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Change stickiness: "This time it’s different”

Re-doing things is frustrating: retracing steps after taking the wrong direction; getting a different dish than the one you thought you'd ordered; missing out an early step assembling that flatpack furniture. When we’ve set out to do something that should be enjoyable or make our lives easier, it's time-consuming—and potentially expensive—to have to go back and re-do it. When people sponsor or undertake technology-enabled change, they rarely expect to have to redo it down the track. It can be irritating to stop part-way through, backtrack and pick up again.

There are many success stories for cultures of true experimentation—including celebration of failure and lessons learned—and many traditional organisations are looking to build this capability as part of their transformation. However, pressure on investment profiles means throwaway is rarely an option: investments in technology-enabled projects and transformation expect that the change will stick.

I’ve been talking to change agents—CIOs, tech-savvy business leaders, consultants and senior technologists—about how they lead and influence change at their or their clients’ organisations. Specifically, rather than why their organisations need to change, or what they are changing; but what makes for successful transformation or change stickiness. 

On the basis that technology-enabled projects and change are not new for most people and organisations, the first topic we explored was how people can be reassured that this time the change will be different.


  1. Small, meaningful changes delivered frequently get stickiness and earn delivery trust and credibility for bigger and bolder change down the track.

  2. The big guns—the symbols and messages that this change is different—can misfire if mis-timed or not backed up: people can be distracted or left feeling disempowered.

  3. At higher complexity organisations, stickiness comes from putting more effort and investment into disruptive symbols than quick wins; whereas it’s an opposite balance for lower complexity organisations.

What is change stickiness?

At all the organisations discussed in this research—from a wide range of industries and IT size and complexity, sponsors and delivery teams typically follow well-trodden paths to get technology-enabled change justified and up and running through their investment processes. However, they also experience that over time change seems to have got harder: to take longer, cost more, deliver less. 

In today’s environment, the pace of change is everything. People are busy: they have scars and war stories from projects they have sponsored, delivered or been users of, and the end results do not seem to have lived up to the promise for themselves or their customers. Teams can be overloaded with balancing running day-to-day operations and leading improvements of their own, meaning they’re challenged to be able to commit to a larger scale change. 

While the ambitions of organisations’ transformation agendas have got bolder and broader, those who need to get on board and make it happen are more experienced, and correspondingly more wary, about what’s involved. However, attention given to get things up and running and quickly demonstrate success can dilute efforts on making the change sustainable.  Successful prototypes and pilots can prove harder to industrialise than expected; or over-planning means the 'as is' or status quo may have actually changed materially by the time second or third phases have implemented.

This can lead to investment leakage, loss of trust and confidence in delivery, change fatigue, and caution with supporting subsequent initiatives.  

Low-hanging fruit versus disruptive symbols

Applying learning and techniques from organisations that are really good at change, leaders and change agents have a choice of levers to pull in getting people’s hearts and minds behind the change; showing that it will be different this time. 

This choice is between putting efforts and investment into low-hanging fruit versus high impact symbols. Whether they find it more effective to go after solving irritating problems for customers or employees that have struggled to attract enough attention or investment, that create noise in the system; or to be better going after something big that will generate stories, get people to sit up and listen, and disrupt the status quo.  

Overall, people said they’d put more of their efforts towards low-hanging fruit (60%) than on material symbols of change (40%).

First priority: building trust and confidence

The importance in addressing 'quick wins' was unequivocal and relayed by everyone I spoke to, regardless of industry or size of business. Business colleagues and stakeholders need trust and confidence in the IT function [1] to see it delivering meaningful change, executed frequently. 

People consistently cited three months as the longest time their stakeholders would expect to wait for getting change in their hands. As they get better at the process of change, cycle times accelerate from quarters to months and weeks and for the highest performing organisations to days and hours. “People need to see constant improvement to maintain momentum and buy-in.” was a typical comment.  

As the landlord of a building with broken paving stones and dripping taps, it’s a struggle to get tenants’ attention on anything else until they’re fixed. And even harder to get their enthusiasm for the major renovation project that’s not expecting to finish for another two years and involve a lot of disruption along the way. So small changes, delivered frequently, are table stakes for change agents; to get support for bigger, more long term change.

Unearthing and getting on top of easy-to-fix problems that have created unnecessary workarounds—and that will make a real difference—is the first priority. And communicating appropriately. As one person pointed out, “Calling them ‘quick wins’ misrepresents how they are viewed by customers and employees at the coal face: for them, these things are important and meaningful.”.

Another reminder was that “Quick wins have to be quick.” Over-thinking where or what they are, or how to address them, risks exacerbating negative perceptions of past under-delivery. However, it’s also important to ensure quick wins don’t distract too much effort or too many resources from the big moves or bolder thinking that may be driving wider transformational change.  “You have to demonstrate value, quickly and with small investments.”

Symbols get heard 

But what about the 40% of effort people said they’d put to material symbols of change? Symbols get attention and generate stories; they can jump-start a program or organisational change. 

Hernán Cortés’ famous 16th century action to scuttle his conquistadors’ fleet as a clear message of 'no return' has equivalents in today’s world. Demolition and rebuild of an organisational structure or performance management system generates disruption and sends a message. 

However, without understanding and implementing the operating model to support it, this type of change can be short-lived and unlikely to be sticky. Moreover, organisational change rarely fixes underlying challenges with, say, technology platform health and agility; or with culture and behaviours that encourages collaboration and forward action; or with prioritisation and automation for speed. 

Instead of going after sacred cows or emblems of tradition, some organisations adopt symbols of proactive, positive change. These include opting all-in on agile delivery practices, changing investment models, or publicly describing the new workforce skills and experience that will be valued in the transformed business. Sometimes these build on isolated case studies or follow successful pilots. In most cases they rely on significant workforce support and re-skilling.

Choosing wisely

Those people who chose for more of their efforts to go towards symbols of change, emphasised the importance of timing. They called out that choosing the right symbol or lever—and, more importantly, the right time to pull it—was paramount. Going ‘nuclear’ and causing potentially significant disruption and distraction for employees may have knock-on impacts with customers or third parties over a longer term. 

“If symbols are too early in a major change, they aren’t sustainable.” was a common theme. One person explained that “Symbols need to be positive: building / setting up something new rather than breaking something down.” Another, that: ”Symbols tell stories, but adopting new practices and rituals are needed to back up the talk.”

Complexity matters

Digging more deeply, people at higher complexity organisations [2] say that they would put more than half—between 55% and 60%s—of their investment and efforts towards disruptive symbols and the balance on low-hanging fruit. And half of this group opted for more than twice as much effort into symbols than low-hanging fruit. 

Choices depend on the context: who is impacted and how. Going after an organisational ‘sacred cow’ may give some people a sense of relief (“Finally, we’ve taken the organisational courage to do something!”) but can also leave people feeling disempowered (“How can I be effective when someone is disrupting from within?”). 

People responding on behalf of higher complexity organisations were further along with their transformations. They qualified their choices as having achieved runs on the board early, and had won delivery trust and confidence. In other words, their balance of investment had moved from low-hanging fruit to symbols over time. Specifically, indications were that they would more effort into high-impact symbols of change after 18 months to two years into the change or transformation.

At a practical level, there is often so much going on in higher complexity organisations. So symbols provide a clear signal through what can seem to some stakeholders as technology change white noise.

For lower complexity organisations, people chose the reverse. Typically, they opted for nearly three times as much effort into low-hanging fruit as in symbols for change. “It’s not that people don’t believe in symbols, it’s that they’re so busy, it’s really the low-hanging fruit that resonates and gets buy-in.”

At one lower-complexity organisation, the IT team championed a core business application as the first to go onto the cloud. Going after something that some colleagues saw as 'insurmountable' and following up with showing how its solution represented best practice across many technical factors, it provided trust and credibility for the IT team in getting support for wider change.  

In summary

Although a number of participants in the research, and specifically at lower complexity organisations, opted for most or all investment in low-hanging fruit, no one opted for more than 75% of effort into disruptive symbols of change.

So, if you're a change agent wanting to get a message through that this time it's different; make sure there is sufficient investment, effort and attention on the small stuff that matters to your customers and colleagues today.

[1] Most organisations discussed had separate IT functions for some or all aspects of technology-enabled change; many are working towards or have aspirations for more collaborative business / IT delivery models over time. 

[2] Higher complexity = IT function with thousands of employees; hundreds of millions of dollars / euros annual investment in technology-enabled change Lower complexity = IT function with hundreds of employees; tens of millions of dollars / euros annual investment

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