Pursuing a large organizational change is not a stroll in the park but a challenging journey from the current situation to a desired state. When going on such a strenuous expedition, you need to know both the route to be taken (the change path) and travelers coming along (the change participants). These are also called the project-side and people-side of organizational change.
As on any major trek over rough terrain, there are plenty of hazards along way. Having a change guide, who knows where to go and is aware of the inherent dangers, can increase the chance of successfully reaching the intended destination.
The Everest Model of Change uses the metaphor of climbing Mount Everest to explain the four main hazards people need to deal with when engaging in large-scale organizational change. Climbing Everest is a major endeavor, with the same four phases as in any change project: first comes preparation, during which a plan is made, resources are assembled and people are readied to get started; second comes mobilization, during which the group launches on its path; third comes realization, during which the largest part of the journey is completed; and fourth comes consolidation, during which the change is embedded and secured, so the organization doesn’t slide back into old behavior. In each phase there are multiple hazards, but one sticks out as the most treacherous to deal with.
The four main hazards (one per change phase) are:
- Contracting Hazard. Once the decision to climb the mountain has been made and the plane arrives at Lukla, agreement must be reached on the route and speed of the ascent and what the team can expect from one another. This is creating a social contract – which promises do we make to each other? Later frustration isn’t due to difficulties or a lack of progress, but to more difficulties and/or less progress than anticipated. Therefore, it is crucial to set realistic expectations. But decision-makers tend to underestimate challenges, while change guides overpromise results because they want the project too badly.
- Momentum Hazard. What seemed like a thrilling adventure at Base Camp, quickly becomes a hard slog once the team starts up the mountain. As realism sets in, people begin to wonder whether they can trust each other, and the climb will be a success. If progress is slow, the sceptics will voice their doubts, further undermining confidence and commitment to the journey, potentially triggering a downward spiral. In this early part of the trek, it is crucial to build team confidence by showing the team they are making progress, celebrating these successes, and reinforcing belief in each other and the plan.
- Setback Hazard. Making headway on the mountain will sometimes be fast and other times slow, until suddenly disaster strikes. When things go horribly wrong you are confronted with a moment of truth. Knocked to the ground, the team will either give up or pick itself back up. It is crucial to manage disappointment, giving room to be frustrated, but avoiding finger pointing, while getting the team to recommit to the goal and to each other. It helps if you have worked on team resilience along the way, creating awareness that setbacks are part of the process and developing the flexibility to find new solutions on the fly.
- Anchoring Hazard. With the summit in sight, weariness sets in and resources become depleted. As the climb was long and exhausting, many people are satisfied enough with the result and want to quit – isn’t the journey more important than the destination, they tell themselves. But stopping before the entire change is secured would put all efforts to waste. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain discipline, focusing the team on finishing the task. The last steps to the summit seem like details, while requiring extraordinary effort, but they are the difference between ‘nice try’ and ‘top of the world’.
- Change journeys are like climbing Everest. Ascending to the top of Mount Everest is a powerful metaphor for the challenge of achieving large-scale organizational change. The climb is an arduous journey from Lukla to the summit, requiring teamwork and overcoming difficulties. The big difference is that on Everest you can usually pick your own team.
- Change journeys are about the climb and the climbers. The project-side of change is concerned with the path that needs to be followed (the climb), while the people-side of change focuses on participants (the climbers). Change guides need to watch both.
- Change journeys go through four phases. Moving up the mountain, the climbers go through the four phases of change: preparation before the start, leading to mobilization of the team, then realization of most changes, followed by consolidation of the results.
- Change journeys encounter four main hazards. Each change phase has its own main hazard: during preparation there is a danger of setting unrealistic expectations (contracting hazard), during mobilization the team can fail to build up sufficient confidence (momentum hazard), during realization adversity can lead to crippling disappointment (setback hazard), and during consolidation the discipline to finish can diminish (anchoring hazard).
- Change journeys benefit from a Sherpa guide. Just as on Everest, having a guide who knows the way and understands the climbers is highly useful. Such a change guide doesn’t “do it to” the team, doesn’t “do it for” the team, but “does it with” the team.