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Change management: Five principles to lead people through upheaval

a man with blue hair explaining the change management to his teammate

The only thing you can be certain about in life is change. It just keeps on happening.

And in business, that’s even more true.

Even the oldest, most established firms, in timeless industries that have been served by generations of people, are vulnerable to it. People move on, and so do markets. New technologies replace old ones, and the relentless forces of global creativity means everyone has to adapt.

But change can't just happen on its own. In every organization, it needs to be supported, encouraged, and guided. Otherwise you'll end up with chaos.

In this guide, we'll look at a definition of change management, reasons why you should implement it, along with some simple guides to making a big success of whatever change project you're planning.

Table of contents

What do you mean by change management?

Change management is the process of leading people through times of organizational change.

It's about making them aware of what's happening, and why. It's about preparing them for new circumstances and giving them the resources and capabilities to deal with them. It's also about observing the effects of the changes, and making sure your people are comfortable enough to continue doing their work - or potentially improve their performance.

These outcomes are achieved in different ways: through employee engagement, software tools, mass communication, and more.

There are countless ways in which managing change might be necessary; it could be a 3-person team moving to a new office, or an entire enterprise-level organization adopting a brand new accounting platform. It could involve a new HR mandate for managing incivil behavior, or a new law that affects how you build customer contact into your outbound sales strategy.

So for this reason, there's no golden bullet of change management: each situation is specific and unique. But every business contains one thing above all - people. And people, from individuals to groups, share certain preferences and tendencies. For this reason, there are time-honored frameworks for change management that have long been observed to make navigating times of transformation easier. (We'll go through some of these below.)

One way of looking at change management is that it's a corollary of project management. If project management involves delivering new outcomes in 'things' (products, processes, technology, etc.) - change management is the same, but with people.

Why is change management important?

Change management is important because without it, any fluctuations in your business environment is capable of sending your organization into chaos.

Change management is really about organizing people and their capabilities to deal with new situations; whether that's a new software system, new office, or new process for interacting with customers.

For example, due to evolving government legislation, you might have a new legal requirement to adhere to. Without a change management process, you might just email out the guidelines to all staff and hope they follow them. (What could possibly go wrong?!) With a proper process in place, you'd spend time preparing their expectations, communicating regularly, intentionally updating documents and checking in to make sure everyone's following the guides and feeling okay about doing so.

You make sure everyone is capable of maneuvering through differing circumstances, and comfortable doing it.

It might seem like more work - in fact, it is - but it also means that whatever reconfiguration you're trying to steer through doesn't turn out a horrible, stressful experience that lowers morale and torpedoes your productivity until it's done.

The upshot of it all: good change management keeps you, your staff, your customers, your ownership, your stakeholders, and your government happy. Worth investing some thought into, right?

With an intentional change management process, you'll be able to navigate transformation with:

  • Better efficiency
  • Fewer misunderstandings
  • A better employee experience
  • Less wasted money and resources
  • Feedback and ideas on how to pilot future changes

What are the best change management tools?

By 'change management tools' we mean two things: either theoretical frameworks or planning software.

If you're looking for software to solve your interpersonal dilemmas, it's not going to be the easiest thing you'll ever do. You can't easily project manage your way out of a poor management culture, for example. But in certain circumstances, it could be just what you need.

Remember, project management isn't always the best framework for solving people issues. And standardized software won't always have change management protocols embedded within their templates - it's such a bespoke process, custom to your specific needs, that it's hard to define a single use for each circumstance.

You can certainly try using software tools for change management projects - apps like Monday.com or Wrike, for example - because you will need to systematize the different tactical parts of your plan. There are also change management tools for certain industries that might suit you well - for example, software development has processes well-suited to such things. And your process will probably involve tools for certain specific tasks, like collecting feedback or presenting new plans.

Just don't expect the software to do all the work for you.

(That said, one great first step would be to understand your peoples' motivations so you have a better idea of how to guide them through changes - to do that, you can use the Fingerprint for Success work style assessment app.)

Smart planning and following a framework will ensure your change projects cater for everyone involved and go as smoothly as possible.

When it comes to methods, there are so many lists and frameworks to help you manage change, you'll get lost trying to follow them all. The fundamentals of change management boil down to a few key parts:

Understanding change, implementing it, and monitoring the results.

The most important part of all this is that you pick a framework and stick to it.

That said, here's one of our favourite change management frameworks: the five steps.

The five steps of change management

This isn't gospel; you don't have to follow every step exactly. But missing out on them might lead you to miss opportunities to make your change project a really successful one.

Remember: to make these change management techniques work, you're going to have to collaborate. Talk about them, be honest, and write everything down as you go. Map things out visually so everyone can see the big picture.

1 ) Understand the 'how' and 'why' of change

At the beginning, you should seek to understand what's happening, and why. This means asking questions and being honest with yourself about the answers.

It starts at the start: why is change happening in the first place? Maybe you're reacting to outside market conditions. Maybe your office environment has become stale and it's time to move elsewhere. Or maybe you have a new company goal that requires everyone to do things differently.

This does get a little existential, but questions have to be asked -  is change even the right idea? Or on balance, would everyone be better off with things staying the same?

One crucial part of this step is consultation. These questions can't be just theoretical discussions, limited to the boardroom. You have to get out there and talk to stakeholders - how are staff from each part of the organization going to be affected, and what do they think of the proposals?

2 ) Make your plan for change

Once you've answered the big questions, and have decided to go ahead with your change project, it's time to define how you're going to do it.

Change planning combines the technical aspects of the change - what tangible aspects of business are going to undergo a transformation? - and its expected impacts on your people.

Other things you need to figure out are :

  • What are the goals of the project?
  • What does success look like?
  • Is there a timeline for completion?
  • What resistance do we expect along the way?
  • Do we have a Plan B if things don't work out?

Then, it's time to build a roadmap that'll define the timeline in which everything happens. This will help you keep the scope of change within your defined parameters, and avoid things getting out of control. It also means you'll know when key milestones are hit and help you keep everything on schedule.

3 ) Communicate widely

This is one of the most important change management principles, and unfortunately the one that's most easily ignored.

You have to make sure everyone knows what's going on or else you risk disaster.

This means a concerted campaign with multiple touchpoints to get the message across - emails, flyers, posters, seminars, one-to-one interviews, tweets, Slack DMs, and everything else. You have to explain in simple terms:

  • What's happening
  • Why it's happening
  • When and how it's happening
  • What to do if there are problems

If your company culture leans more towards low power distance, you'll be more open towards sharing things equitably, and keeping everyone in the loop. The opposite - high power distance - means there's a large perceived gap in authority between employees and management. This means things will get planned in secret, and worker feedback won't be a high priority. This is a mistake when it comes to managing change, because you're missing the opportunity to understand where problems might arise before they happen.

Part of the resistance mitigation we mentioned in the previous step is rooted in communication. Talking to everyone involved in the change means you'll have the opportunity to find out not just what they think of the upcoming changes, but how they might be affected by them. That means a lower chance of things going wrong.

In the words of Seneca, "the unexpected blows of fortune fall heaviest". Communication is preparation.

4 ) Implement and execute

Now it's time to actually make the change you've been preparing for. How this goes entirely depends on your situation, so there's no universal recipe for success.

That said, by the time you come to actually making the change, everyone impacted by it should be fully aware of it and equipped to deal with it.

If it's a new software system for example, employees should know:

  • When they have to use it and for what purpose
  • What their credentials are for logging in
  • How to find guides to making it work
  • Who to talk to if they're having problems
  • How to give you feedback on it

If they don't know all these things, then your communication hasn't been extensive enough, and you're not ready for rollout.

When implementation begins, you need to have people and resources ready to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Remember it's not all about firefighting - hopefully, the change itself improves the lives of everyone involved. If so, celebrate it! Collect the wins and make sure to get the word out about how things are going. This will boost people's opinion of the project, and might turn those who oppose the change into converts.

5 ) Monitor as you go

This is one of the most important steps. It'd be easy to miss this one out for convenience, but if you do, you're shooting yourself in the foot.

Figuring out how people are reacting to the change gives you valuable intel for the future of the project.

Listening to office conversations is one method, but you'll do better with a proper system for collecting and analyzing feedback.

You might use analytics programs to automatically monitor usage (if it's software-based). You can take surveys or use sensors to track office usage stats, to make sure your new environment is efficient to use.

Otherwise, feedback interviews with those impacted in certain increments after the change (one day, one week, one month, etc.) on a scale larger than just a few people will help you really understand what's happening.

Chances are, with this much planning, the change you implement shouldn't be too problematic. But it's always a possibility, and you have to be honest and neutral in your assessment. If things have gone wrong, it's time to think about what you can do to fix them, and what you can do to avoid such problems again in future.

What is an example of change management?

Digital transformation is one of the most common scenarios that requires a change management plan.

Imagine a scented candle company moving to e-commerce during the 2020 pandemic. Reacting to a rapid change in shopping habits, they realise they'll have to reach customers online instead of through physical retail.

In a short space of time, they'd have to set up a presence on an ecommerce platform, digitize their inventory, make sure their stock flow can handle variations in orders, ensure their shipping partners are capable, and manage customer expectations. And all through this, they have to keep their staff happy and not burnt out.

Even in the short-term, something like this has to be planned out. Without following the five steps we outlined above, the company risks losing a lot of money. They might not be able to reach the same customer base online. The shipping company might deliver damaged goods to customers, or have big delays causing frustration all around. Keeping track of inventory digitally might be too difficult to staff that aren't tech-savvy.

Without planning, consultation and feedback, the risk is high that things don't work out for them, and instead of saving the business in a difficult time, it just makes things worse.

Look around you - most organizations have a story of change at some point in their history, and whether it went well or not will depend on how robust their change management processes were.

If you want to see a particularly successful example of change management, check out Adobe's transformation from desktop to cloud computing software in the face of evolving global tech habits. We profiled CEO Shantanu Narayen as an example of the problem-solving motivation, and his navigating this huge metamorphosis resulted in Adobe's market cap topping $100 billion. That's not something you can achieve without a plan.

It's not just business that involves collaborative change projects - plenty of civic infrastructure works take public consultation into account (like new buildings or bicycle lanes), and community groups and nonprofits also have to engage their stakeholders in the face of transforming environments.

Change management has evolved - especially after 2020

One of the biggest changes in the world of work started in 2020. The pandemic forced millions of people and businesses to quickly reconsider how, where and even why they work.

It wasn't just going into the pandemic that caused change - coming out of it has been equally tumultuous, with different countries, societies and industries all having contrasting views on what 'back to normal means'. The virus upended current working practices which had downstream effects on all aspects of doing business, well throughout 2021 and beyond. 

One of the positive things to come out of this traumatic experience is finding out how quickly and effectively we can all deal with change when the situation calls for it. Whether it's the incredible accomplishments of science (creating and deploying vaccines so quickly), temporarily changing our behavior to help others (social distancing, face coverings, etc.) or the rapid shift to working from home - we're capable of being more agile than we perhaps thought.

A little collectivism can go a long way when you've got a shared goal to accomplish. You might have once thought "we can never make such rapid shifts in a short amount of time" when facing a change project. But now, perceptions have shifted. Maybe, with a little smart planning and a good reason to do so, you can manage bigger and better changes than you thought.

One thing's for sure - things aren't going to stop changing. Best be prepared for it.

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