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Coping with Poorly Planned Change
So you are sponsoring or have been given a new initiative, organizational change or system/application that you need to implement in your organization. You know the new system will cause disruption, but you’re not sure how much. By listening to other colleagues, you also know that the change management process is useful for increasing the likelihood of success. You haven’t budgeted much for the change management side of the equation because the “hard” costs of the project have eaten up most of it. Your boss has said unequivocally that there will be no more money this year. The main problem you face is that there is practically no communication with the end users so far, and you are afraid that the project will fall flat on its face.
What is the probability that your project will succeed? What should you do? Frankly, your odds of success without a change management process are about the same as flipping a coin – in your case, much less. In fact, one of the most common causes of new initiative failure is lack of planning, little or no meaningful stakeholder engagement, and haphazard implementation. If the benefit is not plausible; or stakeholders are not “on board” or at least not diametrically opposed; or there is a real or perceived perception that the initiative is poorly thought out, then you have a very big problem. At that point, monetary or budget constraints become background noise in your “hierarchy of worries.”
At this point, as a project manager or sponsor, you feel considerable fear, mixed with frustration and perhaps even anger that your hands are tied and not supported in this task. Fear not, for all may not be lost.
If a project or initiative is ready to “launch” and nothing has been done to prepare your target audience, you may run into a problem that is beyond the scope of the advice I offer. However, if at least a portion of your audience (primary, secondary, and tertiary users) is aware and some engagement has occurred, then you are “ahead of the game.” Remember Lewin’s paradigm of change: Unfreeze – change – refreeze.
The following steps can be used to minimize the damage that will inevitably occur as a result of your (organisation’s) poor planning for this change. The thoroughness with which you follow these steps will determine the extent of the discord and disruption that will arise. Make no mistake; if you do nothing, the chances of major disruptions are high. However, if you take action, the disturbance will decrease. While it may seem like everything you try will lead to a fire, remember that if you hadn’t taken action, your situation would be much worse.
Step 1: Check your audience, your environment, and the relationship between the two
Scan your primary, secondary and tertiary audiences and profile them now. Determine their age, gender, general belief system (i.e. adventurous or averse to change), length of service, union or non-union, trust/distrust of management, autonomous or highly supervised, general level of knowledge about their job, formal people interactions and informal levels in the workplace hierarchy (can also include corporate v. regional), superior-subordinate relationships, and knowledge of an imminent change initiative.
The more information you can gather at that time, the more effective your strategies will be when you start executing.
Step 2: Identify the general level of knowledge and acceptance
If the audience has general knowledge of the change, then that’s good. If they don’t know about the change, that’s bad. Let’s say they’re somewhere in the middle. Even if they have some knowledge, they don’t know the specifics of how the change will affect their roles or the roles of their work unit or organization as a whole. It’s your job to figure out (using whatever means or sources of information you can) how the change will affect the people in your organization (starting with those directly affected by the initiative). When people can prepare (expose information) in a meaningful, constructive way, and are allowed to “step up to the plate” and take control, even when the situation seems chaotic and unmanageable, they feel better about their situation. and adapt more quickly than when no information is given to them.
Remember the following formula that provides a general rule for overcoming resistance to change (Beckhard & Harris, 1987):
D (dissatisfaction) x V (vision) x F (first steps) > R (resistance to change)
If your audiences are collectively unhappy with the current state of things; the vision painted is realistic and achievable and perceived to take you to a “better place”; your first steps are reasonable, effective and moving towards a solution; and these factors combined are greater than the total resistance to change, then your job as a change manager will be easier than if the opposite is true for one or more factors.
Step 3: Articulate a vision (no BS, just simple truths) of what to expect
Develop a clear, concise, real-world scenario filled with practical examples of what happens when the dust settles. Make it believable and “relatable” so that people can visually see and conceptually understand what they are experiencing. Realize that people learn differently and that some are more conceptual while others are more visual. Also, the vision should include both an intellectual and an emotional component, both of which should displace the current fear-based, ill-informed vision that is likely to have formed by default in the minds of your target audience.
People respond to honesty. They may not like the message or the messenger, but when the dust settles, they almost always say, “At least he was honest with us.” So, based on the previous two situational analyses, develop a clear, concise, positively framed but realistically delivered message (for each target audience) in language that each target audience can understand and relate to. Don’t use phrases like: “strategic importance, sound decision-making, service improvement, rational service delivery network” or anything that confuses or obscures (don’t use the word “obscure”) the real nature of the changes or what can be expected. . The strategy here is to ensure that “you provide enough information; the right information; tailored to a specific audience and delivered in a positive way.
Step 4: Identify your change agents and deliver the message
Remember, “No man is an island”. Now find a small group of change agents who can help you achieve your goal. This is important for several reasons—too many to explain here, and discussed at length in the team-related literature. The point is, do it the way you’re happy about it. But be careful with your choices.
Change agents may or may not be in favor of the change initiative. The most important prerequisite is that they understand it. If they are up for the initiative, your job is easy. Simply enter your message and deliver it clearly and specifically (repeat if necessary). Change agents must be people who are respected for their expertise and who have influence over others in the department. Ideally, these people are good at what they do, i.e. technically sound and personable. For those who do not embrace change and are not committed to change, build on the seed of potential positive effects of change. Make sure you keep your “ears to the ground” when communicating with those involved in your inner circle. Be very careful who you choose and how they operate. Change agents are usually organization-focused and supporters of organizational improvement. Change agents may or may not be formal leaders, but they are certainly leaders.
Whatever you do, don’t choose a change agent who has taken a stand against the change initiative, no matter how much “rush” they have. In my experience, and despite what many textbooks will tell you, engaging people with negative tendencies or initiative orientation is generally high risk. Often these people have a lot to lose if they are persuaded to support an initiative and then the initiative fails. They will always… repeat, always… default to “I told you so” or “sabotage” the project at some point when their personal needs for power, control or acceptance are not met. At the very least, they absolve themselves of any responsibility by retroactively taking the view that “they tried to tell you that, but you didn’t listen.” Be careful.
Step 5: Continue messaging and supporting change agents
Continue to articulate the message and support your change agents in their efforts. By now, you have repeatedly communicated honestly, directly, and positively to everyone involved in the project that disruptions exist and are manageable and concise. Your audience is aware of things that are happening and that there is a need to learn. When people aren’t surprised, but expect and are prepared to deal with anticipated or known problems (notice I don’t say “challenges”) in a change initiative, they tend to succeed. Your goal is to create a sense of competence and ownership or “routine” around problem solving. Part of your job is managing the surprises that happen (some may even surprise you). If your audience is surprised by something important, they may panic. Try to avoid panic if possible and treat every problem as something that can be solved and solved. Almost everyone likes to solve problems, so creating this type of environment increases the likelihood of success.
Step 6: The Magic of Time
During the change initiative, constantly emphasize that the “fullness of time” sees the development of the current disorder as just another “day in the life.” The new initiative is embedded in the organizational culture (or can become the culture) and that the benefits of the new way of doing things far outweigh the costs. Also, people who have managed the change will gain new skills to rely on when changes occur in the organization in the future. Change is part of the world of work now. Gone are the days of 30 years of service in the same company without any change – economics, technology, social and environmental factors have taken care of that. Consistently emphasize that at some point – probably sooner or later – the problems you’re experiencing will be long gone, and refocus on the benefits of the new environment/system that improves and eclipses the “old way” of things.
Good luck with your change initiative. If you need help, call Busby & Associates and we’ll be happy to help you with your current and future changes.
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