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Many companies struggle to transform because strategic initiatives are not properly adopted throughout their organizations. Here are five principles to help leaders drive sustainable adoption of strategic change initiatives.


Ceremonial adoption: how to avoid it and embrace change

Published 1 July 2021 in Strategy ‚ÄĘ 7 min read

Have¬†you ever¬†sat through¬†a speech by¬†a¬†CEO¬†praising¬†the successful introduction of¬†a¬†new change initiative,¬†12 months¬†on,¬†when the actual success¬†of it¬†is still uncertain?¬†Having the underlying new system, processes or tools in place is already a big step, but if¬†employees are not actively using¬†them¬†or¬†merely pay lip service to¬†them, the business cannot derive the expected economic benefits. This is¬†called¬†‚Äúceremonial adoption‚ÄĚ.¬†

Ceremonial adoption accounts for¬†about 50% of initiatives,¬†rather than the desired¬†‚Äúactive adoption‚Ä̬†‚Ästsuccessful implementation of the functional benefits¬†and¬†commitment to change.¬†¬†

Ceremonial adopters often fail to commit fully to change as they are not (yet) convinced of the value of the initiative, they might not understand the associated demands or requirements, or they have not come to terms with the fear of loss of their current ways of working.  

Managing change successfully requires leaders to: (1) have employees be convinced of the benefits of the inherent change, (2) understand that there are costs associated with failure to provide support for the change and (3) engage in capability building towards the adoption of new practices.  

Achieving¬†‚Äúaffective commitment‚Ä̬†‚Äď belief in the benefits of change¬†which¬†triggers new¬†thinking and¬†behaviors¬†‚Ästrequires¬†the involvement of¬†stakeholders through¬†all¬†phases of the change process.¬†Here¬†are five key success factors¬†to successfully steer a change initiative¬†towards affective commitment:¬†

1. Understand and use formal and informal networks  

Although the hierarchy of the organization is usually reflected in an organizational chart, the organizational networks underpinning how work actually gets done are less obvious. Organizational networks represent relationships between people formed to complete tasks, ask for advice or socialize. They influence virtually everything organizations do and, if used effectively, they can help people adapt to change more quickly. Given that they are not transparent, however, it takes time to understand and map them.

At the start of any change initiative, it is important not only to map the key stakeholders in an organization, but also to understand the formal (work-related) and informal (social) relationships at play. We often overestimate the role of hierarchy and underestimate the role of networks.  

In the early stages, segment the key stakeholders of the change effort. First, assess the key people and departments that will be affected. The ultimate goal is to understand which people can make an impact within the organization. Although some people are influential, e.g. opinion leaders, others may have formal power but little influence in persuading others to adopt their views. 

Next, assess each of these stakeholders in terms of their support for the initiative and their capabilities in contributing to its success. Knowledge about their position and potential reaction to the initiative can help you decide how to influence or involve them. Then, understand and map the underlying relationships between people: Ttalking to or involving people central to a network with high influence will have greater impact than involving loners. 

2. Involve key stakeholders throughout  

In the inception phase,¬†proactively¬†identify the group of people you want to involve.¬†You will probably¬†want to¬†start with the change agents ‚Äď those with influence¬†and¬†a positive attitude toward the change.¬†Involve¬†them in decisions related to the implementation.¬†

Once the change agents increase their commitment, they will be more likely to convince others who are merely observers or are opposed to the initiative. Those who could support it, but who are not as influential or do not have the strongest capabilities are often ignored, so their cooperative potential may be overlooked. 

This group should be developed,¬†informed¬†and involved in issues where they have¬†the¬†skills to help. Bystanders,¬†who are¬†often¬†marginal stakeholders and whose potential¬†to¬†affect the implementation is low,¬†should be part of the communication plan and monitored to avoid negative surprises. Their ‚Äúwait and see‚ÄĚ attitude often makes them followers in a change process. Non-supportive stakeholders, particularly defensive resistors,¬†are initially best managed by¬†making sure you don‚Äôt have to rely on their resources.¬†

Sometimes this strategy is difficult; therefore, others argue that non-supportive stakeholders are best managed by keeping them busy. Active opposers are probably the most challenging group for managers to address as, potentially, they could sabotage the intended change. They may, however, also have valid points, and leaders should be prepared to listen and make changes to their plans. Change agents could help to convert these opposers and, if influential opposers are convinced, they could become your biggest supporters. 

If communication remains a one-off or rare event, most change processes are doomed to fail.
‚ÄúIf communication remains a one-off or rare event, most change processes are doomed to fail. ‚ÄĚ
- Bettina B√ľchel

3. Timing of actions and learning from feedback matter   

Although there are many different ways to convince stakeholders of the benefits of the change, choosing their timing wisely overcomes the dip in performance that typically happens when introducing a new approach.change. Initially, you might want to map all the influencing tactics you could employ, e.g. workshops, top management meetings, training, meetings, CEO memo, benchmarking visits, etc. However, bear in mind that timing matters when it comes to deployment.  

While change processes can typically be sequenced with, for instance, creating a sense of urgency in the earlier stages of change, there is equally a need to listen to stakeholders and their feedback and adjust as you go. Although there is often a sequence to change, the speed at which you can proceed and which influencing tactic you use and how often varies. 

Leaders must constantly assess the readiness of key stakeholders to engage and adjust their tactics to the current situation and the stakeholder feedback. The main reason for taking the next action step should be the result of learning; that is, it depends on past experience, as well as the evolving context, that defines the plot in which actions will be taken.

For instance, if key stakeholders are not yet aware of or interested in an initiative, training them will have little impact. This makes the process of change iterative and the timing of using influencing tactics dependent on the level of commitment of stakeholders and their feedback. 

 4. Communicate to reduce uncertainty 

During any change process, there is typically uncertainty, ambiguity or stress. This has a negative impact on commitment to change. The higher the stressors creating ambiguity or uncertainty and perceived job insecurity, the more likely it is that the initiative will receive minimal support. 

Communicate with those impacted by the initiative, using clear, consistent and credible processes and messages. Use concise language and well-defined terms, and avoid the suppression of truth. Adapt the message for different audiences. Map out which stakeholders need to be informed and about what.  

This will lead to a communication plan that ensures the initiative receives broad share-of-mind. Effective communication also nurtures knowledge about the initiative over time. By communicating the latest updates, you can build awareness and help to dispel rumors or misinformation.  

How leaders communicate also matters. Showing personal and moral conviction, being consistent in choice of words, tone of voice and body language when delivering the message as well as using stories, metaphors and rhetorical questions all have a positive impact on achieving higher levels of commitment. But relying only on leaders to communicate is not enough.

Encourage individuals to share their experiences with leaders, as this creates collective ownership and often has a snowball effect through the organizational networks. This may best be accomplished by frequent sharing and exchange rather than one-directional reporting.

Communication is the key to change, so if communication remains a one-off (or rare) event, most change processes are doomed to fail. Communication must take place at regular intervals, informing different groups of the progress made.  

5. Build momentum early to create a sense of inevitability 

The more complexity and uncertainty involved in a strategic initiative, the more important it is for executives to test the waters using a pilot approach. Piloting is a process through which a new practice is first tested and a routine or business model is created for subsequent scaling. With continuous planning and feedback, teams can start delivering business value from the beginning, thereby creating commitment to change as stakeholders see the benefits.  

To¬†help¬†employees understand the demands and requirements associated with the change, plan for resources beyond the first six months and include training and development in the implementation plan. Training is often an afterthought and,¬†unless budget and time¬†are¬†allocated¬†for it, it may¬†be¬†cut¬†as¬†the ‚Äúofficial‚ÄĚ completion¬†date approaches.¬†Users of new processes and systems are more likely to¬†grow¬†frustrated¬†if they do not receive¬†training,¬†and¬†this can¬†impede adoption.¬†¬†

The¬†earlier¬†you can demonstrate the benefits and help employees understand the demands and requirements of¬†a¬†change, the quicker¬†the¬†new practice¬†will be adopted.¬†Often, the adoption curve is not linear,¬†so¬†reaching¬†‚Äútipping point‚ÄĚ creates a sense of inevitability¬†that¬†will influence others to adopt the new practice.¬†Reaching this tipping point depends¬†on¬†a number of¬†factors¬†‚Ästthe¬†persuasiveness of change agents, the degree of opposition and the fear of loss.¬†¬†

The tipping point can, however,¬†be reached faster¬†than¬†expected:¬†Working with a¬†group of change agents and¬†convincing¬†some¬†influential¬†opposers can already tip the scales¬†in¬†favor¬†of the initiative.¬†The ‚Äúnetworked‚ÄĚ change agents have the potential to convince bystanders and¬†therefore shift the momentum.¬†It is,¬†therefore,¬†vital to have¬†developed a comprehensive stakeholder map and¬†to¬†understand the networks,¬†as you will then know¬†where¬†to¬†devote¬†your time and energy.¬†

By adopting these five steps, you can help your organization to escape the ceremonial adoption trap and achieve affective commitment to change.  


Bettina B√ľchel - IMD Professor

Bettina B√ľchel

Professor of Strategy and Organization at IMD

Bettina B√ľchel has been Professor of Strategy and Organization at IMD since 2000. Her research topics include strategy implementation, new business development, strategic alliances, and change management. She is Program Director of the Internet of Things program and the Strategy Execution course.


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