change management is one of the most difficult things in a business

How do you manage change in your business?

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Change Management is always a popular topic on social media and I’m sure that there have been thousands (if not millions) of posts written about the subject. This is because, while most organizations know the theory, they struggle to execute change properly. In fact, research into the relative success of change programs found that 70% of change programs fail!

I have been either been fortunate or have been doing the right things as most of the change projects that I have worked in have been successful. Assuming that it’s the latter, below are some things that have worked for me, particularly when dealing with change projects which result in the thing that creates the most resistance to change (i.e. reduction in staff.)

This is not intended to be an exhaustive to-do list of things that will ensure that change management will be successful in a project. It rather shows the key areas where I’ve seen these projects run into difficulties. Please feel free to add, comment, and challenge these.

1.      Plan for the change

This may seem obvious but I’ve seen a lot of project plans for change programs with nothing in them related to change management itself. I have even been in discussions with senior stakeholders who have argued that a change plan is not necessary for a large-scale project because the staff would somehow “understand why the change was required and what the benefits are.”

I was a big Star Trek fan when I was a kid and this reminds me of a famous quote from one of the principal characters, Mr. Spock: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” For those of you who are not “Trekkies”, Mr. Spock was an alien who lacked emotion and was driven solely by logic.

Unfortunately, all the stakeholders in a change project are human and driven by emotion rather than logic and their needs definitely come first.

Planning for the change means at the very least:

  • Identifying all the stakeholders who will be impacted by the project
  • How they will be impacted
  • Understanding how they feel about the change
  • Developing a change impact analysis & risk assessment
  • Developing a communications plan that addresses all the above.

2.      Don’t patronize people

Nobody deliberately plans to patronize their staff/colleagues but, when it comes to change management, this is an easy trap to fall into. This is because it’s not easy to distinguish between genuine issues and general negative sentiment due to people’s natural resistance to change.

The trick is that there is no distinction between the 2. They should both be treated as genuine issues since negative sentiment is a problem that can undermine the project. I would go as far as to say that negative sentiment is possibly the biggest problem as it can spread easily and impact the whole project.

Avoid comments like “trust me,” “I/we know what we’re doing,” “it will be fine,” “this is for a bigger cause,” “you need to look at the big picture” etc.

These sound patronizing and run the risk of being counterproductive as staff may be sufficiently be offended to deliberately undermine the project because you have not addressed the original concerns.

I also suggest that you use the Kübler-Ross model (aka change curve) with discretion. It should not be used as a substitute for a well-prepared communication explaining:

  • what is changing
  • why the change is happening
  • what the benefits are and, most importantly
  • how the change will impact the person/group.

3.      Be honest and respectful

the importance of honesty and respect in change management

This can be difficult if the change project that you are implementing results in people losing their jobs. Not just because of the sensitivities involved but because you also need to respect the law. The key is to communicate as much as you can as soon as you can.

Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, it helps if you show compassion and empathy. I have discovered that showing some emotion can be helpful and will not be taken negatively as long as it’s genuine. If not, then it will be perceived as being patronizing.

Times are changing but some people still feel a sense of loyalty to their employer/company and see their job as part of their identity. They may understand why the change is being made but it will still feel like a divorce to them with many of the same emotions.

Money is not always the answer. Of course, it helps but the important thing is that you treat the impacted group as well (if not better) than those not impacted.

A good change program will recognize that and plan for this.

4.      Be consistent and fair

The underlying theme of this post is that badly executed change management can have disastrous consequences on your project or program. Not only is it likely to fail but it’s likely to create unintended consequences.

Another possible “gotcha” is not treating all staff fairly and consistently. This applies to staff who have not been impacted by the change as well as staff that has. You cannot rely on confidentiality agreements and trust employees not to speak to each other. This is especially the case when dealing with different countries and cultures, where for example, it’s common to talk about pay, severance, etc., so avoid the issue in the first place. Treat all staff fairly and consistently because it will ensure:

  • Staff whose roles have been changed or replaced have fewer grievances
  •  The remainder of staff (who you presumably want to stay) are less likely to leave

It will also preserve the overall reputation of the organization. I attended an excellent talk by Carolina Borracchia who explained that a company no longer controls its reputation, particularly as an employer. Its reputation is now governed by a combination of its current employees and its ex-employees amongst other groups.

5.      Use lawyers to advise you, not to do your work

Lawyers should advise during change management

Lawyers are necessary if your change program involves redundancies because you must respect the local laws. Their role, however, is to advise your company, BUT they are not its employees. They should not be used in redundancy meetings as will not have a relationship with the people who are being made redundant. It’s also very unlikely that they will be change or communication experts required to manage this delicate and sensitive meeting. This is the job of the management team. The only exceptions are if the staff has specifically requested the lawyer’s presence and or are planning to bring their own legal counsel.

This is obviously a very delicate meeting and you don’t want to do/say anything that may be legally compromising but you must not forget that there is a person sitting across from you who is being told that their life is about to change significantly. Believe me, it’s a lot better to manage this personally because you’ll be surprised how small your industry/market becomes when something like this happens.

It can have negative consequences to your business reputation, staff turnover, and recruitment. Everyone takes note!! You must take responsibility as their leader and remember points 2 – 4 when speaking to staff.

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