Generating Momentum for Change Initiatives

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Change is inseparable from the future of work as organizations aim to build resilience in the midst of uncertainty. To generate truly valuable change, companies need to commit to sustaining transformation programs over time.

Yet, leaders often neglect the long-term imperative when faced with the temptations of short-term gains. Or, businesses may underestimate the difficulty of sustaining long-term change by oversimplifying the approaches needed to embed change in the behaviors of employees across the company.

According to John Kotter’s “Leading Change,” unsuccessful transitions almost always flounder during at least one of the following phases: generating a sense of urgency, establishing a powerful guiding coalition, planning for and creating short-term wins, and avoiding premature declarations of victory.

The best way to master a new language is to commit to learning and practicing often. Similarly, enablement must take the time to create conditions where reps can immerse themselves into the shared vision and fuel excitement around change to drive long-term adoption.

Establish a Sense of Urgency

The most effective way to start a transformation program is to increase urgency across the organization, as successful change efforts require the aggressive cooperation of motivated employees. Enablement teams can underestimate the difficulties of challenging the status quo, or overestimate their success in increasing urgency. Practitioners can become paralyzed by the downside possibilities, worrying that the reps impacted will become defensive, morale will drop, or that short-term business results may be jeopardized.

Without establishing compelling urgency, reps will put even the most important initiatives on the back burner. Kotter lists the common sources of complacency in establishing urgency, which can ultimately harm change efforts:

  • Absence of a visible crisis
  • A kill-the-messenger, passive-aggressive culture
  • Human tendency for denial
  • Too much optimism from senior management
  • Lack of sufficient performance feedback from external sources
  • Internal metrics that focus on the wrong behaviors
  • Low performance standards
  • Organizational structures that focus employees on narrow, functional goals rather than larger business impact
  • Too many visible resources

In more successful change efforts, enablement must actively facilitate a frank discussion of unpleasant facts, whether it is about a lack of revenue growth, flat earnings, or other relevant indicators of a declining competitive position. This requires practitioners to delicately position maintaining the status quo as more dangerous than launching into risky change.

Kotter recommends several strategies that can be leveraged by practitioners to remove complacency sources and demand bold action:

  • Bring in objective third-party observers such as analysts or consultants to force candid conversations across the organization, combatting low-confrontational culture
  • Encouraging transparency company-wide, from the top-down
  • Holding reps accountable to broad business performance goals
  • Highlighting data on performance openly and often with reps, especially when it highlights weakness
  • Reviewing customer complaints or deal losses regularly on a weekly or monthly basis
  • Setting tough revenue, sales productivity, or sales performance targets for reps that cannot be reached by conducting business as usual

“It’s really important that we are attaching our solutions to the biggest problems,” said Nicola Bain, global sales enablement director at Infovista. “It’s working through, with [reps], on those numbers so they really understand what the value is to them.”

Empower Broad Action

In successful transformations, senior leaders, frontline managers, sales reps, and other revenue-facing teams develop a shared commitment to business objectives through change. Although establishing a high sense of urgency within the managerial ranks can help enormously in empowering broad action, practitioners will need to work with stakeholders to collectively identify and eliminate barriers that hinder the change effort.

“[Change is] about working with key stakeholders across the business, across the sales organization,” said Bain. “It’s about alignment with the business. It’s about agreeing what the priorities and the initiatives are and then executing on those…It’s not doing anything in isolation, it’s absolutely hand-in-glove working with the business.”

To foster enthusiasm for change and remove obstacles to empowerment, Kotter describes the following as specific steps to consider:

  1. Communicate sensible vision: In successful transformation efforts, practitioners effectively broadcast the purpose of the change to gain widespread understanding and support from reps. Enablement must help leaders communicate consistently and broadly, by incorporating messages into hour-by-hour activities and maximizing all existing communication channels.
  2. Align structures or systems with the vision: Change requires eliminating or restructuring of reward systems, performance measurements, employee skill development—any organizational procedures, systems, or structures that were established to support the status quo. Furthermore, change demands activity outside of formal boundaries, expectations, and protocol to promote broad action. Consider investing in setting up a change network—a structure outside of the normal hierarchy, featuring employees in all levels across the enterprise—to promote opportunities to explore and understand change, empowering broad action among employees who are not part of senior management.
  3. Confront leaders that undercut change: Practitioners need to foster company-wide action by confronting any senior leaders who attempt to undercut change, as transformation efforts are not sustainable unless organizational leaders serve as visible change champions for reps. According to Kotter, the coalition leading change efforts must always be powerful in terms of titles, information and expertise, reputations, and relationships. In addition, resistant managers who are ignored can become significant obstacles to implementing change.
  4. Provide training employees need: By providing comprehensive training and coaching, enablement can position reps to better support the change vision. More specifically, practitioners will help reps accept and succeed with the changes. Providing the resources and infrastructure for sellers to adopt new skills will allow them to do well in their jobs, and give them a stake in the development and management of change.

“Enablement can help by creating support materials and delivering guidance and training throughout,” said Helen Cummins, sales enablement leader. “Your audience needs to be including both leaders and individuals affected by the changes. Efforts could include webinars that [enablement] puts on, guides and presentations, [and] helping to modify the business processes.”

Generate Short-Term Wins

Celebrating success is extremely valuable for the long-term change marathon. Reliable practitioners will need to maintain the change effort by creating short-term goals for reps to meet and celebrate, in order to ensure the transformation keeps its momentum over time.

When it becomes clear to people that major change will take time, urgency and enthusiasm naturally tend to decline. Most reps will not go on the long march unless they see compelling evidence that the change is producing positive, expected results within 12 to 24 months.

Kotter describes the following as characteristics of good short-term wins:

  • Visible and tangible to a large number of people
  • Unambiguous; there is little argument over the results
  • Clearly related to the change effort

If people argue over the outcome or struggle to clearly see its impact, it’s not a win that can boost the credibility of the renewal process.

In successful change initiatives, sales enablement actively looks for ways to obtain clear performance improvements, plan for short-term goals, help reps achieve the objectives, and reward reps involved with recognition and promotions. According to Kotter, there are six ways short-term wins work in relation to the change:

  • Fine-tune vision and strategy: Short-term wins help change leaders regularly check-in and engage in detailed analytical thinking. Such feedback about the clarity and viability of their vision allows practitioners to test and revise strategies early on.
  • Evidence that sacrifices are worth it: Wins can help justify any short-term costs that may be involved and create the credibility needed to change any existing systems, structures, or policies that run counter to the long-term vision.
  • Reward change agents: Positive feedback can build morale and motivation.

“You want to raise visibility of short-term wins,” said Cummins. “I have found it really important to publicly recognize and reward people who are moving things in the right direction. It really sets the right tone.”

  • Undermine cynics: Obvious wins and improvements in performance can help better manage resistance, as reps can see the value of change in achieving higher performance.
  • Keep leaders on board: Short-term wins can provide evidence to managers that the change effort is on track and has measurable value, enticing them to see the effort through.
  • Build momentum: Visible wins can convert neutral employees into supporters and passive supporters into active champions.

“When [reps] start implementing that change, we celebrate their success,” said Aaron Evans, director of sales enablement at GlobalData PLC. “Then they become a totem for the organization of, ‘if you make these changes, you will succeed, you will do well.’”

Leverage Progress to Produce More Change

In a long transformation effort, reps and leaders may be tempted to declare victory with the first clear performance improvement. Often, it’s a combination of change initiators and change resistors who declare the war won: enthusiastic initiators go overboard in celebrating a clear sign of progress, while resistors declare victory to quickly stop additional changes from occurring. While celebrating a battle won is fine, a premature victory celebration can be catastrophic.

Until useful changes have become embedded deep in a company’s culture, new approaches are fragile and vulnerable to regression. If renewal efforts come to a halt, change will slowly disappear over time. To ensure that tradition does not creep back in and that new behaviors remain, Kotter describes the following strategies for enablement to leverage the progress of transformation efforts:

  • More change, not less: Practitioners can use credibility from short-term wins to tackle more, and bigger, change initiatives, broaden the scope of new reengineering projects, or examine systems and structures that are inconsistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before.
  • More help: With greater credibility and evidence of the value of the early changes, practitioners have more capital and momentum for bringing in more stakeholders or promoting change leaders to tackle the next level of challenges.
  • Leadership from senior management: Practitioners can help senior leaders continue clarifying the shared purpose and urgency behind the new approaches, behaviors, and attitudes.
  • Project management and leadership from below: Enablement can use change success to task reps with leading and managing specific projects, resulting in stronger change operations and meaningful growth opportunities.
  • Reduction of unnecessary interdependencies: To make change easier in both the short and long-term, enablement can leverage a win to identify and eliminate unnecessary interdependencies that support the status quo.

Generating momentum for change is about raising sights beyond the strategic choices and daily initiatives to reform how the sales organization works. For reps, successful change efforts can produce growth in knowledge and skills, constant innovation, frequent recognition, and small, attainable incentives for participation.

“The biggest change is to get people’s mindsets around supporting the vision and implementing the changes and then sticking to the new way of doing things,” said Cummins.

The key to sustaining a transformation is to embed a high sense of urgency, empower broad action, create short-term wins, and leverage progress to drive continuous innovation.

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