A fish going his own way on blackboard

Re-engineer. Reinvent. Rightsize. Reorganization. Restructure. Change over. Shift. Conversion. Turnaround. Just a few of the terms used to indicate transformation.

The ultimate goal of transformation is to respond to market changes by changing the way business operations are conducted and how goods and services are designed and delivered. The same can be said for the health care industry.

We are in the throes of major health care transformation and reform. But I submit to you that in both the private and public sectors, many change management efforts have fallen short. Yes, some have been successful, but we hear countless stories of change efforts that have fallen short or completely fallen flat. Most of these efforts end up somewhere in between, skewed toward the lower end of the scale. Think of the bell curve: outliers at each end; most folks fall somewhere in the middle, with the majority tilting towards the lower end.

Certainly this was not the intention of those leading unsuccessful change efforts. So what can we learn from this?

John P. Kotter, renowned for his work on leading organizational change, shared the results of his observations in a 1995 article (reprinted 2007) for the Harvard Business Review. He highlighted the biggest errors that can doom transformation efforts as well as the general lessons that can be gleaned from successful organizational transformations.

To know where you are going, you have to know where you came from. To the health care industry: listen up as Kotter’s observations still hold true many, many years later!

First, a general lesson from the more successful case examples is that the change process goes through a series of phases. Check. It’s also important to note that these phases usually require a considerable period of time and often the right staging. Check again! Nothing comes easy or fast during the implementation of change management.

A second general lesson is that critical mistakes during any of the phases can have devastating consequences, either slowing momentum or worse (such as your change process effort “coming off the rails”).

Kotter emphasized that the most unsuccessful transformation efforts almost always occur during at least one of the following phases:

  • Generating a greater sense of urgency.
  • Establishing a powerful enough guiding coalition.
  • Developing a clear vision.
  • Communicating (or under-communicating) the vision clearly and often.
  • Removing obstacles to towards the new vision.
  • Planning for and designing short-term wins.
  • Premature declarations of victory.
  • Embedding or anchoring changes in the corporate culture.

No real surprises here, right? That said, many transformation efforts continue to fall short by not paying attention to and nurturing the organization through these critical phases.

I realize this is an oversimplification as there are a multitude of complexities that all organizations face during their transformation journey.

So what can we learn from these important observations dating back to the mid-90s? The big take-away is that all transformation efforts (yes, even successful ones) are often stressful, hectic and sometimes chaotic – and often fraught with new and exciting discoveries! Just as a clear vision is needed to guide an organization through a major change process initiative, a vision of the actual change process and phases, clarity on the endpoint for each of these phases, anticipating some of the challenges to expect and ways to navigate these challenges can certainly minimize the error rate. And fewer errors can most definitely be the difference between a successful transformation effort and failure.

So which end of the bell curve do you want to find yourself on as you move through your change management process?