“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus
This saying has never felt more true than over the past few months. We are in a time of constant change right now — both personally and professionally, and in every community, city, state, and country around the world. So how, in this time of COVID, can we better deal with change across an organization? What does effective change management really look like?
You’ve probably seen the statistic: around 70 percent of change initiatives fail to meet their objectives. Two of the biggest reasons these projects fail are a lack of support from management and employee resistance. Support and resistance are two sides of the same coin. For most of us, resistance to change is a normal part of our DNA, especially when we are unsure of the outcome. People tend to inflate the value of the current situation and underrate potential gains.
Most folks, given the right information at the appropriate time, will adapt to change and support the efforts. People need to understand why they need to devote time and energy to the project, how it’s going to impact them, and what the end result is going to look like. And those answers are going to be different for different roles and teams.
First, ask yourself these questions
People often hear me say that change for the sake of change is typically not successful. That has definitely been my experience. And it’s especially true right now, when everyone is dealing with some level of personal and professional change and uncertainty — making it more critical to ensure that change is even warranted.
The best way to initiate any change is to clearly define the change the organization needs to make and align that change to your business goals and objectives. With that in mind, all executives and senior project sponsors should be able to answer the following five questions before kicking off a major initiative:
- What is our strategic plan, and what are our goals and objectives?
- Will our current environment, teams, processes, and tools allow us to reach our goals?
- Is change necessary?
- What needs to change?
- Why does it need to change?
Once you’ve answered these questions and ensured change is both necessary and aligned to your overarching business strategy, the real work of change management can begin.
5 best practices for effective change management
For the past 20 years, I’ve helped businesses navigate change management initiatives. I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what will lead to project success. I’ve also witnessed just about every potential setback that can cause a project to lose steam or derail it altogether, so I’ve learned how to get in front of them and head them off at the pass.
Below are the traditional, tried-and-true best practices for effective change management that I’ve refined over the years based on my own experience. I’ve found them to be rock solid when navigating large-scale initiatives across an organization, and I hope you find them helpful as well.
- Gain high-level executive support and alignment
Senior leadership support is essential and is best demonstrated when senior sponsors communicate the change, along with their unwavering support, across all departments — because aligned organizations see the most success.
The main project sponsors are responsible for ensuring that senior executives understand the project vision and scope, and that they have the tools they need to communicate effectively to their given areas. Due to the already considerable demands on the senior executives’ time, this is not usually accomplished by holding a ton of meetings. Rather, it’s done by tailoring updates and meetings to exactly what is needed and wanted by the executives over each area.
To gain support from senior executives, you’ll need to:
- Listen to their vision, expectations for success, and concerns.
- Let them know you’ve heard them by clearly summarizing what they shared.
- Clearly articulate the scope and vision of the project in the context of their area.
- Communicate with them throughout the project.
- Execute on project milestones, deliver what you promised, and update them every step of the way.
On a particular engagement, we worked with a point of contact from a marketing ops team whose charter was to rebuild and optimize the entire lead management process. Despite assurances of C-level executive support, the director-level stakeholders were hearing conflicting demands and an incomplete vision from senior leadership over their area. This was not because the senior executive wasn’t behind the project; he just didn’t have the tools to properly communicate the vision in the context of his area’s priorities and demands. The result was a continuous struggle throughout the project to work cross-functionally and adopt the program.
Since executive sponsors are not usually as well-versed in the details of the project and its detailed scope, it means diving deep into “what it means” for them and incorporating their feedback. It also means giving them the tools they need to communicate with their teams. Often, operational managers and teams need to hear support from the senior executive over their area — and in their own words — to give their full cooperation to the project.
2. Develop answers to the question “What does this mean for me?” for every level, area, and stakeholder impacted.
When presented with a change initiative, most people’s first thought is, “What does this mean for me?”
The senior team wants to understand how to shift the organization. Managers want to know how they can prepare their teams and if they have the correct business units, people, etc. Individual contributors want to know the impact: Will their day-to-day activities change? Will their job change? Will they have a job?
Thinking about these potential impacts will allow you to get ahead of any questions and think about how you will frame the discussion when you answer them.
Start with these basic questions and tailor your responses for each area of the organization:
- What are the impacts of the change?
- Who will be affected the most/the least?
- Can we anticipate how the change will be received?
Creating a talk track or a communication plan that resonates with the organization will show that you have been thoughtful in your approach, enabling you to build trust and move past any initial resistance.
3. Develop a communication strategy
Once you’ve identified the anticipated impacts and who will be the most and least affected, figure out how you’ll communicate the change across the organization. Determine which scenarios make the most sense for your business and different stakeholders, whether that’s communicating to large groups, small groups, or one on one.
Then, tailor your communications to ensure you are sharing the relevant information with the right people at the right level. Be sure to include the “why” as well as what they can expect. Anticipate and be prepared for how you’ll handle any feedback.
As you put together your communication plan, you’ll need to understand:
- What behaviors or processes will need to change?
- What new tools will be brought on board?
- What skills will people need that they don’t have today?
- What method will we use for training? (e.g., extensive group sessions, one-on-one time, outside training, etc.)
Then, create a timeline and a set of expectations, and communicate this as early as you are able — and repeat it frequently so it sticks.
4. Develop a support plan
At this point, you can begin to assess who is on board without reservation and who may need some extra support. From this assessment, you can create a support plan.
There are several ways you can provide support, but the most significant way to support folks is by having an open door (or an open ear) to hear their concerns. Also, ensuring they understand that others support the change — from the senior level down to the individual contributor level — will go a long way in fostering their own readiness for change.
Below are some other ways you can provide support and foster readiness for change:
- Lunch and learn sessions
- Investment in additional education and training
- Town halls and/or regular communication meetings
- Acknowledge and allow for the learning curve and the adoption curve (i.e. there will be mistakes, and there will be learnings, and that’s okay)
5. Execute, capture feedback, and refine your plan as needed
Take a temperature, or pulse, check every so often, through the course of the change. Checking in will enable you to see how change is affecting your teams and gauge where some people are.
Resistance will show up in several ways. You may find folks missing meetings or failing to turn in action items on time. You may notice that emails go unanswered, or are not answered in a timely manner. Folks may begin to take more PTO. You may notice an uptick in office gossip, as well.
If you find that your change management efforts aren’t going as smoothly and successfully as you would like, try one or more of the following to course correct:
- Reiterate senior sponsorship and support for projects
- Create additional communication channels
- Connect the change to real results by sharing how close you are to reaching your original goals and objectives
- Measure proficiency and offer additional training
- Solicit feedback regularly and address it by developing any necessary tools, enhancing processes or systems, and/or creating documentation
- Continue to have an open door/open ear policy
- Celebrate successes — not just the completion of the entire effort, but little wins along the way
You can also measure success by understanding the level of completed training, the proficiency of your employees on tools and processes, and, once rolled out, the level of adoption across the organization.
Successfully navigate your way through change
Remember what I said about change for the sake of change. It almost always backfires, especially when there are so many moving parts across an organization. Take the time up-front to map out where you need to be based on your company’s strategic and financial direction, and then define what it will take to get there. Then, and only then, will you be able to clearly — and convincingly — articulate why the organization needs to change.
I always love to hear about other people’s experiences and how they’ve navigated through any potential roadblocks. Think about some of your projects over the years. Was each one successful, in every measurable way? If so, please share your secret! If not, what prevented your team from reaching its goals? Do you think that following any of these best practices may have helped steer your project back to success?
We’ve helped hundreds of clients navigate their way through complex digital transformation initiatives, and we’ve learned a thing or two in the process. If you’re in the midst of a large change, or if you’re thinking about initiating one, feel free to reach out! We’d love to share how we’ve helped other organizations succeed, and how we can help yours succeed as well.
As Head of Client Success, Shauna Wager leads our client engagement teams in practices that focus on delivering exceptional client experiences by ensuring her team is equipped with the processes, skills, and tools to solve problems, encourage innovation, and lead our clients to exceed their goals and objectives. Shauna brings over 20 years of experience leading teams and clients to success, in both large and small organizations, across both B2B and B2C industries. Shauna’s investment in client success has been centered on working collaboratively with teams to deliver strategic marketing and sales solutions incorporating process, technology, education, and change management best practices that help guide organizations through digital transformation.