How To Improve Change Processes So They Lead to Meaningful Results

Frameworks like lean six sigma and design thinking focus on understanding problems and making improvements to solve them. These processes require teams to trust that management has their best interests in mind and to be open to change. While some companies may notice significant growth and improvements with these frameworks, others might sputter. Some hit their goals, but nothing improves; others try to hit their goals but end up way off the mark. 

These problems are more common than you think. Let’s review why your improvement processes didn’t lead to meaningful change, or why your transformation didn’t turn out as you expected.

Formulate Goals that Lead to Change

You may be embracing the continuous improvement of lean six sigma and following the process correctly, but the goals you are striving for are off. It’s not uncommon for brands to set goals that don’t lead to real change. 

For example, one of the most common processes for goal setting is the SMART method. This involves setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. The idea is to help leaders and teams build realistic and achievable goals. However, the SMART method doesn’t always work. 

Gene Hammett, growth strategist who works in leadership development, points to research that found SMART goals doesn’t make a project any more (or less) likely to succeed. “Worse, SMART goals can ignore a very real part of goal setting: the emotional component,” he adds. They can create anxiety and force people to focus on what they haven’t accomplished instead of what they have.  

In fact, setting bad goals are worse than setting no goals at all, writes Lucas Miller, CEO of Echelon Copy. 

“An underwhelming goal could make you feel like a success, even though your company hasn’t even begun to turn a profit,” he explains. “Alternatively, setting overly ambitious goals could cause you to stretch yourself too thin or fail to realize when you’ve made legitimate progress.” 

The result is either employees who breeze through their work because the goals are so low, or who feel stressed to the point of a nervous breakdown due to unattainable expectations.

Each company tends to have its own issues with goal-setting, and this depends on the leadership and management teams who create these goals. Organizational psychologist Melissa Gratias sets out warning signs that goals should be changed or discarded. These include:

  • The team has no idea if the goal was achieved — either through a lack of measurement or reporting from management.
  • The goal was too easy to achieve or too overwhelming for the team to handle.
  • There were unintended or negative consequences.
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Find Goals That Address Core Issues

Along with setting over-ambitious or under-ambitious goals, teams often base their goals and plans for improvement based on symptoms, rather than the actual issues that caused those problems.

Strategic planning consultant Tom Stimson encourages people to look at the processes that lead up to the problems, rather than at the problems themselves. Too often, managers will instinctively try to solve a problem to make it go away, without taking steps to prevent similar issues in the future. They are treating the symptom, not the source.  

“If you really want to solve the problem, you need to find out why it happened and take measures to prevent it from happening again,” Stinson writes. 

A strong example of this would be a human resources department that is working to improve diversity and inclusivity within the organization. While the department means well and the company will likely benefit as a whole from their efforts, it is easy to set the wrong goals or focus on problems without digging deeper into their cause. 

Ryan Williams, president of Jopwell, a career advancement platform for Black, Latinx and Native American professionals, says organizations make common mistakes. These include implementing quick fixes to solve diversity problems overnight and working to hit diversity benchmarks rather than looking at the company culture or hiring processes as a whole. 

A well-meaning company can believe that it has reached its goals and solved its problems, but it really only checked off a few boxes without reaching the roots of the issues.  

“Achieving a goal only changes your life for the moment,” James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” writes. “In order to improve for good, you need to solve problems at the systems level. Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves.”

Regardless of whether a company’s transformation is aligned with its goals, the business could fail to see real change if the leadership team didn’t address the right problems to begin with. 

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Invest in Research and Observation

Along similar lines of focusing on the wrong problems, teams also tend to focus on solutions rather than figuring out why the problem exists. It’s easy to focus on a symptom when a problem has an obvious solution. It’s much harder to really dig into the processes that lead to the problems.

Innovation coach Paul Taylor says companies often embrace a solutions-minded mentality to a fault. While every manager wants proactive employees that look to improve their workplace, focusing too much on the solution leaves little time to look at the problem and ask the right questions about what needs to get done and why. 

Taylor actually points to the company culture as a failure point for this. Employees aren’t rewarded for asking questions or pointing out flaws, but rather for solving the most problems or the biggest ones.  

To avoid this, DSM’s chief technology officer Marcus Remmers says to do what his company does: Use the “three es” during the research and development process. These are engagement, effectiveness, and efficiency. They address stakeholder buy-in, finding the right solutions and executing them well. Remmers emphasizes how the “three es” need to be done in that order, otherwise companies risk solving the wrong problems or coming up with the wrong solutions. 

“Many organizations prioritize the other way around,” he explains. “A lot of management energy is invested in improving the efficiency first, without confirming whether they have identified the right problems and engaged their workforce to solve them… losing potential impact because of this.”

While you might hit your efficiency goals and reduce waste and lost time, your company could achieve so much more by looking at the core issue through research, questioning and consideration. 

Oversimplifying Issues Can Lead to More Problems

Instead of solving basic problems and ignoring processes, some leaders try to boil down the issue into a simplified core. This can create its own set of problems. 

Digital marketer Ryan Shelley explains the dangers of over-simplification both form internal processes and for brands. By simplifying the issue, marketers and salespeople think they are creating a clear picture of the problem for customers. But really they are creating confusion through vague, immeasurable statements. 

Companies do this with goal setting and problem-solving. They boil down problems to what they think is the core but then create the wrong solutions because the problem was too broad. 

This is because managers look at problem-solving as a simple, set process. By defining the problem and brainstorming solutions, teams can determine the best way to move forward. However, not all problems are that simple. Most will require additional solutions or steps that are consequences of the first idea.

“Complex human situations…involve multiple causes and possible ways forward,” writes design strategist Sharon VanderKaay. “They typically entail unobvious consequences, real and imagined risk, threats to the status quo and, for some, a perverse attachment to the benefits of dysfunction.” 

This is how transformation projects expand beyond their aligned goals while taking up more time and resources than initially planned.  

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Empower Employees to Develop Solutions

If your goals are realistic and address the right problems, then you may find that your source for misalignment comes from your employees. 

In a visual explanation, John Caswell, CEO of Group Partners, presents several ways to avoid “solving the wrong problems really well.” He encourages managers to give employees ownership of problems and build an engaging and collaborative environment. This way solutions aren’t top-down. Rather, they come from team members who live with the problem day-to-day and have a full understanding of the issue.

Sticking hard and fast to a process can force you off track, spending more time and energy solving problems than you would like. In change management and in organizational processes, your team needs to be able to adjust what they’re doing or pivot their strategy to reach their end-goals. 

“Your initial change plan should guide your way forward, but it should not definitively decide how your teams pursue their goals,” writes Emily Lundberg at Prialto. “Empowering your employees to pivot their projects is likely to have a substantial impact on their productivity and morale because it gives them a sense of ownership.”

With the right employee buy-in, you can have a team of eager workers who want to adjust solutions processes and come up with new ideas so the goals are hit — even if the road you take to hit them is different.

Bring Everyone Together for Better Goal Alignment

Goal alignment starts with management. It’s up to leaders to make sure teams know why they are working toward something and if they are taking the right steps to get there. An easy way to maintain this alignment during a transformation is with feedback. 

“Individuals crave regular feedback on their progress toward their goals,” says Jason Arnold, director of leadership solutions at Inspire Software. He cites data that 68 percent of employees who receive regular feedback feel more fulfilled in their jobs. “When leaders consistently respond to the needs of team members who are pursuing common goals, individuals stay more engaged and feel a greater sense of trust with their managers.”  

For one example of a company using feedback to keep goals aligned, Amy Burke, delivery lead at Atomic Object, says her company holds a “mid-project kickoff” to make sure everyone is on the same page and the overall goals are aligned. During this time, teams can use design thinking to revisit the “hopes and fears” of a project. Mid-project, this means looking back at fears that have been overcome while addressing new problems that the team might not have thought of. This also means celebrating wins while preparing for upcoming challenges.

There are several benefits to hosting regular check-ins. Chris Crosby, consultant and author of “Strategic Organizational Alignment,” highlights four key benefits of goal alignment:

  • It builds sponsorship and support through the organization.
  • It sharpens the goals and expectations of each manager.
  • It involves all employees in understanding the goals and in creating solutions to obtain them.
  • It sets a plan in motion for the company or team to achieve its goals.

It is incredibly easy for a company to lose sight of its goals while working on an internal transformation project. Sometimes this is because the goals were vague or address the wrong problem, other times it’s because employees don’t feel supported by management. However, brands that invest in healthy change processes will experience growth — and build a company that is resilient to change

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