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

Studies continue to show that the majority of organisational change efforts do not succeed – a fairly consistent trend over the last 15 years. This is typically cited to be because of 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, I increasingly see organisations investing to evolve their change capability – facilitating ‘change sponsor’ training, investing in stronger project managers, trialling new communications mediums, considering behavioural economics etc.

What I don’t see as much of – 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 I’m 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. (As an aside, I have seen too many change surveys ask irrelevant questions for the sake of gathering data to present back to management, this is not listening!). 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 I’ve spoken to clients who delivered change at pace, without listening to their people, only to find it unravel 6 to 12 months later.

Yes, organisations 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 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, 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 delight customers? What makes the back-office work more efficiently? What helps support functions better connect to strategy? How can the solution build quality in 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 peoples’ 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 | PRINCIPAL AND CHANGE LEAD

Caro has over 14 years’ experience within consulting and financial services. As Gate One’s change lead, her professional focus is supporting organisations to design, activate and embed strategic transformation programmes, whilst applying creative approaches to facilitate and accelerate behaviour change.