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Everyone is familiar with the difficulty of keeping New Year’s resolutions, and small-business owners are no exception. Businesses try to change, too, but many find it hard to craft and implement permanent plans. An IBM Global Business Services reports called Making Change Work provides some tips on how to get new plans to stick. Some suggestions include understanding all possible outcomes, making specific steps that have defined goals, getting top-down agreement of plans and being prepared to make a significant investment. For more on this continue reading the following article from TheStreet.

The gyms are crowded with folks anxious to deliver on their New Year's resolution of getting in shape. But how many of them will still be hitting the treadmill a few months from now?

New Year's resolutions are notoriously easy to make and hard to keep. Diet books hit the best-seller list year after year because most people don't follow through on their plans to eat better, and therefore don't lose weight. Gyms are packed right after the holidays, but clear out once the weather warms up.

The same holds true for business resolutions. Small-business owners may start the year with high expectations for what they hope to accomplish, but the day-to-day reality of running a company soon takes precedence over big-picture thinking. Though smaller business may have an advantage over large corporate bureaucracies when it comes to implementing changes, there will always be resistance: from nervous employees, confused customers and even business owners' own self-doubt.

Given the unstable business climate of the past few years, it's no surprise that "change management" has become a hot topic. Much as we may fear change, it's the new status quo, and those who don't learn how to adapt get left behind.

But even if you do resolve to change an aspect of your business, how do you make that change stick? How do you make sure your business really does stay in shape? A number of studies have come up with specific advice based on real-world examples.

A 2008 report by IBM(IBM) Global Business Services, Making Change Work, studied the experiences of more than 1,500 managers and business leaders from around the world, focusing on what actions led to successful transformations. The study found that the most effective change-implementation plans shared four qualities:

1. Realistic preparation
You must consider all potential outcomes of a shift beforehand. Assess every challenge (cost, employee morale, time), then lay out a road map for how you'll address each one. When you announce your new idea, you must be able to show how you'll implement it.

2. Step-by-step
Just as formalized systems have been developed for project management, similar processes can be put in place to keep the change process on track. ("Change management" experts are a growing corporate specialty.) Companies that follow a specific plan, with benchmarks, deadlines and measurable results, are more likely to see their changes take hold.

3. Change starts at the top
Business professionals surveyed by IBM considered top management sponsorship the most critical factor in making change successful. For small businesses, that means an owner who makes a strong case for the change and motivates everyone else to follow through.

4. Invest to make an impact
Cost will always be a factor in any business decision. But you can't expect to make a large-scale change and spend nothing upfront. Make sure you have the resources necessary to cover expenses such as employee training. Money being spent on transforming a business should be seen as an investment, not an expenditure.

In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Crown Business, 2010), Chip and Dan Heath looked at the process of change from professional and personal perspectives. The reason change is such a struggle, they say, is rooted in the human brain: We are pulled constantly between messages sent by our rational self ("That cheeseburger is unhealthy") and our emotional self ("It smells good and I'm hungry, so I'll eat it"). We may know change is good for our business, but emotionally, we're just not ready to tackle the work that comes with it.

To get the rational and emotional sides of our brains in alignment, the Heaths suggest three basic guidelines -- all three of which correlate with the findings of the IBM study:

1. Change behavior by changing the situation
If you're trying to get healthier, you have to keep junk food out of the house. In the same way, the workplace must be rearranged to support the new way of doing things, not the old routines. Such adaptations should be part of the initial planning process.

2. Respect the effort it takes to change
Employees may backslide into their old ways simply because it's easier on them mentally. Don't ask people to do too much too soon, and understand that some resistance to change may be simply exhaustion. This is where the support of a motivated, "cheerleader" manager can make a big difference.

3. Eliminate confusion
What exactly does it mean to "eat better" or "exercise"? Clear, specific directions ("I will work out for 30 minutes four times a week") are far more effective than impressive but vague goals. Give exact deadlines, idiotproof instructions and build in accountability with regular follow-ups.

Change is possible, but it takes work. When it comes to resolutions for your business in 2012, the ultimate question is: how badly do you want it?

This article was republished with permission from TheStreet.