Change is inevitable. So do it properly

Take some management words. Add a line about training. Sprinkle a transition plan. Hold the most important information back. Bring to the boil, then take a step back as you watch the froth boil over.

There you have the recipe for a half-baked change methodology, cooked up by an infrastructure architect on behalf of a stressed-out transformation director. It’s a technique I’ve seen a lot of recently, but one that, if the rise of change functions within organisations is anything to go by, we’re starting to see the last of.

I get it though. Planning and delivering a change strategy can be tricky. Sometimes it’s because you don’t have all the information. Or the organisation is at an inflexion point, fatigued with constant change. But when the clarity of why and the consistency of how are missing, it stands out by a country mile.

There’s no denying that there are a whole host of change methodologies out there. But none that I felt are flavoured with enough project management and human psychology to get change to stick, get people excited, improve the success rate of transformation projects and reduce risk.

So what’s my recipe for an effective change strategy?

Working on a project is a lot like being on a tightrope. You spend months walking on a wire 2 centimetres wide, trying to stay within cost, quality, scope, and time. A poor decision, a lack of communication, focus or direction can make your project plan look like a wild fantasy. But get it right and you’ll get nods of approval, big bonuses and perhaps another tightrope to walk on.

Whether you’re starting up a project, are midway through, or are at crisis point, these must-have ingredients will help you avoid failure, focus your efforts and make a success of transforming. The three ingredients are: We Learn by Listening, Find the Why, and Define the How. And here they are in more detail.

We learn by listening

It’s not difficult, but it shows you want to understand first and act second. Sometimes you’ll see consultants come in with ready-made templates, ears and eyes covered. If there has been no listening, then it’s clear, there has been no learning.

Before projects begin it’s best to sniff out any sources of learning to avoid making silly mistakes. Look at knowledge portals, read the lessons report from a similar project if there is one. Or even better, take an actual human out for a coffee and speak to them.

Learning through listening means getting stuck into an organisation’s culture, the risk appetite, and appetite for change. There are a whole host of techniques to elicit tacit, hidden, or suppressed views and information. Namely, workshops, 121 interviews, focus groups, observation, online research, collecting documents and electronically stored information. Starting here means you’ll be learning and discovering barriers to change through observation. Metaphorically speaking, you don’t learn how to identify issues that may occur when making toast through scrutinizing tortuous process flows. Instead, you watch people making it.

Then there is associative learning. Or, in other words, slotting pieces of the puzzle together and making connections. It’s difficult to do this if you’re on the inside. Which is why someone who is not saturated with culture is best placed to be objective. Think about it, we have never even seen our own reflection. For that, we need mirrors. When there has been enough learning through observation, connections will begin to emerge. Maybe the workforce is not proactive, the organisation is process heavy, or the few new arrivals have led to stagnation and ingrained habits. Let’s not sugarcoat it, this sort of classical conditioning is hard to change. It’s as much about inspiring people to think differently as it is about changing process. Imagine if someone said you were now going to wake up at 4 am every morning but didn’t give you a reason or a strategy. Hard right?

Be crystal clear about the why

Being able to explain why there is change works wonders. If you’re changing the way you do things, rethinking a process or strategy, let senior users know. They’ll appreciate your transparency (and the impact on their operations), and see your project in a good light.

It’s not rocket science. But too often it’s an afterthought. Worse still, sometimes the why hasn’t been fully articulated during the initiation stage of a project. People often struggle to take a step back from delivery to a more elevated view. But I’ve found that it’s well worth taking a break from delivery if there is a lack of clarity and writing a mission statement.

And make no mistake: starting with why is powerful. The why is the motivation. To illustrate this, it’s that time of year again. Marathons, fundraising, and, um, sprained ankles. The number of joggers pounding the roads would be substantially less if people had no reason or motivation to run. Whatever the why, motive, the reason is: find it and use it to inspire change.

Communication is truly a gift when it comes to inspiring people to act. The desire to change in the mind of the change maker needs to be brought into the light for others to see for themselves. So that they can own and be the change.

You gotta have a change strategy

Now we’ve discovered the why through learning, it’s time to move onto the nuts and bolts of getting change to stick. The question then becomes: how are we going to do this?

You need senior stakeholders to lead. An integral part of getting people to buy into the change is understanding the vision and strategy. And that starts with leaders. Once the why has been defined and the how is coming along nicely, it’s time to agree on the approach and identify a change network and mobilise them.

Emphasize employee development. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing you’ve always done and then expect a different result. So the people that are powering your change probably need to be trained and educated. Get clear on where the knowledge, technology or process gaps are and then develop and deliver training material in line with business objectives.

Let’s facilitate clear communications. Roadshows, events, employee briefings, transition plans, cascade communications. If the change team hasn’t spent time pouring over the audience and messaging of these engagement pieces and then repeating the message again and again, then they won’t be effective (even if people pretend they know what’s happening).

Make sure the business is ready. An obvious one. But so often change happens whether you’re ready or not. So, if you’re the one who refuses to give up control when the project is in chaos, push on with your change impact assessments, plan your deployments, cutovers and transition skillfully.



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