Change management is often bandied about in conversations in today’s corporate environment. What exactly is change management and why does it make a significant difference when it is utilised effectively?

Many moons ago, I had the great fortune of studying change management under the brilliant Emeritus Professor at UTS, Dexter Dunphy[1]. Professor Dunphy’s research is published in over 90 articles and 23 books – many of which are specifically focused on change.

One of the great privileges of learning directly from the person who writes the text books, is that you have an opportunity to immerse yourself into the theory and learn in a way that has practical applications for your working life. It was a truly amazing experience and many of the lessons from that time continue to help me with change programs today.

So what exactly is change management?

Change management acknowledges that both strategic and tactical plans require an understanding of the human side of change in order to be successful. Through change management, you actively manage:

  • Alignment of culture
  • Values
  • People
  • Behaviours

So in other words, change management is a way of utilising planned process to manage the people side of change. Change management, when done well, will help individuals make a successful transition through change and will minimise the risks.

When do you need to utilise change management?

In my opinion, utilising change management for every change in the organisation is over kill.  However, formal change management really comes into its own with long term changes and will absolutely pay dividends if done well. Typically the changes that benefit greatly from change management have the following characteristics:

  • Scale (impacts all or most of the organisation)
  • Magnitude (involves significant alterations to the status quo)
  • Duration (the change may last for months, maybe even years)
  • Strategic Importance (it is critical to ensure buy in)

Through change management, you create rigour and actively manage the people elements, to ensure that you have a greater chance at successful implementation.

What are the key elements of change management?

To put together a successful change plan, you need consideration of the following elements:

Have a compelling reason for the change

Before you get started, most people will need to know “why”. So ensure that you are very clear on the reason for the change and why this makes good sense. Honesty is important when you are articulating the reason – and you will lose credibility if you are not transparent up front.

Be systematic

Rather than a reactive approach, your change plan will carefully outline exactly what steps will be taken, what risks are evident, and how you will communicate. The plan will be adjusted as you proceed and will have very clear milestones.

The whole idea is systematize the change, so that you manage it effectively. You will need to collect data, plan and then implement in a managed fashion.

Starting with the leadership team, you will need to systematically identify and engage all stakeholders that will be impacted. Throughout the plan, you will communicate with each of these stakeholders in a timely and effective manner.

Start at the top

You need to ensure that the leaders are fully and visibly supportive of the change. Once they embrace the change, they will need to speak with one voice and model the desired behaviours. You need to ensure that you have the commitment of the leaders before you commence any other pieces of implementation. The leaders need to take absolute ownership and responsibility for each piece in the change process.

Involve every layer

To ensure success, you will need to identify all leaders in the business, at every layer. This will help to ensure that the change cascades. However, there is an important caveat here: the leaders need to be trained and you need to ensure that they have bought into the change and are motivated to make it work.

I have often found that during times of extreme change, you will have an opportunity to identify your future leaders. These are the individuals that promote and help manage the change very effectively. Change programs also tend to identify those that are fighting against the organisation’s strategy.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Once you are clear on your stakeholders, you will need to continuously communicate with them to ensure that they are clear on the progress. The communications need to be regular and timely and in my personal view, they should be both inspirational and practical.

To really maximise your chances of success, you will need to incorporate feedback loops so that you can solicit feedback and input from your stakeholders.

Try to remember that everyone has different learning styles – so utilise different mediums to accommodate that. Include graphics, try webinars or podcasts, communicate face to face, and incorporate different forums of different sizes.

Although email can be effective, it shouldn’t be your only tool in your kitbag. Oh and if you are going to use email, try to ensure that you at least word it carefully and with some thought for your audience. A salutation at the beginning of the email and a thank you at the end are the bare minimum – otherwise it looks inconsiderate and incredibly unprofessional, no matter who you are! It is hard to get effective buy in from that starting point.

Continuously assess the cultural landscape

Successful change programs pick up speed and intensity as they cascade, so you need to adapt your plan accordingly. Ensure that you have diagnostics to independently assess readiness for change, and identify any major problems and conflicts.

At the beginning of the change plan, you should put in place a baseline of diagnostics and then continue to monitor against that as you proceed.

Speak to the individual

Change is both organisational and personal. To really connect with the individuals in the organisation (and particularly those that are directly impacted), you will need to ensure that your plan addresses them.

On an individual level address:

  1. How will their work change
  2. What is expected of them during the change
  3. What is expected of them after the change
  4. What is success and how will this be measured
  5. Be as honest and explicit as possible
  6. Have highly visible rewards, including simple psychological rewards (e.g. say “thank you”)

Prepare for the unexpected

No matter how wonderful and detailed your plan is, you need to remember that virtually no plan ever goes completely to plan. Humans are unique and complex creatures and they will surprise you with their reactions. The reactions are not always what you are expecting and have based your assumptions on. Consequently, it is important to put a lot of effort into identifying risks and working through contingency plans.

An effective plan will utilise feedback loops, extensive communications and will continuously re-assess the impact of the change. Always expect the unexpected!

Summary

Change management can make an enormous difference to the success of any significant program, when managed carefully. It is important to have a compelling reason for the change, engage with your stakeholders, manage your risks and communicate as much as possible. Paying attention to these factors will create a much greater chance of successful implementation.