The only thing that doesn’t change is change.” Everyone in our industry has probably heard this one before. Today, we live and breathe change. It is part of our everyday lives. As leaders of our organizations, we need to be the ones recognizing the need for change and promoting it in our workplace. Some of the great companies of the past that have failed to do so live only in our memories today: Blockbuster, Kodak, Sun Microsystems and Polaroid, to name a few.
To recognize the need for change, we must be aware of our surroundings and environment. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Knowledge speaks but wisdom listens.” This quote was later popularized by Jimi Hendrix. I believe both Holmes and Hendrix knew far too well the array of interpretations that we would formulate out of this statement, including: “Look, Listen, Learn.”
We must be on the lookout for improved tools, processes and best practices within and outside the organization. As an example, the millennium generation entering the market expects to work with tools that will have a similar look and feel as a Facebook-type interface. In the same manner, the approaches you use for managing and coaching will differ for Gen X agents and YOLOs (Generation Y—You Only Live Once). Their expectations are not the same, and your approach should reflect those differences. The only constant in any change, regardless of its nature or environment in which it takes place, is that all changes start and end with a person!
Beware of Common Pitfalls
So, you’ve assessed your needs and decided that it was time to change. How you will coordinate and implement this change with your team is the key success factor and at the base of any change. Keep in mind that your organization is only as strong as its weakest link. Whether or not the desired solution or outcome has already been decided on, there are key steps that need to be taken to ensure a successful implementation. Depending on the size of your organization (or stakeholders impacted), the number of people involved in preparing and implementing the change may vary. What will not change are the steps and actions you will take to deliver the change—from strategies and guiding principles to actions and interventions, and your communication plans.
Many times, I have seen enterprises, small and large, engage in change with an incomplete suite of tools or an inadequate approach. A project plan, a training plan and a one-way communication strategy is simply not enough to achieve your goal. Too many times, we forget to document our vision or the potential impacts and concerns of the key stakeholders. We forget to reflect on and document desired behaviors and actions that will lead the way to this change. We assume that one formal training (regardless of the format adopted) will be sufficient. We tend to put aside the harsh realities of retraining and refresher training, cold-storage strategies or increased support that are called for during the transition. We forget that communication is a two-way bridge, and we don’t listen to or answer the questions, concerns or ideas communicated by the people impacted by the change. We forget or neglect to assign an owner for each of these variables. We tend to look at the level of success from a very high level, not assigning objectives and targets to be met. Post-mortems are often overlooked. Yes, following the yellow brick road may feel tedious at times, and give you the impression that this may be more time consuming or costly, but it will definitely increase your chances to achieve your goal.
Assign Roles & Responsibilities
Once you have set a vision and a road map, establishing the governance of the project is the next key action that needs attention. Who will drive this change? Why? Where do you position your influencers? How do you address negative leaders? These are only some of the questions you’ll need to answer and prepare for when getting ready for change. From the project champion to project team members and change agents, each role and the degree of success will impact the outcome.
Your communication strategy will have a great impact and should be consistent in its form and in the key messages that employees will retain from it. The suite of tools you use is also impactful. More than ever, the medium is the message, and not using every tool at your disposal to communicate may send the wrong message. For instance, using only email to communicate and to promote the change can easily lead to the wrong interpretation from the stakeholders… such as you’re not interested in hearing their questions or concerns. Being open to discuss and offer “real-time” answers and positioning will strengthen your relationship with employees and increase your credibility.
Even in the best circumstances, our natural reaction to change is to resist. Not everyone will be at the same “acceptance stage,” so hoping that one common and general message will address all needs and concerns throughout the implementation would be a risky gamble. Instead, recognize the need for “evolutive communication.”
Employees usually fall into one of four categories. At the high end of the spectrum, we have our stars, allies and work horses. These people have high engagement and enablement. They trust their leaders. They understand and agree to the change. At the other end are those employees who do not trust you or the change—the adversaries, dead wood or problem child. They don’t feel engaged or empowered and will do everything to avoid the change. In between, we find those who trust you but don’t feel the need to change, or the ones who believe in the change but don’t trust that their leaders are the right people to manage them through the change.
Depending on which segments your employees fall into (ally or adversary) and their behavior in the evolution of change, a targeted message that addresses the specifics of the situation would be beneficial. For example, faced with a group that believes in the change but not the leaders, my message would be geared toward trust for the leadership and the organization. At the opposite end (trust in the leaders, but not the change), my message would focus on “what’s in it for you” and the value of the change. Don’t forget your allies and stars! Their engagement needs to be recognized, promoted and valued. Omitting to do so may lead to a change in their level of engagement or productivity.
Frontline managers and mid-level managers have an even greater challenge. While they will also experience these stages of concern, they need to speed through the acceptance process as they are the ones who will be promoting the change on a daily basis. As the first representatives of the organization, they are the ones who must face concerned or frustrated employees. At times, they may even agree with employees’ concerns, but are unable to express it due to their position and responsibilities. How can you help them? Bring them on board and inform them ahead of time, enabling them to engage in the acceptance process ahead of the employees they coach and manage, and who they will need to support through the change.
You Can’t Fool Your Staff into Accepting Change
Your change management strategy and approach should focus on increasing the value and quality of the change for the stakeholders, not dressing it up or diverting the attention to a futile topic. Hoping to fool your employees into a change could be a costly decision.
“Winging it” is another common situation that derails change. In the beginning, everyone is eager to do a great job. They put a lot of effort into planning and preparation. Over time, business priorities, time or resource constraints, or other challenges begin to emerge and we start winging it. When this happens, leaders and champions have to take a step back and meet to refocus the efforts.
Communication is a two way street—this can never be stressed enough. Getting feedback from your key stakeholders on all of the tools and strategies implemented will pay off. Although it may seem time consuming, this is the typical “short-term pain for long-term gain” trade-off.
Remember that the project “end date” is another step, not the end of the change. As I stated at the beginning of the article, the only constant is change. Organizations that lack focus on continuous improvement will eventually lose their edge. To maintain your competitive advantage, set clear objectives, measure them and track the results. The data used must be accurate and integral, key personal must be made aware of results, and actions must be taken when results fall below target. Postmortems must be performed to re-engage in the thought process of a potential need for change.
If I asked a hundred managers about their desire to work in a static environment or one in constant change, I’m pretty sure a large majority would choose the static one. This is how we naturally react to change. But if I asked those same individuals which organization is more likely to succeed and become a leader in its industry, most will point toward the one that is seeking change and continuous improvement. Being aware of where you stand is the first key to success. The rest will come with a resolute desire to move forward and achieve new summits.
Change Management Cheat Sheet
For those of you who have been inspired by this article and the suggested approach, I am providing this “pocket size” cheat sheet. Don’t hesitate to repeat as needed, and good luck!
Plan for change
- Leadership initiates and communicates desire for change.
- Two-way communication takes place with key stakeholders.
- Feedback, questions, recommendations are gathered from these discussions.
- Key desired behaviors that will drive the most value in the change are identified.
- Vision document and project overview document are built.
- Roles and responsibilities for key personnel are identified.
- Stakeholders’ questions and relevant concerns (and how these will be addressed) are documented.
- Project plan clearly details each step in the change, the owners and expected outcomes.
- Communication kit is built, including collaterals, key messages and branding of the project.
- Training material and roll-out schedule are developed.
- Change management strategy success.
- Customer and stakeholder experience.
- Desired behaviors.
- Operational efficiency and performance.