Learning: How Change Management Is Done

Proven tactics and tools HR professionals can use to create targeted learning that supports holistic change.


By Sue Kennedy, Chris Musselwhite, and Tammie Plouffe, Discovery Learning Inc.          

Despite decades of research on change management, almost 70 percent of organizational change efforts fail. John Kotter, Harvard professor and change management guru, says they fail because organizations don’t take the holistic approach required to achieve and maintain change.

In his effort to increase the success of change initiatives, Kotter devised 8-Steps for Leading Change, a set of tactics tailored to eight critical stages in the change process.

Kotter’s eight steps are:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Form a guiding coalition
  3. Create a vision
  4. Communicate the vision
  5. Empower others
  6. Plan for and create short-term wins
  7. Consolidate improvements and produce more change
  8. Institutionalize new approaches

These eight steps provide clear directions on the “what,” but fall a little short on the “how.”

That’s where change initiatives derail. While most senior executives realize learning is critical to achieving meaningful change, many don’t realize it takes more than a few classroom or online training sessions to achieve the level of learning necessary to make the difference between success and failure. That’s where HR comes in.

Front-line training professionals responsible for the learning behind any change initiative know that true change can only be achieved through a process of targeted learning that does two things:

  1. Sells the desired change to the people who have to make it happen
  2. Teaches those people (and gets them to adopt) the new behaviors required to make the change happen

Following Kotter’s eight steps, here are some proven tactics and tools HR professionals can use to create targeted learning that supports holistic change, giving your organization’s next change initiative a higher chance of success.

Establish a Sense of Urgency

According to Kotter, at least half of failed change efforts are due to a failure to establish a sense of urgency around the targeted change early in the process. To make sure everyone understands the need for change, initiatives should engage all employees, right from the start. Suggested tactics include customized engagement surveys, culture surveys, 360-degree assessments of management, and employee focus groups. Surveys and assessments provide benchmarks to evaluate progress. Focus groups can illuminate and validate the findings of engagement and culture surveys, provided they are held soon after.

Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition

To lead change, Kotter states that you must make sure an influential group leads the change effort. To do this, HR should create Shared Learning Experiencesfor the management team. These experiences give leaders a common understanding of challenges and opportunities involved and create a bond around the need for change. As part of the shared learning experiences, leaders should be led in the development of Action Planning Themes—common themes around which all action and communication in the initiative will be organized. These themes can be drawn from feedback provided by the engagement and culture surveys, and their development reinforces the need for the change.     

To help leaders communicate the change, develop a Case for Change—a clearly articulated rationale behind the need for the change to communicate and sell the need for the change consistently and compellingly.

Finally, have the leaders communicate the Action Planning Themesand the Case for Changeto all levels of the organization. Their enthusiasm and participation will be instrumental in engaging others in the need for the change.

Create a Vision

Creating a vision helps everyone understand why they are being asked to change. When people understand the objectives, the directives they’re given, and the changes they are asked to implement, they tend to make more sense, reducing resistance.

Once a coalition is formed and trained to communicate the change, a participatory, hands-on experiential learning experience can provide the deep and lasting understanding of exactly what change needs to occur, why, and how to accomplish it.

Communicate the Vision

Thanks to the power of the shared experiential learning, everyone will gain a renewed sense of the urgency as they form a bond around the change. To take advantage of this enthusiasm, a good follow-up tactic is to have leaders create compelling personal “elevator pitches” for communicating the vision and need for change.

The process of creating these talking points empowers leaders, enabling them to communicate and model the behaviors required to make the change. The success rate of change initiatives increases dramatically when leaders communicate and actively model the change they are advocating.

Empower Others to Act

To sustain the momentum, it’s crucial to transfer the knowledge and training from any learning solutions providers to your organization’s HR team. This transfer of knowledge is critical to your company’s ability to lead and implement future change efficiently and cost-effectively.

This can be done with train-the-trainer sessions to certify your organization in the tools used. Putting additional personnel at all levels of the organization through the experiential learning and communications skill training will help reinforce the vision and equip more people to effectively communicate current and future change.

Plan for and Create Short-Term Wins

It’s important to ensure people feel they are making progress. Do this through measurable goals and action plans, working with team leaders to implement and follow progress being made at every level. Hosting e-learning sessions with regional or divisional leaders to share best practices and success stories is effective.

As the initiative progresses, administering additional engagement surveys and shared results demonstrates the organization is changing, which will continue to bring enthusiasm to the initiative.

Consolidate Improvement and Produce Still More Change

Noting that many change projects fail because victory is declared too early, Kotter’s seventh step calls for the quick integration of changes achieved even as additional change is produced. In other words: Keep up the momentum.

This can include more experiential learning, peer coaching and leadership assessments, monthly conference calls to keep everyone informed of successes and results, and more employee and customer surveys. It pays to encourage leaders to share successes with reports. This facilitates better two-way communication, reinforces the learning, and supports desired new behaviors.

Institutionalize New Approaches

Making the case for his final step, Kotter says that in order to make change stick, it must become part of the organization’s core; i.e., evidence of the changes must be visible in the company’s daily processes and procedures. In other words, you must institutionalize new approaches as quickly as possible. For example, train-the-trainer sessions can be a critical factor in institutionalizing the new approach to management and communication, as they help to ensure the organization’s ability to implement future change in partnership with HR.

Likewise, positive word of mouth about the experiential learning can spur desire among all employees for future hands-on learning experiences. This final step, institutionalizing the new approach, ensures the organization is “living” the change it has been implementing, and not just talking about it.

Sue Kennedyis a Learning Solution Consultant from Discovery Learning IncChris Musselwhiteis President ofDiscovery Learning IncTammie Plouffeis the principle at Innovative Pathways and a Discovery Learning Inc.associate.