How to maintain your change program (when everything else changes)

Robbie Tilleard
Team Humu

At Humu, our nudges help leaders and organizations translate high-level strategy into action. In the Time Before COVID, that meant we focused on helping people be more resilient, collaborative, growth orientated, innovative, customer-centric and digitally-savvy (to name a few).

Then, COVID hit. Suddenly, our customers’ employees were juggling multiple responsibilities, hours rapidly shifted away from the standard 9-5, online collaboration increased (by one estimate) by 19% and five years of digital transformation happened overnight. When asked about the greatest difficulties faced by government, former UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillian allegedly replied, “events, dear boy, events.” Most boardrooms would undoubtedly agree.

Over the last six months, companies have dealt with one of the most unprecedented events in modern history, rolling with the punches, and reacting to daily changes. Yet now, even as second waves occur across the world, it does seem like we are at the end of the beginning. The situation is still shocking - but it is no longer new. We’re starting to see companies look up from the immediate needs of the moment and look back at those challenges of the Time Before COVID. They haven’t gone away. If anything, they feel more acute and the challenge of transforming their organizations even harder. As an example, the number of companies that see digital transformation as a strategic priority has increased from 50% pre-COVID to 80% today.

Over the past six months, we've worked closely with leaders at FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies as they managed immediate needs. Now, we see three key themes across our customers who are not only emerging from the initial stages of COVID but coming back even stronger than before: creating a fresh start, finding certainty, and focusing on people.

1. Creating a fresh start

“Fresh starts, anything from Mondays to birthdays to going back to the office after a pandemic, are all moments when we’re more willing to tackle big goals,” Humu advisor and Wharton Professor Katy Milkman shared with us during a recent webinar.

In the UK, the percentage of people who recently worked from home shot up from 12% pre-COVID to 47% by April 2020. There has been an avalanche of digital change and shifts to ways of working.

Before the snow hardens leading organizations are thinking hard about how they can help their people make a fresh start - rethinking previous orthodoxies and finding new approaches that deliver value to employees and the business. For example, pre-COVID, we spoke to one learning and development leader who ran a rigorous evaluation of whether manager training (an industry worth over $200bn a year) was working at their organization. They found in-person manager training had absolutely no impact on managers or their employees. Despite this evidence, they still couldn’t convince their organization to drop training. The response was ‘well at least it isn’t doing any harm’.

Now, post-COVID the same leader is looking at innovative ways to provide learning and development unconstrained by the status-quo and based on the evidence of what actually works (like, for instance, nudges).  

2. Finding certainty (within uncertainty)

External events and the ebb and flow of COVID are difficult to predict. With our customers and across organizations, we see the best leaders understanding what is and what is not in their control. A significant part of this is their approach to leading people.

In March, Humu made a set of modified remote work nudges, small bite-sized tips for those adjusting to working from home, available to anyone who wanted them. When we surveyed which nudges participants found the most helpful, those that drove connection to colleagues, better collaboration, and helped manage stress came out on top. One person replied that they took action on a nudge to ask people how they were coping with the pandemic - ‘I discovered...what was happening to team members and how they were handling the difficulties, that helped me feel closer to the team and set a better agenda too’. In our work with customers, we’ve found people are best able to adjust to COVID when personal flexibility, empathetic leadership, clear team norms, and emotional support are present.

In other words, the factors that help people adjust to change and regain stability are utterly within a leader’s control through their approach and processes. In turn, finding certainty within our uncertain times gives companies the platform they need to continue their change agendas.

3. Focusing on people

Famously, most transformation efforts fail. The cost to individual companies runs to hundreds of millions and to the economy - trillions. At Humu, when we see large-scale transformation efforts succeed there is normally one key differentiator: the company has created a successful people-driven movement for change. Their employees are champions of the transformation, understand why it is required and are ready for the inevitable times of delight and disappointment.

The pandemic has not changed this simple truth - indeed it has only, from our experience, strengthened its importance. Vitally, during successful change programs it is not only the top or the frontline that are open to learning new skills, trying new approaches and embracing a new culture - it is felt even in the ‘murky middle management’ of organizations where many change efforts stall.

Our customers use Humu specifically for this purpose - activating the whole organization around their change agenda through nudges. The results speak for themselves with real gains in productivity, happiness and the achievement of both the quick and long-term wins essential to any large-scale change program.

Interestingly, it has long been known that people are the key to any successful change effort. Some 70% of large-scale change programs fail to meet their goals yet 96% of transformations are successful when they properly empower employees (alongside having a clear plan and the right tools to execute change). Companies suffer from what Jeff Pfeffer and Robert Sutton describe as the ‘knowing-doing gap’.

Most leaders and managers know that empowering people during a change program is essential for its success - but they struggle to find the approaches and tools to execute. We see customers succeed where they have closed this gap and execute on the basic steps required to implement change (with a little help from Humu). Indeed, we sometimes get feedback that our nudges seem ‘obvious’ or ‘common-sense’. However, if we dig a little deeper to understand if these actions are actually taking place in organizations, the answer is often a bashful ‘’.

The best organizations recognize the importance of people to their change efforts and take the basic steps to ignite a sustainable transformation program. Ultimately, successful companies are now returning to the key priorities of the Time Before COVID. Within this, they are asking the key questions of how they can help their people and ensure employees are resilient and ready for the continued changes that lie ahead.

Our work over the last six months shows organizations that create fresh starts, find certainty in uncertain times, and focus on their people are well placed to accelerate their change programs and manage the times we live in. The prescription may seem obvious, but reflect for a moment, are you doing it?

If you would like to know more about how Humu can help empower your people and accelerate your change program contact us here

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