When I started this blog six months ago, I put together a list of topics I would like to write about. Change management was at the top of the list. It did seem like a very dauntingly complex topic, though, so I gradually pushed it down with other themes catching my attention in the meantime.
But recently, change has been consistently brought to the forefront of my mind, and I decided to do something about figuring out what we are doing wrong when we manage change. Because there certainly is something huge that we are missing. After all, there are widely cited statistics stating that 70% of all change efforts fail. Even if this number is not entirely accurate, all of us who have been through a change in our organization know how painful it usually is.
Below you can read about the ones I have crashed against and that I have seen hurt the organization, the change effort, my colleagues and myself.
What Is Change Management?
Change management is the process of designing, implementing and adopting change in organizations. In a more narrow sense, it refers to the combination of approaches and activities that support the individuals and teams to go through the transition and may include planning, communication and training, monitoring and others.
In organizations, changes requiring a structured and thoughtful approach towards implementation and management may have many different faces – implementing new technology, organizational restructuring, introducing a new process or policy, mergers and acquisitions. In short, we are bound to go through many of those during our careers and whether the change is managed properly is crucial for the professional well-being of every corporate employee out there.
In today’s business world in which companies feel they need to constantly change to remain competitive, change management is a key discipline with many professionals dedicating their work solely on managing the change process. Many models aim to structure and guide the change management process. Most of them stem from the model created by Kurt Lewin, which describes a three-phased process:
- Unfreeze – create the need for change
- Change – perform the activities on implementing the new process/behavior/structure
- Refreeze – solidify the new process/behavior/structure as the new norm
And probably the most widely known and used one is John Kotter’s 8 step model, which prescribes the following steps for a successful change process:
- Create a sense of urgency
- Build a guiding coalition
- Form a strategic vision and initiatives
- Enlist a volunteer army
- Enable action by removing barriers
- Generate short-term wins
- Sustain acceleration
- Institute change
But no matter whether we perceive change as a process with 3, 5 or 8 steps, one thing is clear – change is complex. It involves a lot of unknowns and pitfalls that organizations encounter and which can undermine the change efforts.
Failing To Understand The Full Impact
When we start planning change, we usually have an idea of where we want to go, but we don’t often spend enough time understanding where we are starting from.
I recently took a fantastic course on change management by professor Richard Badham of the Macquarie University. Throughout the course, he kept comparing change to an iceberg. This is quite a simple but handy analogy. When we envision change and plan for it, we tend to only focus on the things that we can easily see. We look at the formal policies and processes and the apparent external and internal factors such as turnover, customer loss, or increased competition. But we rarely take into account all the impactful factors that lie underneath – culture and politics, interpersonal relationships, unspoken rules and fears.
And we are usually in a hurry – we have deadlines to meet, competing projects and priorities to juggle with. I can outright admit that I am often guilty of that. I focus so much on the end goal that I am trying to achieve that I tend to skim over thoroughly investigating, understanding and documenting the current state I am starting from. More often than not, the result is that I miss crucial aspects of the process, underlying attitudes or spoken or unspoken practices that ultimately affect the objective I am aiming for.
What is more, decisions related to change are usually made at the top of the organization by individuals who, while understanding the overall strategy and direction of the company, have little insight into how things actually operate on the ground and all the big and tiny effects their decisions would have on their employees.
And to top it all up, change is usually initiated by one part of the organization but often has a significant impact on others. A great example of that is HR-initiated changes. We always have the best in mind, but much less often do we understand how the changes we implement will impact the day-to-day work of others.
There is a very common-sense way to deal with all those challenges – just ask – the people who make the decisions, the people who will be implementing those decisions, and the people who the change will impact. This can be done via focus groups, observations, and shadowing how they do their work, surveys, pilots, or joint decision-making platforms.
And I am sure that some organizations do that but less and less. Because the truth is that in the current business world, change is the norm. In an effort to keep up with the competition and our fast-paced world, organizations constantly transform, improve and restructure. And we expect that employees are already used to change, so we more and more tend to skip some of the steps to prepare them and include them in the change process.
And it is true. They are used to change. But what they are used to is to grit their teeth and endure rather than embrace the change. I recently discussed an upcoming significant organizational change with one of the managers in my team. Over the past three years, her team has gone through several leadership changes, multiple new technology launches, hundreds of process changes and an almost complete transformation of their roles and responsibilities. Her response was – “we’ll get through that too.” No excitement, not even fear or apprehension. Just complete desensitization to the next thing that is being done to her and not with her. Honestly, it devastated me.
Failing To Create Urgency
One of the first steps in most change management models is establishing the need for change or creating urgency, as Kotter puts it. To be fair, this is a step we rarely miss at the leadership level. We consult with business leaders, identify issues and propose our solutions, we enlist supporters and change ambassadors and ultimately receive sufficient buy-in for our change.
However, all of this usually stays at the top. Without understanding the current state of the processes on all levels of the organization well enough and without grasping the full impact our change efforts will have on them, it is tough to create the need for change and help people get on board. If they do not feel that the change is relevant for them or addresses their specific needs, they would have a very hard time embracing it. The result is frustrated people who don’t understand what is expected of them and why, low adoption of the change and, in the worst-case scenario – failure.
When this happens, we usually blame our communication channels and try to remedy that. People don’t read our emails, so we create a video. They don’t watch the video, so we enlist more change ambassadors to spread the news about the benefits of the change. Rarely does it occur to us that it is not the communication channel but the message itself that misses the mark or even (what a blasphemy) that the change itself is misdirected.
A good example of that (I have lived through it twice) is introducing manager self-service for HR transactions. In essence, this means enabling managers through technology to perform changes for their employees such as promotions, or salary changes or resignations, directly giving them more power for making such decisions and more independence from the HR function.
This all sounds fine and dandy until you consider that for the majority of the line managers, true people management is not very high on their daily to-do list. They have metrics to achieve, deadlines to meet, clients to engage, so managing and developing their team is something they do whenever they have spare time from their other tasks. Without empowering them to put people management at the center of their day, providing them with the technology that enables their people management tasks, seems merely like adding one more administrative task to their already too busy schedule.
Front-loading The Change Efforts
And with all the gaps I described above, the beginning of a change process is where we actually concentrate most of our efforts. This is where most of the planning goes and where the communication and any necessary training are clustered. This is also where our thoughts are focused. As soon as the go-live date for the technology or the effective date of the organizational restructuring passes, we are done.
Yes, we know our change theories and tools, so we do debriefings and post mortem analyses and list lessons learned. But even the term “post mortem analysis” says it – we are done here, any lessons we learned might be used for our next change management activity, but this one is completed.
And this cannot be further away from the truth. Because change is not a straight line from here to there. The “here” often changes as we understand more and more about the current state of affairs that we neglected in the beginning. And the “there” is a moving target with new factors propping up, other changes affecting our initial goal and our increased understanding of the full impact of what we are trying to do.
And the line from here to there is anything but straight with unexpected hurdles appearing, change resistance, shifting priorities.
So for us to be successful in our change efforts, we need to take into account that change is actually a cycle – you unfreeze, change and refreeze. And then you do it again. And again, for as long as it is necessary to achieve the results that you aim for. Each cycle needs to leave enough space and time to review and revisit the decisions and actions taken so far and adjust the course if necessary (and it is almost always necessary).
Prioritizing Design And Strategy Over Execution
Another aspect of the front-loading of change efforts is our fixation on the design of the change and the strategy over the actual execution. We spend hours of meetings and create hundreds of PowerPoint presentations to design our new process, program or organizational structure. But the actual implementation of the change is more often than not taken for granted.
I work on the delivery side of HR, and our part of the HR organization is the one who usually needs to execute any new HR policies or implement any new processes or enable any structural changes from a technology, administration or employee support standpoint. Yet, we are usually an afterthought, if a thought at all, in the design conversations. Any subsequent issues with the execution are attributed to problems within the implementation teams and not a lack of comprehensive planning of the change management efforts.
This leads to several things:
- On occasion, it turns out that the designed changes are impossible with the existing resources or tools
- More often, some limitations of the execution process require corrections in the design
- And most importantly, we miss the chance to get the individuals who will execute the change (who are usually a lot more than the ones who participated in the design) excited about the change and serving as ambassadors for it
Not Including All The Right People In The Conversation
I alluded to this several times, but I think this is important enough to deserve its own section – the majority of the change efforts are not successful because they don’t have the right people at the table when decisions are made and revised.
Top-down changes are inevitable and needed for the organization. But in the constant state of change in which we operate, in order for employees not to feel that change is always done to them and not with them, every organization needs to have mechanisms and platforms to initiate and take up bottom-up changes as well. We need to create the space and tools to empower our employees to tell us what they need so we can apply meaningful changes that address their actual needs and issues.
Even top-down changes would be a lot more successful if their change management process incorporates the views and feedback of all impacted groups. And not just at the beginning, but throughout all change cycles.
Having said that, I do understand why organizations shy away from that. Major changes involve a lot of cost, time and resources. Once all of that investment is made, the last thing we want to hear halfway through is that we are going in the wrong direction. However, the waste of time, resources and the negative employee experience might be much higher in the end if we stubbornly continue in our chosen direction without consulting and taking into account all feedback along the way.
Focusing Only On The Tip Of The Iceberg
Even if we avoid all the traps and mistakes described so far, our change efforts can still fail if we focus only on the immediately visible – formal processes, procedures, hierarchy and relationships. Multiple factors are hiding beneath the surface, which have the potential to make or break our change initiative – culture, unspoken rules, office politics, emotions, attitudes and concerns.
I will focus on only two of them here, which I have observed to be most impactful through my experience. `
The first factor that we often miss is that change requires modification of behaviors that go beyond the simple adoption of the new process or policy or learning to use the new technology. Each significant change in an organization brings about a shift in roles and responsibilities, power and relationships. This is especially true of organizational changes and restructuring during which work and responsibilities are moved, new organizational structures are created, and roles are transformed.
After such a change, a previously standard and acceptable behavior could prove to be counterproductive or disruptive. Alliances and relationships, which used to help us achieve our work goals, may no longer bring the same value.
There are two main mistakes that organizations make with respect to that. The first one is not to provide a clear expectation of the new behaviors and the necessary tools and support to ensure the employees can adopt them. This omission will lead to confusion and will prolong the change implementation, and in some cases, if the organization is not good enough in self-regulating, may disrupt the change altogether.
The second issue can be observed in organizations where the leadership is not entirely on board with the change. In such companies, disruptive or no longer appropriate behaviors are ignored and not addressed. The focus is on the superficial measures of the success of the change, and while everything may look fine on the surface, there are a lot of hidden conflicts and frustrations bubbling underneath.
This is the part of change that most organizations do not want to touch with a ten-foot pole. And with good reason. It is hard to talk about emotions, especially in a work setting. And change brings about a whole cauldron of often conflicting emotions – excitement, uncertainty, curiosity, but above all – loss. No matter how positive and exciting, every change brings about the loss of how things used to be.
No wonder that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on the phases of grief has been widely adopted in change management to create the change curve.
This is a great representation that clearly shows that no matter what rosy pictures we paint in our change management communications, negative emotions are inevitable in change, and there is an emotional journey that all participants in the change need to go through.
But there are two significant issues with it.
The first one is that it is too good and clean. It misleads us that even if we don’t do anything about it, our employees will go through this emotional curve and will arrive at the happy ending without our help. But this is not true. Just like some people can manage their grief on their own, and others require grief counseling, some employees may get stuck in one of the stages of the change curve and may require “change counseling.”
You can read more about how to support your team and organization through the change curve in this wonderful article at Insight. But what is important to remember is that if we stifle and do not address the emotions experienced during change, our change efforts will most likely not be successful.
The other issue with this curve is that it is a curve. But just like change is not a line but a cycle, this curve is not a curve but a rollercoaster. Through the course of significant changes, we go through this emotional journey multiple times, and organizations need to be aware that even though their employees may have reached the stage of internalizing the change once, they are not out of the woods yet.
I am sure that if we play a word associations game, one of the first words that will pop up in association to “change” would be “resistance.” It is widely accepted that whenever there is change, there will be resistance. And the broadly applied tactics in organizations are first to try to convince the resistors, then involve them, and if none of those approaches work, coerce or remove them.
Irrespective of what approaches are used to manage resistance, it is generally accepted as noise disrupting the change process that needs to be somehow eliminated or ignored.
Until recently, I also perceived resistance the same way (no wonder I left this topic for last). During the past five years, the central part of my job description has been to drive, lead and support change and transformation. As such, change resistance was something that I have always felt I need to overcome or bulldoze through to achieve the goals set for me. So until a month ago, this part of the post would probably have looked quite different.
But recently, I started looking beyond the label “resistance” and began to challenge the cliché “people don’t like change,” which is used to explain away resistance. Because people actually love change and are constantly searching for it – we look for new jobs and new opportunities, moving to a new home is incredibly exciting and traveling to a new destination could be the highlight of our year.
So maybe, just maybe, my colleagues who resist change are not inflexible and set in their ways and disliking change. Maybe instead, we have not managed the change properly, have not told them clearly the new expectations towards them, or provided them with the tools they need. Or even maybe, the new process/policy/system/structure is just not good enough.
So instead of discounting resistance and trying to make it go away, we may want to listen to what it has to say and incorporate that feedback in our cycle of change.
Because change is unavoidable in today’s business work. And change can bring a lot of new opportunities, learnings and positive experiences. After all, when I recently shared with my dad about a huge change that is coming my way, his response was: “Well, you have not had any major disruptions in your life in the past few years. It will probably do you good.” And if that man, who values stability and predictability above all else, can see the value of change and disruption, then so can our employees. As long as we manage the change properly and keep them in the conversation, no matter how difficult or time-consuming, it may seem.