The skills of sustaining change

Research suggests there are key factors to achieving lasting change – Bob Lillis and Steve Macaulay reveal more

Despite their importance, understanding the skills needed to sustain a change programme once the implementation phase is over is still poorly recognised and applied. Indeed, some commentators believe each and every change situation is so unique that no generalisations are possible. Our research provides some clear pointers towards a better understanding of what is needed to achieve lasting change. Here we report on the most essential skills that managers must emphasise at different stages of a change programme for it to be successful in the long term. 

The study asked senior managers with responsibility for change programmes in 13 manufacturing organisations what skills they felt were most important and crucially, when. The data generated gives valuable information to all change leaders. The findings have implications for L&D and HR professionals who are likely to be tasked with or held accountable for supporting and developing those charged with sustaining a lasting change initiative. 

Base framework: 11 change factors

We used a base framework of a comprehensive study into how to sustain an organisation’s change initiative. This was devised by Cranfield’s Professor David Buchanan and colleagues1 who undertook a thorough review of what is known and has been written about sustaining organisational change. They identified 11 common success factors with definitions which are set out below:

Leadership        Setting the vision, goals and leading the change 
Individual          Employees’ individual commitment 
Managerial         Managerial style, approach and behaviours 
Financial            Balance of costs and benefits 
Substantial         Perceived centrality, scale, fit with organisation 
Organisational    Policies, procedures, system and structures 
Cultural              Shared belief, norms and values 
Political              Stakeholder and coalition power and influence 
Processual         Implementation methods used
Contextual          External conditions and threats 
Temporal            Timing and pace of change activities 

We sought to use this list as a base and distinguish between factors that may have the most influence on successfully sustaining change.  For instance, do some factors have more impact than others on achieving long lasting change? When are these factors at their most and least influential? 

Our research study

The study consisted of in-depth interviews with executives from 13 manufacturing companies which had sustained a change initiative in their business. The duration of the change initiative varied from a minimum of 1.5 years to 6.5 years and all were still ongoing. We felt these periods of time would be of an appropriate duration to justify a change initiative being called ‘sustained’.

Findings: four key change skills

The research findings suggest that most of the factors had a role to play in sustaining change, but their influence varied depending on the stage of the change programme. Four factors stood out most strongly, but they often differed in when they had most influence. Some of these factors were most influential at the start of the change, others as the change continued.
Based on the analyses, the top skill areas were: 

  • Leadership skills 
  • Political skills 
  • Managerial skills 
  • Individual employees’ skills.

In the next section we discuss each of these four skills in more detail, indicating when they are most important and when least. The quotes illustrate what the change leaders we interviewed had to say on these subjects.

Leadership skills – important throughout change

Perhaps unsurprisingly, leadership came out as a very important common factor to successfully sustaining change at all stages within each of the programmes that were researched. It is well documented that at the start of any change initiative leaders must set out a vision which is both inspiring and makes sense to people; a vision that people feel motivated to follow. Leadership is an active process of staying in touch and listening and our findings indicate that leadership remains highly influential in sustaining change.

As an operations director of a cement products company said, “Change doesn’t stop after the initial stages”; and as a production manager in a petrochemical business remarked, “We [The director’s team] just go around and talk and talk and talk – we promote like crazy. It’s the three key specialists [our team] that bring the rest to life”.

In many of the organisations we questioned, senior leaders had been replaced by new personalities and this brought vital fresh perspectives and ideas; seven of the 13 companies were so affected.  A plant controller in a vehicle accessories business said, “The original leadership team has changed [while the change programme has been ongoing]. The people that left were all promoted within the group. The changes refreshed the initiative. We are still challenged continually by the company. The new plant manager for example had the idea to remove some support functions…just fresh eyes”.

Political skills – important in the early stages

Managing and leading change is a political process and in the change processes we researched, political skills were most influential in the early stages rather than throughout the programme. Such skills involved leveraging power, influencing people, building relationships and developing reputations and also dealing with conflicts. Indeed, the most important focus for political activity was getting stakeholder commitment early, necessitating strategies to win over key people affected by the change.

A head of European operations for a business in the chemicals manufacturing sector described the political processes he went through. “The finance team lost power and had some authority taken away. I made sure that I had the GM on board. I took the GM and finance director in a room for half a day and ran through everything with them. I got the buy-in from both. Although there was some stubbornness from some of the finance team, the strategic alliance I had made with the GM and FD made sure the initiative could succeed.”

A general manager in a semiconductors manufacturing company described the political skill needed as being, “…the ability to unblock. I think the president provided a lot of support in terms of unblocking political problems quickly. He is very attentive with all [manufacturing] sites, well subbed into all the people, what the project objectives were, where the blockers were and…he would use his power”.

Managerial skills – least influential at the start
Our research indicated that the need for sound managerial skills is most influential once the change becomes more sustained; they are less prominent at the start of the change initiative. Frequently managing day to day is underestimated, but it is clear from our research that managerial skills are part of an essential repertoire required to embed and sustain change.

The skills involve consciously putting change into practice throughout the organisation: making the necessary modifications, getting people on board and monitoring and reviewing performance and how this is working in practice. It may involve clarifying responsibilities and informing each person subject to the change how he or she is accountable. 

As the wave of change increases, for example, managerial style, day in, day out is at its most influential. As a site operations manager of a food processing business said, “Management style [in our plant] is evolving and we’ve given people more opportunity to take responsibility for an area instead of merely following instructions. We’ve allowed people to be more open, to criticise us more [and] talked about assumptions. Scepticism was apparent but coaching sessions and ongoing support from the leadership [has helped].” 

“Regular active communication is vital, [said a managing director of a chemical coatings company], just to try to change mind-sets.”  A regional operations director of a chemical detergents company said, “I’ve seen a change in [management] style leading to more integration between departments and between head office and field teams. Previous change attempts fell down due to communication. Now people are welcomed in to join the process and actively encouraged…and communication within the company is improved vastly.

Everyone originally was only interested in their little bit. Previously not enough people had an interest to drive ‘change’ forward. [The] only initiatives done were those forced on people. Now people are actively involved in deciding what the change issues might be or where improvements could be.”

Individual skills – contribute in later stages
As change moves forward, much more focus needs to be placed on individual employees, their commitment and contribution. However, one of the more interesting findings from our research is that a change programme that ultimately becomes sustained can be launched without the vast majority being initially committed. However, once the initiative implementation phase is over, if the vast majority of individuals and teams are still not committed, the initiative is likely to peter out and fail.  

A regional operations director for a chemical detergents company described the process of developing people and building up their commitment. He explained, “Training and the attainment of new skills [within the workforce] have been a big part of [sustaining the change]. However, I’m not saying that [maintenance of individuals’ commitment] has been cracked…instead, it’s been down to individual people becoming willing to drive our processes.”

A site operations manager for a food processing company commented, “From a training viewpoint, we’re now doing a process called ‘new ways of working.’ It’s a series of workshops and vision sharing in terms of structure, job role changes and accountabilities. This we believe has become important to sustaining the change.” Redirection and redeployment may be part of this managing process too. A service director of a machinery manufacturer said, “We recognised some of our people were good people but didn’t have the required capabilities…so we moving them to other jobs roles that better fit [their] capabilities.” 

A key lesson: different change skills come to the fore at different times

Leadership skills are essential throughout, not just at the start

  • Most people would agree that leadership is a critical factor in kicking off a change initiative, but research indicates the leadership must not back off too early and leave the sustaining of change to others.

Political skills are most important at the start

  • Good leadership alone is insufficient. Paying attention to the political aspects at the commencement of the change initiative is vital if it is to be sustained. Early stakeholder management and political skills are called for.

Commitment of all individuals can come later

  • For the change initiative to become sustainable the leadership needs to get the commitment of most individuals. However, this can wait in the early stages of the change.

Management skills become more vital as the change becomes sustained

  • The managerial factor is also important in sustaining the change initiative but notably in the later stages of the process. Managers, including specialists, have an important role in supporting the senior leadership team to ensure that the new ways of working introduced by the change initiative are adhered too.


Recognising where to put maximum focus during the various stages of change is helpful to those dedicated to making change initiatives stick. HR and L&D professionals seeking to build change competence must take on board that sustaining change is a nuanced and varying process, with different skills taking priority as the change programme progresses. Our research findings emphasise that change leaders need to move their energy and focus through different stages of change. This requires flexibility and adaptability, with the ability to switch attention using different skills as the change progresses. HR and L&D professionals need to be flexible, too, in order to support change in varying ways for maximum effect. 


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