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Releasing change in today’s complex workforce

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ReleaseMany change projects fail but is this because organisations are still focusing on driving change and not releasing it? Clare Roberts and Kate Spencer explore the importance of inspiring, enabling and encouraging change in people and their behaviours.


Have you ever considered why, despite a well-structured change approach with a clear vision, defined deliverables and a disciplined project office, the right level of progress and the anticipated benefits of your organisation’s change programme just haven’t been delivered?

It is received wisdom that 70% of change projects fail. We believe that this is because, although organisations have become more effective at structuring programmes to be business and outcome-led rather than technology or process-led, they are still focusing primarily on driving change and missing out a key piece – that of releasing change.

By ‘releasing’ we mean how we inspire, enable, encourage and facilitate change in people and their behaviours. It is about creating energy, motivation, collaboration and dialogue – how we ensure that the organisation, its employees and leaders, have the knowledge, skill and aptitude to make change sustainable.

“The impact of missing these ‘releasing’ aspects of change is that people are often driven, top-down, to conform with or accept the change without actually buying into it.”

The impact of missing these ‘releasing’ aspects of change is that people are often driven, top-down, to conform with or accept the change without actually buying into it – this approach fails to engage people’s hearts and minds, and they don’t make the corresponding shift in attitudes, mindsets and behaviours.

Short-term gains may be made but the different ways of working, required to sustain change and release longer-term benefits just won’t happen. In fact, enforced change requires longer-term policing and bureaucracy which takes up valuable management time and energy.

So how do you get your employees engaged in the process? We have developed a change framework that is structured around four stages which reflect the change journey – making it essential; making it ready; making it happen; and making it stick. But our approach also recognises that change is an iterative and winding path and not a linear one.

To help organisations follow this challenging change path to a successful outcome, we recommend a balance between the driving, programmatic approaches to change and the releasing, people aspects of change.

Getting the balance

In addition to creating the case for change, designing new organisational models, systems and processes and managing the change programme, all of which are clearly important, we also focus on three critical, people-centred challenges:

  • Enabling change leadership

  • Engaging and enabling people

  • Embedding new behaviours.

Enabling change leadership involves supporting experienced and successful leaders to think, converse and engage with staff in a way that is congruent with the change they are seeking. Often this means helping change leaders abandon thinking that is grounded in the past and instead to anchor their way of working to the desired future state. This can be achieved using one-to-one coaching and a variety of different exercises such as stepping into another’s shoes, before and after scenarios and future worlds.

Equipping leaders with the attitudes and skills to create employee participation and involvement is also key to success. This can be achieved through training and coaching leaders in employee engagement techniques and equipping them to take action following two-way communication and feedback.

Emotional impact

“Equipping leaders with the attitudes and skills to create employee participation and involvement is key to success.”

Engaging and enabling people is all about helping people through the change – creating an on-going dialogue with stakeholders, equipping people with new skills and involving them in change activities. Change has a strong emotional impact, and people need support to respond positively with both heart and mind to the future vision. Using approaches such as story-telling can bring a vision to life, and help people connect with what is happening. In short, comprehensive and diverse communication and involvement is central to meeting this challenge.

Embedding new behaviours involves clarifying and defining the desired future culture and ways of working, assessing the current culture, and working with people to creating lasting shifts in behaviour. To achieve this, change managers need to understand not only the obvious barriers to behavioural change, such as processes, rules and systems, but the ‘unwritten’ values, attitudes and signs and symbols that reinforce current norms in an organisation.

We have seen that making subtle or symbolic changes, such as the provision of spill-free mugs in a call centre, or reducing the requirements to wear a uniform at all times within a Fire Service, can have a significant impact on how people think and feel about the organisation and therefore how they behave.

To address these three people-centred challenges a range of change tools and techniques can be used that help individuals become willing participants rather than passive observers or active blockers of change. Some of the more familiar techniques include leadership and management development, coaching, change agency and reward and recognition. We have also applied other new and innovative approaches such as business theatre, world café, social movements and mediation.

By blending the releasing aspects of change with strong programme management, organisations can ensure sustainable change is delivered.

How to deliver bottom-up change

We have used a co-design approach with a public sector organisation, equipping staff to promote and deliver bottom-up change. The work was built around social movements thinking and uses a wide range of creative techniques such as social network analysis, social marketing campaigns, storytelling and appreciative inquiry. The success of this project is evidenced through an increase in the reported levels of organisational energy, improvements in staff engagement and, perhaps most importantly, the feedback from staff who say they are proud to have made a difference and really changed their local workplace.


Clare Roberts is a managing consultant, and Kate Spencer is a principal consultant, at PA Consulting Group.

One Response

  1. Great Advice!
    Releasing change is a beautiful concept – very expressive of the latent energy that exists in every community or social system. I think you are right in saying that traditional approaches fail to engage people’s hearts and minds. And this is the source of so many botched attempts. Your approach steers in a different, more productive direction, recognizing the force that is available when the spirit of change is activated. Well done.

    You might be interested in the blog post on Fast Company magazine’s Leading Change, in particular, “Creating Authentic Engagement for Change.” It can be read here: http://tiny.cc/seth234

    Like you I have found story to be a powerful tool. The annual Organizational Storytelling conference is in Washington, DC, this April 17 & 18. All the information on that event can be found here: http://tiny.cc/story473

    Many thanks for a well-written piece,
    Seth – [email protected]

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