I love the work of change management because it is messy, unpredictable, and deeply personal. Humans, when taken individually, are complex and full of surprises. But aggregate the expected behavior of 10, 50, or even 10,000 humans and the possible outcomes are practically limitless. I have yet to experience a boring day on a change management project and I don’t expect to live through one any time soon.
To people looking on as observers, change management often appears to just be the “fluffy stuff” tacked on to the real technical work like a frivolous decoration, having no real impact on project outcomes. Just because our outputs are human behavior doesn’t mean our planning and execution requires any less strategic insight, intellectual rigor or domain expertise than any other comparable work stream. Taking at a minimum that oft-repeated Kotter statistic that more than 70 percent of change efforts fail, there is ample research out there backing up the premise that failed organizational transformation is largely due to factors associated with human behavior. So it follows that putting a structured approach in place to anticipate, guide and reinforce supportive human behaviors is critical to success. But perhaps drawing on a more relatable and simplistic example; if human behavior change was so automatic and effortless, there would be virtually no market for life coaches, motivational speakers and self-help books.
I frankly take issue with the term “change management”. Labeling our activities as such conveys a sense of control that none of us actually has. It is comforting to business leaders to believe that the people-element of a situation can just be ‘managed;’ but we are not dealing with puppets, these are human beings with free will. And to further complicate things, people in groups develop a sense of collective identity that layers on to individual experiences and may morph into a movement unto itself. The more you attempt to control how humans behave, the more resistance you will face. (Just try telling a teenager to limit his or her device time.)
To insinuate that we are “managing change” makes it seem as if the people are unruly, and if left to their own devices they will actively sabotage the whole thing. This is unfair. I prefer the term organizational transformation, because I believe it allows for recognition that the environment in which we build our teams and the cultures, systems and process in our workplaces, must be organized in such a way as to make change happen naturally.
Rather than managing or corralling teams through the experience of a change, what we are seeking to do is tap into mutually reinforcing incentive structures that already exist. When we leverage the sense of vision, enthusiasm and determination that exist naturally within the human spirit, we can build momentum towards a common desired purpose. I think of this work as something like building the infrastructure to steer naturally existing waterways away from crowded villages and soggy fields, in order to power a hydroelectric dam. No single stream could generate hydroelectric power, but many flowing into each other can produce enough force to turn a heavy turbine.
When we prepare to facilitate organizational transformation, we start with a simple assessment:
What is Changing?
We must understand and document, in the most global way possible, exactly what is changing, so that we can thoroughly anticipate and prepare for the human reaction to the change. If a technology is being implemented, what business process, organizational structures or other more subtle aspects of the workplace context will change.
For example, if a workflow tool replaces the time-consuming task of moving work through email exchange–does this remove some of the beneficial socialization within a team?
In an ideal situation we are at this point sitting in on the business requirement or process design sessions in order to listen in on discussion and capture any expression of potential change impacts. This is not just about gathering a laundry list of gripes. If you listen carefully you can almost always uncover some unexpected perks associated with the change that will be helpful later when looking to build incentives for teams to adopt the change. In a recent client project some business representatives expressed concern that the new tool being proposed lacked a version history function. When we dug a little deeper into this request, it became clear that the existing tool frequently resulted in corrupt files, which required users to go back to prior versions. This gave us some concrete information for our user messaging on the benefits of moving to a more stable and secure tool.
Who is experiencing the change?
Since most of what we do is associated with system implementation, the focus is generally on the system user at first. But we advise casting as wide a net as possible at first so there are no surprises later on. In addition to those who will actually touch the new technology/process, we must also consider the potential partners who will need to do something differently as a result of an upstream or downstream change. This analysis, conducted alongside the business process design phase, should reveal whether some organizational roles or structures need to adapt outside the system in order to reap the full intended benefits, or in order to prevent a broken process down the line. No matter what the change, there is always someone in the equation who feels like they are at risk of “losing” something. Whether perceived or real; this fear must be addressed directly.
What is the context of the change?
Change does not happen in a vacuum. We are asked to accept change against the backdrop of the day-to-day, and behind the lens of our own perception of the world and where we fit. Each individual brings to the change experience his or her own beliefs and values, any underlying concerns about finances and families, and a natural threshold of change tolerance. In addition, since most change happens to groups of people, existing group dynamics will influence a team’s ability to manage change. Team members bring to the change a sense of the roles they play within that team, and this may color the perception of the transition positively or negatively. An organization with a high rate of turnover and low employee satisfaction, for example, will find it more challenging to transition employees through a change than another similar organization where employees have high levels of trust in leadership and a sense of stability. This is logical when we think about this at the most micro level and reflect on how our own behavior change endeavors can be easily thwarted with a lack of sleep, for example.
It is tempting to dismiss individual experience and assume that because we are driving change in a professional environment, human instincts and personal biases will not play a role, but it simply isn’t true. When it all boils down, we are dealing with people rather than robots (at least for now), and the more that you can become aware of and empathize with each individual’s situation, the more equipped you will be to anticipate and plan for the challenges that lie ahead. So many leaders paint the picture of the intended destination and then proceed with eyes closed in the hopes that “just getting there” will make the change happen faster and minimize bumps in the road. Try driving your car with a blindfold and you’ll quickly see how unrealistic that expectation is.
Assessment is just the beginning, of course, and it lays the foundation for a robust engagement plan with outreach that is customized, well-timed and actionable according to the needs of your various stakeholder groups. In the best case scenario, the work of assessing the change also feeds valuable information back into the business process phase of the project, making the design more representative of user needs. A technology-centric approach to requirements may not pick up on the peripheral structures that must adapt to the new system and process infrastructure in which it will be used.
Additionally, the very act of bringing broad participant feedback into the discussion of requirements sends the message that the project team is listening and concerns are being addressed. It’s human nature; we want to feel that our voices count. The biggest enabling factor for successful organizational transformation is when people feel invested in the change. The more that individuals feel they have contributed to the vision for the future state and it isn’t just “happening to them”, the more likely they are to adopt to and carry the transformation forward.