Lessons Learned During Transformational Change: Look to Your Past to Inform Your Present

Posted by Paula Alsher on Thu, Dec 01, 2016 @ 10:12 AM

One of the critical elements for achieving implementation success on a transformational change is knowing what the climate is like for the change you are trying to introduce. Your project isn't being introduced into a hermetically-sealed environment.  Instead, you are implementing your change into an environment that is being significantly shaped by perceptions of past experiences, and what is going on in the present.  That’s an important AIM change management methodology principle: No change occurs in isolation. It occurs in the context of all those priorities competing for resources (stress) and all the lessons previously learned about implementation (history). Look to Your Past During Transformational Change


Look to Your Past for Lessons Learned

A key factor in predicting the likelihood of future implementation success is the pattern of implementation results achieved during previous projects.  That’s the reason why there is great value in looking at past history as part of your change management process.

In a perfect world, all of your past implementations will have gone well and the lessons learned from them will be positive. Effective strategies from the past can then be reviewed and systematically applied to the present. 

However, in our 30+ years of Change Management Consulting work we typically don’t see such a rosy picture of the past.  In fact, the data we collect through our Implementation History Assessment often reflects a virtual cemetery of dead and buried projects.  Unfortunately, memories of these skeletons can linger on in an organization for years and re-surface as resistance to change for your current project. 

Either consciously or sub-consciously people ask, “Why will things be different this time?” Adding insult to injury, they may be right.  The fact is, past problematic behaviors are likely to be repeated because whether we like to acknowledge it or not, these behaviors represent a success pattern.  No behavior occurs in isolation—there either was or is a reward for that behavior!

The clear lesson here is that for transformational change success, you must make a conscious effort to understand the patterns and impacts of past practices in order to be successful in the present and future.  Owning your past implementation history can help build confidence for both the present and the future {Tweet This}.


3 Lessons Leaders May Be Teaching Right Now

During transformational change, knowingly or not, your Sponsors are teaching lessons everyday by their behavior. Unfortunately, they may not be the lessons you are intending, but they can be powerful none the less.

When Sponsors fall into any of the traps below, they teach the organization that the transformational change isn't that important. While this may be completely unintentional, these are powerful lessons that live on in the cultural mindset of the organization even after the current transformational change ends.


Lesson 1: Failing to Prioritize the Transformation and/or Provide Sufficient Resources 

The failure to prioritize a transformational change creates a climate that makes full optimization virtually impossible to achieve.  In many cases, senior leaders don't have a true picture of how much is going on in terms of projects and initiatives, what they are spending, and whether the projects fit with the overall strategy and mission.  With no clear picture of the number of changes, the use of resources, and the inter-dependencies between initiatives, leaders really can't make good decisions on what is a priority.  The end result is that leaders send the unintentional message that every project carries the same weight of importance and that the transformation is not important.


Lesson 2: Speaking to the Importance of the Transformation, but Failing to Change How They Are Personally Operating on a Daily Basis

If Sponsors at all levels of the organization continue to operate in the same way they always have (both individually and collectively), they teach their direct reports that nothing really has changed.  Sponsors must visibly demonstrate some personal sacrifice in order to signal that this change is truly and substantially different.  The Sponsors of the most successful transformations we have seen have been transparent about the difficulties of the journey and their personal sacrifice.


Lesson 3: Failing to Change What and How They are Reinforcing Their Direct Reports

There is no new system or process that will get fully implemented to value realization unless there is a corresponding shift in reinforcement between Sponsors and their direct reports.  Sponsors must reinforce their direct reports in ways that align with the future state of the transformation. These reinforcements must symbolize that “this change is different” and be tied directly to the transformation. Reinforcement includes positive rewards, but some degree of negative consequences must also be applied when the Sponsor observes behavioral non-compliance.  The emphasis is on the positive, but both are important!


Awareness of the lessons your leaders are teaching, your past implementation history, and the current climate can help identify where there are opportunities for acceleration and how to predict potential speed bumps for your transformation. What lessons are your leaders teaching? As they say, awareness is the first step, so Sponsor education is a necessary ingredient for achieving value realization for your transformation.

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Topics: Transformational Change, Leadership, Assessing the Change Climate