People hate change.
Change creates major stress and can disrupt our healthy habits and relationships. In business, change has a similar effect. Nevertheless, companies, teams, and individuals that fail to change are in danger of being run over and made obsolete by that change. By understanding the principles and processes of change management, organizations can be better prepared and adapt to change.
What is change management?
Change management is the management of change within a business by preparing and supporting individuals through the adoption of new processes, tools, and techniques for organizational success.
As thorny and uncomfortable as change can be, many organizations are able to master the change management process, sometimes making change their default state. At these organizations, this tendency toward change permeates every challenge undertaken, from implementing new software to pivoting on company goals to restructuring teams. But how exactly do these businesses integrate change management principles into their organizations?
While each organization has its own idiosyncrasies, there are certainly common change management steps which, if followed, can improve your team's chances of not only getting comfortable with change, but making it stick.
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The change management process
Following are indispensable change management tips that have been proven to work in other organizations:
Part 1: Convince the organization that change is needed
1.1 Capitalize on catalysts
In any given company there may be subtle, almost imperceptible feelings among the group that a change is needed. But until the pain is great enough, no one in the group will rise up and make the change a reality. That's why one of the most effective ways to kick off the change management process is to recognize catalysts when they appear—moments when the pain becomes unbearable and the need for change becomes as clear as day. In the day-to-day business world, catalysts can take many forms, including:
- When the group has failed to reach an important goal
- An intervention meeting where people have gathered to air their grievances on a given topic
- Firings or layoffs
- The loss of a customer
Of course, there are more, and they all tend to be negative and loss-related in nature. Loss, after all, tends to spur us to look for answers, ways we can avoid such a painful moment in the future.
If you want to kickstart change management in your organization, learn to spot these catalytic moments and take the opportunity to introduce your idea for change, while the iron is still hot.
1.2 Expect resistance
Because we generally dislike change, we resist it. This is especially true in a company. Most of the time we like the things the way they are. Unfortunately, we too often expect other people to embrace change without reservations, when we would be better off anticipating their inevitable resistance and planning how we will manage it.
One of the first ways to start breaking down resistance to a change is to first show why it’s needed. Change management specialist Kayla Lamoreaux explains:
“Sometimes the people most impacted by the change don’t see the need to change. They like the way things are. So even if someone in authority is moving the change forward, there can be cultural resistance...I often find the people who are the most resistant are those who are most passionate about their work.”
Lamoreaux recommends really listening to valid points. If you can do this and find a way to support their needs throughout the change, you can turn once-haters into supporters of the change.
1.3 Demonstrate what's in it for them
People in the organization already know things aren’t perfect. But change also represents for them a certain amount of pain. This means that they see change as a tradeoff.
If you can show them how the benefits of the new system will make their life better post-change—and that these benefits will outweigh the discomfort of the change—you will win them over.
It's worth pointing out here that the benefits need to be relevant to the people to whom you're selling the change. What might be considered a slam dunk by executives is not always considered worthwhile by lower managers. So make sure you spell out the benefits of the change in language that resonates with each distinct audience.
1.4 There’s no need to rush
Sure, you’re implementing change to make things better, save time, or reduce costs. But you still have a business to run. Slow down and take time to make sure you have a good plan, and educate those involved. Often, giving change ideas time to simmer and build momentum with your audience will actually speed up your change management processes in the long run, because it decreases the chance of future resistance.
1.5 But don’t wait too long
Again, strike while the iron is hot. If you wait too long, your catalytic may fade from memory, the pain will become less acute, and the group's willingness to walk the difficult road of change will wane. In this way, your campaign to nudge people toward change walks a thin line between pushing them too fast and giving just enough time to take it in.
1.6 Don’t force feed change initiatives
Just because change is inherently uncomfortable, it does not mean you shouldn't find opportunities to make it as easy as possible. Employees do not want to feel out of the loop or forced into using a new process or piece of software. Unfortunately, many business leaders have neglected the relatively easy step of gaining employee buy-in as part of their change management process—and then regretted cutting this corner.
When a change initiative is implemented without communication or explanation, resentment can set in and lead to reluctance to participate in the initiative. Some will even try to defeat the initiative. The Intuit Quickbase blog offers this insight:
“Your employees will resist change more when it is sudden and they have little time to adjust. Release information as soon as possible, then roll out the change in incremental steps.”
1.7 Talk about it
To get more participation, be direct and honest, careful to avoid phrasing and messages that make people feel like something is being hidden from them or that they don't have a seat at the proverbial table. This is key to widespread acceptance. A post from Escalla.me explains:
“The more that people hear about pending change directly, and not from rumour or hearsay, the better and easier it will be to implement that change process.”
1.8 Know and understand how it will affect individuals
When a major change is imminent, there will be a dip in productivity as individuals and teams react and adapt to a new initiative. Try to see the change process through the eyes of each participant. How will a new piece of accounting software affect a marketing manager's ability to get payment to her vendors in time?
And then be critical about your own change idea. Given the impacts your change will have on each member of the organization, is it still worth it? If it is, how can you fine-tune your change efforts to minimize their negative effects on team members?
9. Build change expectations into your company culture
What is your company culture when it comes to change management? Do people feel a part of it? Are leaders' doors open to questions and input? Or does it feel like change initiatives are one-sided, sent down from on high with very little dialogue? Or conversely, are your change discussions leaving out upper managers, the heavy-hitters who could help to validate your change effort and make it stick?
“Creating a culture that takes change on, celebrates change, and helps create the vision for where people are going is key … [O]rganizations that make their people feel a valued asset and partner in any change they are creating are the most successful.”
1.10 Understand that change is a part of a cycle
When it comes to change management, there's no easy way through it or a set time it will take. In our personal lives, change is hard. We should expect our work lives to be no different. People will feel loss, frustration, and anger as they work to make changes that they will eventually accept as the norm. An executive once wrote:
“Rely on what you know about each individual member of your team, and after a while, reach out personally to those who seem to be stuck in doubt or discomfort. Allow them to voice their concerns, ask their questions, or even make their accusations.”
Also recommended for moving the change management process forward is Steven R. Covey’s insight of seeking first to understand, then to be understood.
1.11 Be realistic
You might work for a company that plans their change initiatives more than 12 months ahead. But probably not. More realistically, your execution of change will have unexpected complexities. Most projects, not just yours, will usually take longer. Be ready to be patient and realistic, and adapt.
Part 2: Prepare and plan for change
2.1 Start small
If you aren’t a CEO or on the executive team, you still might need to implement new ideas and systems. In software development, this takes the form of a minimum viable product, the simplest version of a product needed to prove if the concept is worth pursuing or not. A change agent can employ this same approach, Lamoreaux writes:
“We find the most successful change agents look at leadership goals for their team, their department, or even the company and start small—choosing something that is within their sphere of influence to help change.”
2.2 Create a measurable change management plan
Now that you've established your grand vision for change, it's time to create the nuts and bolts blueprint for how you make that change a reality with a change management plan. Set goals and objectives of what the change is supposed to accomplish and how you will know if it has succeeded. Then include those in a plan for accomplishing the initiatives.
The change management plan could include such things as:
- A communication strategy
- Who is the executive sponsor
- Education tasks
- Training on new software
- Support throughout the change effort
2.3 Help people understand the big picture
You’ve already outlined goals. Now, make sure to show how the change will affect and benefit each department, team, and individual.
“For example, more efficient sales software will benefit sales reps because they will be able to spend less time on paperwork and more time earning commission,” writes the Intuit Quickbase blog. “The same sales program will benefit managers because they will get reports quicker, rather than having to hang around waiting for the sales reps to finish documenting.”
Oh, and be ready to repeat these lines again and again as your organization's change fatigue sets in and people need a refresher.
2.4 Don't stop advocating
Speaking of fatigue, being an agent of change management is a long, tiring, often thankless gig. In addition to your normal job duties, it often means attending additional meetings, putting out additional fires, and arguing the same case over and over again as people second-guess the idea. At this point, before any actual triggers have been pulled, you might be tempted to second-guess your own idea and even to bail out before any real resources have been spent.
But if, in your re-evaluation of your change initiative, you come to the same positive conclusion, by all means, continue to advocate, sit in meetings, and put out fires until it becomes a reality.
2.5 Revolutionary doesn't have to be big
While some changes take hold across entire organizations at the same, other organizations start with a small group and create success, then spread from one group to the next. Lamoreaux writes:
“Both options are effective. I also think it’s worth noting that revolutionary change most likely will or should be followed up with gradual change to continue to improve the business process.”
2.6 Involve employees ASAP
One essential tip for successful change management is pretty simple. Be sure to include your employees from the beginning. A top-down approach doesn’t work. The Robert Half blog recommends that you “involve employees as soon as goals are set. Ask their opinions and get their input on how the business runs today and what they believe should be changed.”
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Part 3: Implement the change
3.1. Make it fun
Big, showy launch events. Town hall lunches. Games and prizes. These aren't just good excuses to get free t-shirts, gift cards, and food. They have a very real psychological effect on change participants. When employees see other employees smiling and applauding a change, they feel better about accepting and participating in that change effort themselves.
3.2 Don’t be afraid to get help
Identify people who could be change ambassadors. The Intuit Quickbase blog says:
“These should be individuals with charismatic personalities who are widely respected among their teams. Train these employees first, then allow them to set a positive atmosphere while guiding other employees.”
3.3 Keep an eye on laggards
You won’t get everyone on board with big changes at first. Give people time to process and offer personal assistance to the laggards. It also pays to be aware of laggards who are influential within your organization and can convert others to their anti-change point of view. Make special efforts to satisfy and win over these influential laggards—for instance, with one-on-one discussions or taking them out to lunch.
If the change is important enough, organizational leaders might need to consider jettisoning laggards who continue to stand in the way. Wrote one executive:
“At a certain point, after a reasonable amount of time has passed, each employee has just two options: get on board, or get off at the next exit.”
3.4 Share ownership and delegate effectively
Involve employees and be sure to give them tasks that contribute to the goal rather than menial ones. If everyone shares ownership and responsibility for the transition, they will feel better about the change. The Robert Half blog says:
“Spreading the workload and encouraging employees to solve problems creatively makes them feel integral to the future success of the company.”
3.5 Take emotions and concerns into account
Change is a visceral, emotional thing. As nice as it would be to expect all change participants to approach the change objectively, experience shows this just isn't possible. Unacknowledged feelings of resentment or fear can swamp a change initiative, regardless of all the good, perfectly logical reasons in the world.
Therefore, rather than trying to force people to ignore their feelings about the change, you will find greater success in acknowledging and responding to those feelings. Consider what Dominic Barton did at consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He created a confidential online portal for employees to anonymously contribute their thoughts and feelings on the change management process.
Employees were able to vent their feelings in a safe, anonymous format, and Barton was able to move forward with addressing these feelings.
3.6 Remain firm but be flexible
Stay focused on your goals to ensure that changes are properly implemented and completed. The Robert Half blog says that, if parts of the plan are left unfinished, it could inadvertently display that other parts are able to be avoided, leaving employees less committed to the process.
This doesn't mean that change agents should be unreasonably rigid and unyielding. Circumstances will likely require you to be flexible and ready to alter your strategies, if necessary, to get past hiccups that will surely come.
3.7 Monitor the change and, again, communicate
Many of these tips come down to frequent and open communication. Again, Lamoureux provides major insight, pointing out that communication should stay focused on the following:
- Why the organization is making the change
- The vision and strategy for the change
- Encouragement to work as a team and how important individuals are to the process
- What to expect in this phase
- Report on previous phase (if applicable)
- How the change will impact the individual in their organizational role
3.8 Monitor the change while it’s being implemented
Your employees and team project managers should be watching the whole change management process as the changes are made so that if there are hiccups, you can identify them and make quick course corrections before it throws everything off. This implies two things:
One, it implies that your team should have sufficient visibility, provided via work management software or other tools, to see how things are progressing. Not all teams have this capability, but all should strive for it.
Two, it implies change participants have a tool, portal, or process in place to deliver feedback. Ideally, you will want both of these capabilities in place before the change implementation begins.
3.9 Consider using a change management consultant
If you are implementing a technical solution, you often need consulting to help you move forward faster. A change management consultant can move things forward at a much faster pace and be an ally if people hit snags with the new tech. If people adopt the software faster, the organization realizes the benefits of the technology sooner.
That's less time for doubt and fear to set in (there are those emotions again) and kill your change implementation prematurely.
3.10 Don't forget to focus on people
First, follow the steps needed with the business process side of the change. Unfortunately, says Escalla.me, most organizations stop there:
“When you are focused on business process optimization and visibility, it can be easy to forget the people-side of change. We’ve learned over time that considering the people-side of the change, how it will impact their everyday work routines can be key to success."
3.11 Repeat training and make adjustments
The goal for any change initiative is to have it become the standard practice in the organization. This means people need to be re-trained and in quick fashion. Also, if the training is less convenient than participants think it should be, they might use it as a scapegoat.
So make training convenient, in terms of both timing and ease of use. Give people the right training on the new software or process as well as a place to ask for help as they make adjustments to the way things now are. Again, it is the human element of that change that will likely pose your greatest challenge. Helping employees through it is key.
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Part 4: Assess the change
4.1 Stick to the plan
Stick to the core of your plan. Expect more than enough improvisation in the face of change. In the end, however, everyone involved will appreciate consistency, even if comes across as unwillingness to budge on the part of the change agents.
4.2 Be patient
Change takes time. And usually, you're much farther along the learning curve than everyone else is. Lamoreaux explains:
“When you are leading the change, you’ve been riding the wave a long time. … Be patient and understanding. Listen to your biggest objectors. Once reassured, they often will become your best internal champions for the change. Always plan for more time than you think you need.”
Respect everyone's right to have their own reactions, communicate the news with authenticity and empathy, and give everyone time to work through the change cycle at an individual pace.
4.3 Make sure the change is fully documented
So you've executed your change management plan. Now, has it been thoroughly integrated into your company's process and documentation? Because this is vital to your change's staying power, this becomes a crucial step in your change effort.
“Make sure new employees understand it right away by revising material within the organization," recommends Intuit's QuickBase blog. "This could include everything from the company’s mission statement to performance review guidelines to new-hire orientation programs.”
4.4 Be ready to show the results
As we’ve said, change hurts at first. Effective change agents must be able to communicate how the change has affected its target metrics. Of course, this implies that you've been tracking the project's key success metrics from the beginning.
Do you have the tools in place to allow you to do this? If not, you want to make sure you do before you execute.
Part 5: Make the change permanent
5.1 Get an executive on your side
Sadly, in many cases, your change will survive only as long as nobody higher up on the food chain decides they no longer like it. On the other hand, recruiting an executive to act as the sponsor of your change effort will all but guarantee its longevity.
"Executive sponsors can be the driving force," says Lamoreaux, "communicating the vision for the change and why it is important for users to jump on board."
Often, I would add, with more authority and power than the typical change agent can summon.
5.2 Keep the conversation going
Many changes fail to stick simply because the next big thing comes along and pushes it out of the minds of employees. Yes, this means that your job of advocating for your change is not yet over. The plus side, however, is that you now have allies who can keep the topic top-of-mind for you.
Lamoreaux recommends that change agents provide forums, lunch and learns, and town hall meetings where change participants can continue to ask questions and other participants can help them through the challenges of adoption. This has the two-fold benefit of keeping the conversation alive and empowering more employees in promoting the change.
This, she says, can get the steadfast change agent to that blessed state of full change implementation.
"It’s one thing to launch but the true success comes when people get to the place where the new way of doing things is 'just the way we do it here.'"