In the workplace, everyone experiences change. How we experience it can vary greatly. Over the many years of my career, I have been a recipient of change, an implementer of change, as well as a decision-maker of what changes are to be made. Unfortunately, most change is painful. In many instances, the process of change management fails or leaves a path of frustration and negative consequences before it ultimately powers through to a successful outcome. No one should ever expect change to be a frictionless process; however, with the right focus on the people impacted, utilizing an effective management model, and relentless discipline to continuously measure the impacts of change—it is possible to achieve a positive change experience.
Context for change is critical. The most common mistake I have witnessed in change management is the simplistic approach of setting up training programs and issuing communications about the new initiatives and then expecting immediate results.
Readiness for Change
Let’s face it. Change is hard. We are wired to stick with what’s known and comfortable. And although change agents are great champions for change or transformation and new models, they are typically light years ahead of the rest of the organization. Conducting an audit of ingrained operational, strategic and cultural beliefs and processes is the first step to transformation. The single most important tool for this analysis is critical thinking. Agility in self-diagnosis of the barriers to change is a key to transformation. Leaders need to leave their egos and dedication to their own opinions behind. Leaders who are agents of change are often oblivious to the fact that their employees may not be at the same stage of readiness. By using a cross-disciplinary and cross-functional team to identify a checklist of what needs to change, and how it can change, the journey of transformation begins.
Planning for Change Management
One truism is, “only change endures.” In today’s dynamic marketplace, change is constant. And accelerated by the pandemic, change has become a required strategy in short-term planning. Far too often change management is overlooked in any planning. Whether implementing a new business process, technology, or both, change management often fails to be robustly defined in project planning and investment. In common practice, it is considered a small line item and overshadowed by larger business case development efforts. And then, once approved, the financials are locked, and project teams may realize as the project gets started that they have too few resources to achieve the goal. The result is a fallback to managing change with training and communications, which are just tactics and do not address the fundamental question of “why?”
Communications and Training Shortfalls
Context for change is critical. The most common mistake I have witnessed in change management is the simplistic approach of setting up training programs and issuing communications about the new initiatives and then expecting immediate results. This type of approach is limited to the result, not the process, and is focused on the change itself, not the impact of the change on the business or individuals.
Have you ever walked into a training session to learn about a new piece of software or initiative without strong context of why you must learn to master it — other than a simplistic explanation that the old system is going away? Do the only communications that you recall seeing consist of broad-based emails or company portal announcements that focus on the importance of the change? Do they really speak to how this change will help you be more effective in your role? The focus on the “why” at individual and team levels is essential to leveraging an effective change management model. Change management often fails when there are too many competing priorities, a poor track record at successfully implementing change, employee skepticism at all levels, and a lack of trust in leadership.
Change management models provide the structure, but the heart of a change plan is in continuous measurement and learning from insights. There are many published change management models that can be effective if implemented well. To focus on the “why,” I recommend choosing models that help facilitate change at the individual level, emphasizing the understanding of what changes are occurring, why, and how these changes affect individuals personally.
The best models that represent an emphasis on individual impact and not on change itself are the ADKAR model, the Bridges Transition Model, and Kotter’s 8-step change model. Each method is different, but they all focus on efforts to help individuals understand their roles, address resistant behavior, and accept change. It is not enough to simply follow a model; you must live into what the model is designed for.
For example, the ADKAR model makes a distinction between simply building tactics to create awareness and supporting the desire to achieve a goal by understanding the “why.” You measure the results of your tactics, continuously evaluate the team’s desire (or lack thereof), and adjust the process until you have a line of sight to reducing resistance, if not eliminating it altogether. We often do an acceptable job of evaluating knowledge attained during training sessions. I would argue, however, that if the personal desire, “then what’s in it for me,” is not clear or reinforced, the knowledge attained during training will be irrelevant.
Setting up measurement processes at every stage of your model to gain insights on how individuals are understanding the change, its value to them and the organization, and their ability to competently work in the changed environment is critical. Without these continuous measurements and insights, you are simply deploying tactics and hoping the change sticks.
Dynamic and Diverse
Change plans are not one size fits all; they must be dynamic and diverse in their implementation. Every change impacts each employee’s role in a different way. What is often overlooked are three key questions: What will we no longer be doing; what will be different because of the change and who will lose what?
An effective change program must perform a deep analysis on the working behaviors of individual roles, as well as the collective team. Working behaviors are built over time; you must understand them to define the risks and mitigation plans for the intended change.
Reinforce the Success of Transformation
Change can’t be successful in a vacuum. Celebrate your success! Keep track of early success stories and share them as examples of positive transformation experiences. The goal is to empower teams to self-manage, build trust, and work at a systematic and productive pace. Team members and stakeholders are reinforced by being called out as role models. Remember, although operations in an organization will benefit from change, the focus should be customer-centric, and this experience will ultimately drive customer satisfaction – the true measure of success.
Own Your Transformation
Thorough change planning and execution is hard; get help, but always keep ownership of the change. After reading this you may be thinking, this is a lot of work that you may not have time for. To get to the level of depth needed, it takes focus, time, and analytical effort. The process to produce a great change outcome is not linear; it requires persistent redesign and iteration to deliver the best experience at the individual and team levels.
It is common to seek consulting assistance for this type of in-depth work. In many cases, a consultant can help you build the strategy, develop and execute the tactics, and continuously measure and generate insights to sharpen your change plan. As a leader of the change, you must own it; you must evaluate the readiness of the organization and hold the team accountable. You know the style, skills, people, and shared values of your organization. Leverage that knowledge and build a measured change management program that is a critical success factor in your transformation. This will ensure you attain a trusted, transparent, and positive change experience.