They seem to be pulling in two different direction but they do not have to if managed properly; Sustainability tries to maintain improvements and value gained from initiatives, while change management pulls the organization towards something new and further improvements. How can organizations maintain the balance under such pressures?
The answer starts with the right attitude at the executive level, but cannot stop there.
First, we have to make sure that the new improvement initiative is designed and carried out properly. Meaning by a competent supplier who built the system based on best practices, culture of the organization, and the organizational level of maturity. This is a big assumption, and many initiatives fail this test of quality.
Even if the initiative was carried out properly, sustainability remains an illusive goal. The main reason for that is its strong ties to change. A situation that needs to be sustained is usually unstable, otherwise sustainability would be an easy task. The reason for the instability is that the organization is new to this new improved state of operating. So, tendency is to go back to the old, after the pressure from upper management to adopt new systems cools down.
One of the main reasons for the inability to sustain is that the belief in the change is only at the upper management or even just the sponsor level. So a strong sponsor will push the organization and force it to use the new system and will ensure that happens as long as the sponsor is in power. But as soon as the sponsor moves out of the position, or a new management gets in, almost all previous improvements are abandoned. This is very common in organizations.
Some middle and functional managers have become so skeptical of change and its possibility that they play along with the zealous sponsor knowing that soon enough he will go away or give up. Once a manager in private told me “We (managers) are like wheat stalks in a field. We will bend with the wind of change so not to be broken , but as soon as the wind stops blowing, we will go back to our old ways.
Ironically, some organizations become so accustomed to this cycle of new initiatives that soon cool down, that they become experts in the politics of dodging the change.
I am a strong believer in executive support for change initiatives and believe it is a key ingredient for success. However, when that support does not yield real buy in across the organization, chances for success are really dim.
This is why I believe the real champions of change are the middle managers. They are close enough to the work that they can influence it, and close enough to upper management to understand the strategy. The executives have to bring management into the loop early and ensure buy in. Not by force, but by ensuring that middle and functional management is a partner even in identifying the needed change initiative. If this is not possible the executives have to bring fresh blood from outside who have the vision and experience in the new proposed system, and give them the power to carry out the change. This surgical maneuver at the organizational level can be tricky and dangerous but sometimes it is necessary. Some organizations bring in outside consultants as surrogate managers to lead the change initiatives with the right levels of power within the organization to carry out the change. This also can be done, given the right level of support to the “outsider” is given by executives.