Managing change: how to drive beneficial progress and get your people on board

How to harness change within your organisation, with tips on how to handle resistance.
Wed 4th Sep 2019

What is change management?

All organisations exist in a constant state of change, ranging from the need for minor process adjustments, all the way through to major cultural transformations that compel you to fundamentally alter your ways of working.

If change is constant, then ‘change management’ is the proactive and positive control of your organisation’s evolution in a strategically planned way. For example, many organisations were faced with the need to change when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in 2018. Those that weren’t already taking a stringent approach to data privacy found they needed to transform the way employees managed and protected personal data.

What drives change?

Change is usually driven by multiple factors, but it can help to see the drivers as either coming from within the organisation, or as a response to an external impact.

Internal drivers could be the need for cost efficiencies or the diversification of your organisation’s products or services. Change can also be triggered by senior hires and departures that result in different strategic directions and working practices.

External drivers could be new compliance regulations such as GDPR, evolving customer expectations, and the introduction of disruption within your marketGlobal megatrends such as emerging technology and the climate change imperative are also driving the need for change.

Why manage change?

Change can bring many challenges, but two in particular make a compelling case for an effective approach to change management.

First, change introduces instability as your organisation enters uncharted waters, with bigger changes increasing the potential for greater failure and financial damage. A managed approach means the organisation has a better understanding of the journey it is taking, which can incorporate plans to mitigate specific risks.

Second, if change doesn’t appear to have a clear purpose or direction, it can have a negative impact on employee morale and wellbeing that can lead to absenteeism and higher staff turnover. A managed approach gathers your workforce around a common purpose, motivates them to embrace the journey, and increases the chance of success.

How do I manage a change project?

Successful change management is a blend of structure and flexibility. On one hand you need to be as prepared as possible, with a clear idea of what you are changing, why you are changing it, and how you intend to bring about the change. On the other hand, you need to be flexible enough to respond quickly to emerging situations and opportunities.

One of the most well-known change management models was developed by Kurt Lewin and Edgar Schein, and is founded on the principle that people don’t tend to commit to change unless they understand it. Here is their three-step process, with logical scoping and review periods attached to the beginning and end:

  • Scope the change: Establish a clear picture of the change in your mind. What do you need to change and why? What are the benefits? How will you achieve it? Larger change projects will require a formal assessment based on a range of fact-finding activities, although smaller projects may only need a single workshop with colleagues. Once you understand the change and the journey you need to take, you can decide whether the benefits are worth the effort
  • Unfreeze your people: This is the process of psychologically ‘defrosting’ people from their existing behaviour. Like the transition from ice to water, you want your employees at a point where they can become something different. Achieving this isn’t dissimilar to a mini-marketing campaign in which you promote a clear vision of what the organisation will look like with the change in place, and the benefits of doing so. For example, if you want to deliver a project to achieve a paperless office, you could focus on the benefits of enhanced productivity, less clutter and better environmental sustainability
  • Implement the change: The planning and delivery of the change should be driven by a team of senior people using a range of carefully planned activities. By this stage, your employees should already broadly accept that the change is needed and beneficial. Therefore, alongside the change implementation activities, this is the time to focus on winning over any pockets of resistance. Most important is to make sure the process of change doesn’t go unnoticed by employees. You might even want to make a splash to get everyone behind delivery. For example, you could launch your paperless office project with a symbolic action such as holding a tree-planting ceremony outside the office. However, simply talking about the change positively at every opportunity increases the chance of it becoming an established part of your organisation’s DNA
  • Refreeze: This is where the new behaviour becomes embedded within the organisation. Communicate the ‘wins’ to everyone, and reward adopters to promote continued good behaviour, whether this is undertaken as a formal part of your appraisal process or on a more ad hoc basis. For the paperless office, this could be reporting progress using a ‘tree-ometer’ on a prominent wall, and rewarding your greenest department
  • Review: Finally, measure the actual impacts of the change compared to the vision you identified at the scoping stage. Was the change project as successful as you hoped? What were the strengths and weaknesses of the project? Were there any unanticipated side-effects? What did you learn about your organisation?

Top tips for getting people on board

Change management is first and foremost a people skill. It relies on your ability to persuade employees that change is necessary and beneficial for both them and the organisation overall. That said, there will almost always be some dissent, and here are six tips that can help you address it:

  • Manage the resistance: Resistance is usually motivated by fear over the speed and manner of change. Listen to those who are resisting so you can identify their ‘pain points,’ which gives you an opportunity to gather the right evidence to alleviate their concerns
  • Manage the cynics: Cynicism can be extremely damaging for an organisation, and is often motivated by self-interest. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and look for non-combative ways to identify and defuse the cynic’s agenda
  • Stand in everyone’s shoes: Change usually means asking your employees to take something on, give something up, do something differently, or all of the above. Try to see the change from everyone’s perspective so you can initially present it in a considered manner that addresses most concerns straight away. Resistance and cynicism often arise when people can’t see the full picture, which tends to mean they end up filling in the gaps with their worst-case scenarios
  • Communicate: Maintain an open dialogue with everyone involved, and keep them up to date on progress. Find ways to keep the vision in people’s minds so they have a constant reminder about why the change is happening
  • Build a change culture: Committing to a continual cycle of change management while promoting its positive benefits can help to make change the new normal for your organisation. For example, if you need to undertake a major change, a few smaller changes can help to prepare people. However, make sure employees feel that the organisation is in control of the change, or they might start to feel that the ground is ever shifting under their feet
  • Understand your social capital: Your organisation has key influencers, and these people may not be your management. For example, a receptionist who knows the name of every member of staff will have more social capital than a CEO who spends most of their time with the management team. Get those with the greatest social capital on board with the project early on so they can act as champions who encourage others to contribute.  

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