The clichés about change abound.
“The only thing that’s certain aside from death and taxes …” “The only thing that’s changing about change is the speed …”
The reality is that all humans are familiar with change and the effort that is required to move successfully from one state to another from the time they are born. We all transform ourselves daily during our first few years of life and most of us continue to do so throughout our years.
Why then do we find it so difficult to manage change when what we’re changing is a business?
Part of the answer lies in the reality that personal change is driven from within. There is something about changing ourselves which ultimately benefits us (either psychologically or materially) and we therefore tackle the discomfort of doing something differently (perhaps being clumsy at it, perhaps feeling inadequate) until the discomfort passes and we have found a new mastery. Even when we feel really happy about the change itself, the uncomfortable feelings that come with actually making the change can be frustrating at best, overwhelming at worst.
In a business context, change is all that much harder. Often we’re not involved in deciding the change is necessary, or perhaps we disagree with the way the change is proposed to occur. In both instances, the change becomes imposed (real or imagined) and the very thing which motivates individuals to change (the notion that they’ll get psychological or material benefit from the shift) is not present in the equation.
There are few leaders today who are not familiar with the experience of “here’s the change …now manage it”. This task is often assigned with a request for a “Change Management Plan”. When this happens it’s important to have a framework to shape thinking about change and to have a generic approach to producing a simple, easily understood plan. Above all, it is important to remember that what needs to change is lots of individuals … each with individual needs. This means that armed with a clear plan, a mangers largest investment will be leading people through the change. What takes real effort (and is the difference between success or failure) is getting a critical mass of people involved to believe that there is a reason for them to tackle the discomfort of doing something differently at work.
A simple framework
There are lots of useful frameworks for managing change. One which is particularly good for helping executives stay focused is John Kotter’s approach. According to Kotter, there are eight key things you should do to drive successful change in a business:
- Establish a sense of urgency
- Create a coalition
- Develop a clear vision
- Share the vision
- Empower the people to clear obstacles
- Consolidate and keep moving
- Anchor the charge
The framework can be a useful tool for leaders planning how they will drive change, and for monitoring that they are aligned in their leadership efforts.
Michael D. Maggin also offers a useful checklist for leaders in times of change. He suggests that managers focus their effort at 3 levels – on themselves, their team as a whole, and the individuals they are leading. Maggin identifies the leader as the key link between individual motivation and the achievement of change for the business.
Personally refocus – check how the change affects you
- Understand the “from-to” (what is actually changing?)
- Choose a productive response
- Look for the opportunities in the change
- Identify your assets and resources for tackling the change
- Set personal goals for the success of the change
- Make friends with ambiguity
- Lead the team through
Lead the team through
- Paint a picture of what’s happening (be accurate, tell it as it really is)
- Build new rules for a new game
- Remember what is still important (be clear about what is not changing)
- Improvise, adapt, adjust
- Measure and celebrate progress
- Hold the team accountable (make roles clear, expect and monitor progress)
- Squash the rumor mill (label them & understand their implications)
- Get the team involved (build in choices and define the boundaries)
- Reward the team for progress
- Show a path to individuals – help them get unstuck
Show a path to the individuals – help them get unstuck
- Understand natural reactions to change
- Customize help for individuals who are struggling
- Offer empathy
- Actively surface dissatisfaction
- Pinpoint positives for individuals
- Tailor positive tasks for individuals
- Encourage individuals to let go of the past
- Stand up for people if they are right (explore complaints, report unintended consequences and let individuals know you are defending their point of view)
A Simple Plan
Once a framework has been considered, it becomes important to document the specific strategies for changing successfully. A simple plan not only acts as a vehicle for internal & client communication, but can also assist in managing Industrial Relations risks associated with the change. It is important that a Change Management Plan is:
- Simple (everyone should be able to understand it)
- Flexible (able to be modified when things a change in direction is required)
- Up to date (able to be used as a basis for communication), and
- Accessible (everyone should be able to locate and read it easily)
Any good change management plan clearly decribes the current state, the future state and the path between them. It also emphasises two way communication and is shaped around principles which stakeholders have agreed are important and will monitor their behaviour against.
Agreeing a framework and documenting strategies are good starting points, and while a well planned change has a great chance of success, there are some things that documents cannot achieve. Good leaders, through their personal style and their clever use of human resource specialists:
- Maintain high visibility and accessibility with their people, modeling active and constructive participation in the change
- Genuinely engage staff in dialogue about change; if “what” is changing is not negotiable then they ensure that staff are involved in determining “how” change might occur
- Shape communication so that it respectfully guides people through any feelings of loss, helps them to weigh up risks and identify their gains
- Ensure that people have “continuity” through change (something valued from “the way things were” which can continue through the change and into the future)
- Bring people’s attention to their individual strengths and ability to cope (give lots of information, encourage a focus on physical & emotional health and wellbeing, and provide opportunities for individual planning)
Ultimately, the test of success in organizational change is not only whether the change was achieved but also how people felt about it once it was complete. Ensuring that people feel change is done well is crucial to building a flexible and high performance organisation. At the end of the day, how people feel about change sets the stage for how ready and willing they will be to tackle their own discomfort and change, once more, for the business. Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that investing in good change management pays dividends well after the life of an individual project.