than increase progress.

First – break the change down by area, by role, to identify not what they need to accomplish by year-end, but a few daily and weekly activity changes which will contribute to the change. The required total interview time is small, typically half the work hours represented by a one-hour, all-hands call, but worth every minute.

Second – describe your suggested adjusted activities within their performance management assessments, to communicate that these value-adding behaviors will be evaluated in future compensation and promotional decisions.

Why this works?


Staff want to be shown respect for their past and present contributions. I have seen change programs subtly convey that staff deficiencies led to the present situation. This impression can doom a change. By communicating appreciation for staff’s previous and current contributions and highlighting the innovation and extra effort involved, leaders show respect, open minds, and invite participation to reduce risk and smooth adoption.

Relevant Time-Frame

Leaders err when they think year-end goals clearly communicate what people must do differently within their roles. Long-term employees can have trouble comprehending a different way of performing their roles and decision time-frames within front-line jobs are closer to days and weeks than years. With few exceptions, faced with annual targets, employees endeavor to more diligently perform current activities, leaving your change unexecuted. A senior Toyota executive reminded me, “It’s the daily improvements not the results.” Toyota focuses on what individuals can do differently today to deliver on tomorrow – a good perspective.

Employees Want to Contribute

I have never seen employees offended by a brief but sincere effort to suggest a few ways they could more significantly contribute each week. Millennials, especially, want to feel they’ve moved their organization ahead each week. In interviews with hundreds of high-performers, I am continually surprised to hear that my hour with them was the first time in their careers when someone cared enough to ask about their jobs and help them identify how they might better contribute.

In summary

To skillfully manage change, ensure leaders should be accountable to present the change as a natural extrapolation of the organization’s growth, achievable as employees again demonstrate the passion and persistence from your collective history.

Ensure key roles are accountable for weekly adjustments individuals can make to execute the change. List these within their performance assessments to demonstrate the intention to reward contribution.

The result will be a greater sense of engagement, accomplishment, and ownership and another professionally managed project to add to your portfolio.

Got Changes to Make? Don’t Stop Short!

We all have changes to make. New systems to adapt to, new targets to hit, and new partners with which to collaborate. Most of us quickly reach for a PowerPoint deck. For others to see a visible change, however, don’t stop there.

Leaders draw energy from inspiring presentations and when shown new information we’ll attempt to incorporate it into our activities. Our personal values compel us to try and influence our actions more than our work environment.

The difficulty is, we assume our employees will react in the same way to our presentations, but most often, they won’t. This assumption makes it easy for us to over-rely on communication, resulting in less-than-expected behavior change. Most current change programs share this assumption.

Why do employees respond differently?

They see our presentations, hear what we say, and may briefly experiment with concepts, but the vast majority return to what they were previously doing because the work environment exerts pressure to maintain current activities. For employees, what they are accountable for is a more influential communicator than you or I.

An analogy may help us visualize employee behavior.

Imagine a spider sitting on a web in a doorway, with parts of its web connected to the top and sides of the doorframe. Now re-imagine the door frame is your organization and the strands of web connected to it are various accountabilities for process, reporting or other activities, and finally replace the spider in the middle with the current set of employee actions.

Employees’ actions are then a product, a balance, a trade-off among all the things for which they are accountable. This is exactly my conclusion after studying organizational change efforts in 72 organizations for three years.

Giving a presentation and expecting employees to adjust is like trying to move the ‘spider’ without first adjusting the web. To move the ‘spider’ (employee activities) to a new position we must adjust accountabilities to allow people to move to a revised, more optimal, equilibrium.

Have leaders always assumed employees will respond as we try to? Apparently. King Solomon, a reportedly wise individual, refuted this way of thinking 3,000 years ago saying, “Servants cannot be corrected with just words, though they understand, they won’t respond.”

Solomon observed that words give understanding but don’t change accountabilities – the reason activities stay where they are.

So, continue to give presentations as they build understanding and are a sign of our respect for employees’ intellects, ideas, and contributions. Just don’t stop there if you want behavior to change.
Modify leaders’ and employees’ accountabilities to motivate people to reset their daily actions in line with your goals.

Solomon summarized:

  • Words alone = understanding but little impact.
  • Words + accountability adjustments = understanding + rapid, substantial, long-lasting impact.

I think most employees know words don’t have the ‘change’ power we often think they have.

One multi-billion-dollar client organization needed to improve leadership, trust, work-culture, and operational issues across an essential service, 400-person division. Division leaders were so busy they routinely missed their own departmental meetings.

Our team distilled 35 different agendas down to common behavioral elements and suggested accountability changes to align leaders’ and later employees’ actions to this simplified agenda.

In a two-hour, Tuesday morning session, we presented to division leaders the consolidated agenda and specific changes to their accountabilities. Included were such radical suggestions as: leaders should listen to employees, ask for their opinions, and actually attend their own departments’ regular meetings.

Three days later, as our meeting coordinator walked through the division’s office area, two employees propelled her into the lunch room, asking, “Our manager went to a meeting on Tuesday morning led by two outside individuals. What did they do to our manager?”

The coordinator didn’t know how to respond. The employees continued saying, “Our manager went to that meeting Tuesday morning. He attended our departmental meeting that same afternoon and for the first time he listened to us, asked our opinion on things, and scared us half to death. What did they do to our manager?”

She explained the meeting outlined the simplified agenda which included operational and leadership actions like attending departmental meetings and asking for opinions prior to leaders sharing their own.

Here’s the important part. The two employees responded with, “Is this just a speech? Because around here speeches only last a week or two.”

There it is. In many previous instances these employees had seen ‘new’ ideas and initiatives come and quickly disappear. Think Solomon’s ‘just words’ and the web of accountabilities which hold activities.

The coordinator told them no, it wasn’t a speech. These leadership behaviors were now included in leaders’ annual performance assessments and that no one would get a raise unless they demonstrated these behaviors over the year.

“Oh,” the employees responded, “this will work then.” One division leader told us the behavioral impact of that Tuesday meeting (and its accountability changes) remained visible four years later.
I’d be happy to hear about your similar experiences with ‘words’ and actions.

Adapted from The Improvement Toolbox, by Keith N. Miles.

5 Things Millennials Want in a Work Environment #3 of 3

This third video is a 4-min. learning summary of what Millennials are looking for and the implications for organizations – what are some essential things we need to put into place to attract and retain this informed generation with outstanding potential.

5 Things Millennials Want in a Work Environment #2 of 3

This second of three videos – covers what millennials are looking for from the organizations they want to join and to stay with:

Linking to goals/objectives, feedback frequency, & people being compared to others or to what their role requires.

5 Things Millennials Want in a Work Environment #1 of 3

This first of three videos – covers what millennials are looking for from the organizations they want to join and to stay with:

from the entire work team and what type of guidance they expect.


How to Apply Belichick’s ‘Do Your Job’ – ‘Accountability’ 3 of 3

Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ success is due, in part, to his ‘Do Your Job’ philosophy. Third of three quick videos about how we can apply ‘Do Your Job’.
This video covers the ‘Accountability’ element.

How to Apply Belichick’s ‘Do Your Job’- ‘Actions’ 2 of 3

Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ success is due, in part, to his ‘Do Your Job’ philosophy. Second of three quick videos about how we can apply ‘Do Your Job’.

This video covers the ‘Actions & Behaviors’ element.

How to Apply Belichick’s ‘Do Your Job’ – ‘Time’ 1 of 3

Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ success is due, in part, to his ‘Do Your Job’ philosophy. First of three quick videos about how we can apply ‘Do Your Job’. This video covers the ‘Time’ element.

2016 World Series – A Display of Leadership

Besides breaking the ‘loveable’ Chicago Cubs’ 108 year-long drought and giving fans lasting memories from exciting, gut-wrenching games, the 2016 World Series was also a showcase of leadership.

Chicago’s Joe Maddon steered his team to baseball’s best record but found themselves down three games to one due to Terry Francona’s deft handling of a beaten up, but now, white-hot Cleveland team.

The post-game new conferences revealed both skippers’ unshakeable faith in their teams, their confidence in moving forward, but also their sincere respect for their opponents. This was an honor for each team, their managers said, and despite each teams’ flat-out commitment to ‘leave everything on the field’, this once-in-a-lifetime, competitive ‘battle’ never became personal.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines sportsmanship as “conduct (as fairness, respect for one’s opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing) becoming to one participating in a sport.”
While electric pitching and defence were clearly evident, what was notably absent was individual grandstanding, vindictive retaliations, or over-aggressive contact. The 2016 World Series was a clarion demonstration of the absolute best possible play without the poor sportsmanship and trash talk for which we have all become too familiar.

Both Maddon and Francona modeled both excellent management and sportsmanship in front of their players and fans. During pauses in play, opponents chatted light-heartedly as they stood at their bases. Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor grinned and patted Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber’s injured and braced knee after Kyle surprised many with a steal of second base. Schwarber’s only response, a wry smile.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The 2016 World Series should be remembered, not only for its history, but also for its purity.[/pullquote]

The 2016 World Series should be remembered, not only for its history, but also for its purity. The two best work cultures in baseball showed us anew that it is still possible to compete ferociously, while still smiling, caring, and enjoying a game. When I coached, the highest compliment was when our opponents said that our team fought hard, but we were also good sports.

Thank you Joe Maddon, Terry Francona, and both your organizations, because we really need examples like you today.

Transform Your Next Strategy Update – 5 Attainable Difference-Makers

Most organizations neglect elements which, if included, could maximize a strategy update.

Five strategy-rollout optimizers to discuss in your next management team meeting:

Transform Your Strategy Update

One – Broaden the description to show respect

  • Describe to staff what needs to change but go beyond a minimal description of underlying reasons and summarize industry, competitive, and organizational issues.
  • The expanded description demonstrates respect for the intellectual resources at all levels and will encourage people to broaden their decision-making and embrace your strategy.

Two – Break down expectations so they’re relevant.

  • Describe what the organization as a whole must achieve but go beyond to give examples, for major departments, of things each must accomplish to activate the strategy.
  • It is often surprising how focused people can be on their own areas (also the reason for #1 above), so provide departmental examples to make your intent easier for everyone to grasp.

Three – Bring down timelines so it’s daily

  • Describe the timeline for overall goals but also go beyond to give examples, for major departments, of things each can do daily, weekly to activate your revised strategy.
  • Work-related timelines shrink, from months to days, as you move from administration to service delivery. Translate your strategy into a few daily examples to maximize engagement.

Four – Back them up so it’s team

  • Describe what you expect from your organization and its departments but go beyond to tell them one or two personal activities which you, yourself, will change to contribute in some way.
  • This worthwhile step may surprise a few. Elite leaders inspire by their actions and don’t miss an opportunity to demonstrate that they, too, are part of the team.

Five – Base it on facts so it’s active

  • New strategies keep organizations viable and agile, but any rollout is futile unless lower level departments go beyond words and respond with concrete changes in what they do.
  • Too many middle managers falsely believe verbal suggestions are all that’s required to adjust direct reports’ activities. Leaders know this and find ways to verify actions have been revised.

Please add a comment if you and your team found this helpful.