Navigating change is a top strategic priority for middle market leaders today, whether that change comes from new demands in the market (e.g., evolving customer preferences), emerging technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence, 3D printing, Big Data), new regulations, or somewhere else.

Having the organizational capacity to changeto quickly adapt to emerging realitiesmay be the biggest competitive advantage any middle market company can have in today’s landscape of accelerating change. Unfortunately, the vast majority of change initiatives fail to deliver on expectations. 

Lior Arussy, author of Next is Now: 5 Steps for Embracing Change, conducted a study with Harvard Business Review that benchmarked 422 companies, asking executives about their success in driving change. The study uncovered a “success” rate of 9%. So, fewer than 1 in 10 companies saw the change initiatives actually deliver on their intended goals. Driving effective change initiatives takes a clear and careful coordination of your people, processes, and technology. Here are 7 steps for managing change successfully in your middle market company:

1. Identify what change is needed and define what success looks like

All change must begin with an accurate assessment of where you are now, identifying the gap between where you are and where you seek to go. Change is about closing that gap between the capabilities you have now and the capabilities you want to build in order to grow and seize emerging business opportunities. Middle market leaders need to define a strategic destination for the organization, and paint a picture of what a successful change management process would look like. It doesn’t matter whether the destination (i.e., the change) is a new product, a new go-to-market strategy, digital transformation, or anything else.

2. Present a strong case to stakeholders and gain buy-in

What contributes most to failed change initiatives? It’s when people within the organization don't understand the “why” behind the change. Arussy’s HBR study found that change initiatives failed because leadership didn’t effectively communicate the purpose and plan to stakeholders. Middle market leaders must answer the essential “why” questions clearly. Why this particular change? Why now? Why should we (individually and collectively) support the change? Your stakeholders will need you to make a strong case, which starts with answering the “why,” at the beginning of and throughout the entire change management process.


3. Make a roadmap/plan and define how progress will be measured

Middle market leaders need to realize that their organizations may be skeptical about change initiatives and have every right to be skeptical. Change is scary for most people. Change initiatives can stall and get bogged down right after the kickoff unless you have a clear roadmap in hand. As CEO, author, and change management expert Patty Azzarello explains it, “leaders have to define what happens in a clear way so that the organization can see the mile markers and the light posts. Because if you’re in an initiative that's going to take 12 or 18 months, the progress might not seem obvious in the first 6 months. You might be building infrastructure. You might be collecting information. If you're not charting the course all the way through, people can't see that you're going there.” Make and share the roadmap. 


4. Communicate, communicate, communicate

It is far better to over-communicate than under-communicate. Keep explaining why the change is necessary. Update people on the goals of the change initiative, about progress made, and where you’re going next. Whenever possible, couch the change as continuity. As a 2018 Harvard Business Review article explains it, “effective change leadership has to emphasize continuityhow what is central to ‘who we are’ as an organization will be preserved, despite the uncertainty and changes on the horizon.”

You might emphasize continuity through what Arussy calls your “core cause,” which is your middle market company’s mission of impacting other people. That core mission isn’t about pursuing profit, but about the impact your organization makes on others, most likely your customers. That impact doesn't change even if your strategies, tools, and tactics do change. This “change-as-continuity” message is about allowing your people to see that they are staying true to themselves and still serving their organizational mission, that the change initiative is about “how” you do what you do: strategies and tools may come and go, but not the team’s core identity and purpose/mission, which serve as a North Star to guide your middle market company.

5. Manage resistance and other obstacles

People naturally respond to change with fear, uncertainty, and resistance. Leaders who drive change sometimes think, “it's business. not personal.” But facing change is deeply personal and emotional. Leaders should start by opening up a safe space for the team to express objections, resistance, and fears as part of the change management process. When people bury their fears, these feelings don’t disappear into some black hole. Instead, they become hidden saboteurs that can undermine any change initiative. Effective change managers must enable and invite people to reflect, even upon the negative, so that individuals and the organization can start developing methods to embrace the change initiative. Your team needs to do this “emotional reckoning” before it can buy into any change. And if some team members, after expressing their emotions about the change, refuse to move beyond the negative, at least you’ve clearly identified the resistors, and can plan accordingly.


6. Celebrate milestones and success

Use celebrations and public recognition to reinforce the change initiative. Organize ways to recognize groups and individuals who embrace the change, making them “good examples” of the new normal you seek to drive. Use regular meetings and other communication structures as channels for recognition and rewards aligned with the change. Involve managers and supervisors in the decision-making process around these incentives. For low-cost celebration ideas, get your team together and brainstorm. Celebrating success not only increases morale but creates and reinforces buy-in even among the most skeptical employees.


7. Keep learning as you go

If your people don't apply the change to the concrete details of how they work each day (i.e., to their behaviors), they’ll simply revert back to the old ways of doing things, which will destroy or delay the change initiative. To get change to “stick,” you need to invest a disproportionate amount of time and energy into reinforcing the small details that create the larger change. 

How can you spur a culture that embraces change?

Start by empowering people to try new things without the fear of embarrassment. It starts with middle market leaders being open about their own failures and (more importantly) about what they learned from them. Instead of punishing and shaming failure, use it as a tool that can offer lessons learned to individual employees and to the wider organization. Like it or not, failing and building resilience is a key part of any change management process. As the Nobel Prize-winning Irish writer Samuel Beckett (“Waiting for Godot’) once advised: “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better each time.”