Leading Change That Transforms

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” — Kelly Clarkson “Stronger”

This is the third article in our “Be the Change Maker: Leading Change & Transformation” series. 

The first article in the series, “Be the Change Maker: Leading Change & Transformation” focused on how to set the context for change. The second article, “Leading Change: Are You Ready?”, described what is required to be ready to embark on a change initiative. 

In this article, we focus on how to lead change effectively so the organization can realize the benefits and outcomes that result from transformation, avoiding operational and emotional disruption that comes with failing to adequately manage the change. 

The approach outlined in this article is based on our experience implementing enterprise business systems, and also through our work assessing and establishing project, operational and IT teams.

Project Management vs Organizational Change Management 

Organizational Change management is the process by which an organization gets to its future state – its vision. 

Project management is all about changing “things”, while change management is about transitioning people from their current situation to their future state. 

We incorporate change management strategies into project management methodologies to assist in planning and implementing change in organizations in such a way as to minimize employee resistance and cost to the organization while maximizing the effectiveness and ROI of the effort.

Leading change is all about guiding and transitioning people through the changes to “things” (systems, processes, organizational structures, etc) in their world, while shifting their behaviors from how they are behaving (or working) currently, to how we would like them to behave (or work) in the future. 

While that might sound relatively straightforward, the challenge is that change leaders often don’t fully understand:

(a) how people are currently behaving or working 

(b) why they are behaving that way and 

(c) what the full impact is of the change – the impact to them personally, to their role, and how they perform their work. 

Leading change does not have to be complicated, however it can appear to be too daunting to tackle, or it is often underestimated and overlooked as an essential activity, or assigned to a “Change Manager” who has limited experience in implementing change resulting from business applications or systems. (Spoiler alert, a change management plan is more than a communications plan….read on). 

Project leaders may not fully understand the extent of the change or the potential impact to each individual involved and may also fail to appreciate the challenges that will come up along the way. 

Even bringing a new project team together requires change management – particularly when managing a diverse set of cross-functional business and IT teams, who may not have worked together previously. In many cases, we are working with client subject matter experts who have never been on a large project so have no idea of what to expect in their role on the project team. Establishing an effective project team requires a change management approach to set up an environment where the team can successfully collaborate. 

When leading change, it isn’t enough to just focus on shifting behaviors, we need to change people’s mindset also. They need to fully understand the reason for the change, and be ready to embrace or adopt that change.

I say “choose your hard” – you either take the time to put a plan in place to lead change effectively or you deal with the fall out later.  And, you can be sure that  there will be a fall out – the extent and the impact of that fall out will depend on the level of change that is being implemented, and the potential for disruption. 

I could spend the next several paragraphs detailing the scenarios where we have been brought in to address change failures, to the tune of 6 and 7 dollar figure “sunk” and unrecoverable costs and significant credibility and reputational damage…but I’ll spare you those horror stories. 

Suffice it to say, based on our experience of assessing and fixing projects that are failing or have stalled, or being called in months after implementation to course-correct, I can tell you that fixing the problem afterwards is definitely more difficult and expensive than taking the time to lead the change effectively all the way through from the planning and implementation phase. 

What happens when we don’t manage change

Failing to manage change impacts people differently, depending on their natural ability to handle change. Some people are more change adverse or change resistant than others, while some see themselves as early adopters so they run towards change with open arms!  However, the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle – they are comfortable with their way of working for the most part, and change introduces uncertainty. 

Our human brain doesn’t like uncertainty or discomfort, and will resist anything that pushes us outside our comfort zone. Our brain is actually hardwired to resist change. Part of the brain—the amygdala—interprets change as a threat and releases the hormones for fear, fight, or flight. Your body is actually protecting you from change. This is where addressing the mindset factors and shifting limiting beliefs comes into play. 

In order to manage change effectively, as a Change Leader, you need to understand where people are coming from and their emotional triggers and response to change. People react to change in different ways. They may be:

  • Stressed or anxious due to a perceived loss of control
  • Uncertain about what to expect or what the change means for them
  • Uncomfortable about moving from the current way of doing things
  • Worried about perceived heavier workloads
  • Concerned that they may lose their job

A lack of consistent and reliable information during a change can quickly result in “rumor mills” that play into people’s natural tendency to fear the unknown. Anyone involved in changes that have failed or significantly disrupted their lives previously will have emotional triggers for any new change and these triggers can last for decades. 

Failing to manage change can lead to “noise” and turmoil that distracts from the core work the team is executing. This can create resistance throughout the organization, reducing buy-in from cross-functional teams and leaders. Often this results in a lack of understanding about the scope or extent of the work effort or assignments, which can then result in delays and slippages. All of this, of course, adds stress to an already stressed team and further exacerbates the problem.

“An hour of planning can save you 10 hours of doing” – Dale Carnegie

We blend organizational change management into our overall project management methodology. Taking time upfront to prepare and plan for the change, reduces the churn and “noise” associated with the change, engages the team and stakeholders in the need for change, and reduces or removes psychological barriers and resistance to change.

There are 3 distinct phases to managing change effectively:

  1. Pre-implementation – focus is on readiness and understanding the current state (the 2nd article in this series covers this extensively)
  2. During implementation – design the future state, evaluate the impact of the change, and prepare the teams to adopt the change
  3. Post-implementation – help the teams move through the change through support and training, with continuous review and improvement activities

During planning, we recommend taking time to understand the organization and context of the initiative:

  • Identify and analyze all stakeholder groups
  • Assess the organization culture and experience with changes/transformations
  • Assess readiness for change across the organization
  • Establish a change management plan that will engage the team and stakeholders
  • Establish a communication plan that will ensure consistent messaging across the team and organization.
  • Identify “change agents” who can represent stakeholder groups and act as catalysts for bringing the change into the organization
  • Establish guiding principles for the change initiative

In the implementation phase, there are several key areas to manage:

  1. Leadership buy-in
      • Engage the organization’s leaders in the initiative, building a coalition for change
      • Assess staff risks, gaps, and opportunities and develop a staff development plan
      • Continually engage stakeholders and executive leaders so they can support the change team, and their teams through the change
  2. Communications:
      • Develop and deliver consistent communications at a regular cadence
      • Ensure that communications addresses the compelling reason for the change – the “why”
      • Be clear about the purpose and intent of the communications – what do you want the reader/audience to “think, feel and do”
      • Track and monitor communications to understand the effectiveness of the messaging and the delivery
      • Realign communications as needed
  3. Building competency:
      • Assess the business and individual role change impacts to fully understand how each person’s job may change as a result of the change (we use a change impact assessment that identifies changes for every role and job function or workflow).
      • Involve the change agents, stakeholder groups/representatives and end-users in design reviews and testing, so that they are engaged in the process and can provide early feedback. This improves the quality of the deliverable and their buy-in to the new processes or tools.
      • Develop policy changes, and/or communications and training plans to support the change impacts.
      • Assess training needs for the teams and end-users/stakeholders.
      • Develop the operational support model, including future roles and responsibilities.
      • Plan delivery of training and support, and the transition to operations.
  4. Sustaining the change:
      • Celebrate incremental improvements and progress.
      • Develop a culture of continuous review and improvement.
      • Address issues quickly and effectively.
      • Give the team space and time to stabilize operations in their new way of working or on a new platform.
      • Implement operational processes that support individual accountability.

In summary, communication and messaging is essential, however managing change goes beyond words – it requires a willingness to engage executives, the project team and stakeholders, an appreciation of how the change will impact real people in their everyday jobs, and doing the work necessary to ease their transition to a new way of working. 

Change takes time so don’t expect overnight success and allow enough time for support and coaching. 

Keep the feedback loop open to address issues quickly and establish a culture of continuous learning and improvement. This will help build organizational agility and lay the foundation for future change initiatives. 

Now, over to you – what is your key takeaway from this article? 

How can you help your team or organization be ready to embrace change?

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I hope these insights inspired you to take action.

We love setting teams up for success and would love to help you evaluate your readiness for change. If you’d like to explore having our help to elevate your team or accelerate your transformation, please reach out so we can find a time to talk. 

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