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Change: Behind the buzzword.

Change management is a popular buzzword in business life today. More and more companies invest in change management but what is it really all about? In what way is it different from project management?

If change management has grown so fast over the past years, it’s clearly because companies are investing more and more to ensure employees get the necessary support to deal with the many changes that take place. In our modern world, the speed with which changes take place has increased drastically. In fact, the only guarantee we have in business life today, is that changes will take place.  Yet, if it’s so common, why do not all organizations invest in a formal change management function? 

Often, companies hope that employees will simply embrace the changes that take place. Others will hire project managers with a ‘dedicated people’ focus but evidence has shown that these approaches aren’t very effective. We often believe that when we initiate major changes in business, that people’s reaction to the change will be the same as our own and that changes will be adopted as soon as we explain where we are going to. Many projects have shown, however, that deliverables were there in due time but that the solution never got the buy-in from the employees and that in the end, the project failed to make the change. 

The reason for this is that irrespective of any project methodology, it’s the people that are in the driving seat, and they either change – or they don’t. If employees don’t see the personal benefits to change, they don’t trust leadership or don’t share the organization’s vision, they will not buy into the change – regardless of how brilliant the strategy.

Change management requires leaders in change who understand employees, listen to them and start to think like them. This is exactly where change managers differentiate themselves from project managers. To be able to do this, change managers need to get the answers to the questions employees ask themselves when confronted with change. Here’s a few:

#1 – What is the reason I have to change?

Even if it seems obvious why the changes need to take place, the full context often isn’t clear to all and people who don’t feel the sense of urgency will not likely embrace the change. Therefore getting a view on the level of understanding of employees is a first step … to then clarifying the storyline at the start of each change initiative. Clarify the context in a language that people understand and … repeat… and …repeat.

#2 – What’s in it for me?

Before you can get people’s buy-in, they need to feel the personal advantages and visualize what these changes will bring as added value for them. The more people are connected to the organization, the quicker they will feel the advantages for them personally. As this connection should be maintained throughout the transition period, involving people over and over is key. Even if this may be time consuming, don’t just bring solutions to the table but allow people to participate in developing them. After all, they do know best what is possible and what is not. 

#3 – Do I resist the change?

It is important to recognize that resistance is part of human nature and that resistance comes with every change. I would even argue that if you don’t encounter any resistance during a change project, then the change isn’t happening and you are probably just managing the project. To be able to manage resistance, you need to embrace it, celebrate it even as it means that changes are really happening. To make sure resistance doesn’t become a bottleneck, however, it is important to understand what is causing the resistance so you can anticipate it throughout the transition phase. 

Usually people resist for 3 reasons: people don’t know how to change, they don’t want to change or they can’t so it is important to do this analyses on an individual level and then act upon it. Listening is a key skill in this process. 

When people don’t know how to: training is required as the resistance comes from the left or cognitive part of the brain. Helping people to obtain the necessary knowledge to make the change is key.

When people don’t want to: listening to people’s reasons is key and communicating on the advantages for them personally is the answer here. This type of resistance comes from the right or feeling part of the brain and training in this case will not be effective. When this type of resistance is dealt with by providing training, it will not go down but often create more frustrations as people feel misunderstood.

When people can’t: it means they don’t have the ability to change or they are worried that their skills will no longer be needed. This type of resistance is often the most persistent and complex to manage. If people can’t, you need to make sure they can and provide the individual support that is needed to make the transition. This can be done by taking the time to reassure, by mentoring and by providing in-depth information during every step of the transition.

#4 – Is the organisation and am I ready to change?

Even if people are ready to change or await the solution impatiently, it’s worthwhile considering whether the organization is change-ready. Do the company’s strategic directions, leadership style, human resources policy, risk processes, etc… allow change to take place? If the organization is not providing a safe environment for its employees, they will not feel the support they need to make the change. Evaluating the organizational readiness is key and when you identify possible bottlenecks, these need to be dealt with first to create the safety that is needed. 

#5 – Am I informed about the change process?

Communication is key when it comes to change management so make sure there is a communication plan in place to provide feedback to employees during all steps of the change process. Repeat messages over and over as it will increase confidence that the need for change and the desire to actually do this is real. Do not start any change initiative without a clear elevator pitch that explains the reasons for the change. Make sure you cascade it in the appropriate language to all levels of the organization. 

#6 – Do I trust the change manager?

People need to be able to trust the person managing the change and feel safe that the change manager will deal with their feelings in an appropriate way. Appropriate probably has a different meaning for each individual but often people indicate that they expect a change manager to have a high degree of empathy, to listen without being prejudiced, to accept and acknowledge what is expressed and to have sufficient leadership skills to engage with the leaders of the company that need to take the necessary decisions. Forget having people on board when they don’t trust you. A change manager should be open minded and consider any feedback from employees as ‘the truth’ – because people’s feelings are true.

#7 – Do I trust the change process?

As it is highly unlikely that you will work on the first change project in your organization, there probably are some examples of change initiatives that didn’t work. Important to be aware of it and to understand what worked well and what went wrong. If thinks worked well, don’t be afraid to reuse them as people need to have confidence in the change process itself. Ask for feedback after each change initiative and if people don’t like it, drop it. 

 #8 – Is the change happening too fast?

Change managers often have the challenge to convince project managers and leadership to allow sufficient time for people to embody the changes. They need to explain that specific workshops or communication steps are necessary to change the way people feel and behave, a message that some leaders under pressure might not like to hear but oh so relevant to ensure employees are on board. Make time to save time.

Important to remember that people all go through the same process of change adoption but that the speed is different for each individual. Some employees might feel changes are happening too fast and others might lose interest. There are often different behaviors to change, here’s some examples:

–     People with a ‘challenge accepted’ attitude: these people love change and need it to stay motivated as they don’t like routine. They will often buy into new changes more quickly and propose to be change agents/ambassadors. To keep these people on board recognition of their efforts is key.

–     People with an ‘analytical’ approach to change: people who need to think about the changes first and will often be critical initially. Once they get the full picture, however, they will move into the new way. To keep these people on board, it is important to take sufficient time to clarify the storyline and to make sure every step of the transition process is considered with the necessary patience. 

–     People with a ‘critical’ approach to change: often people that like the change initially but then soon lose interest in the process as they are impatient or because there are inconsistencies in the change process (e.g. communication not repeated during every step of the process). To keep these people on board, discipline is needed. Make sure you follow-up when you say you will and only put meetings in place when you have relevant announcements to make. If this means cancelling a meeting or rescheduling it, you better do. 

 #9 – Do I know what the future will look like?

People know what they leave behind and it’s natural to be scared of the unknown that lies ahead as a result of the change. Asking people what their ideal future looks like and visualizing the future state helps people get past their fears. It also helps you as a change manager to get a view on what is needed to get to this ideal state. Visualising is clearly a win-win.

Should you not be convinced that managing change is any different from project management, then ask yourself this final question: can any organization change if people do not? Report this.

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