Change is part of life. And that applies especially to the fast-paced environment of modern business. You need to constantly adapt to ever-changing market conditions, requirements of your customers, and the needs of your suppliers and employees.
People hate change. Most of us have a certain built-in limit of what amount of change we can cope with without losing our sanity. So when you combine the ever-increasing rate of change and our natural resistance, it is evident that there is a chance of friction, unproductive and unhappy employees, and general confusion.
Luckily you can build on the knowledge of others to manage change in a way that is less painful and more likely to succeed without alienating everyone in the process.
One of the first models for change management was developed by Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist, back in 1947 and is described as a three-stage process. Modern evidence as presented by Stephen Cummings and Todd Bridgman from Victoria University of Wellington, and Kenneth G. Brown from the University of Iowa, shows that the origins of the model are more complicated, but the basic tenets are timeless.
Unfreezing – the first initial stage that should overcome the internal organizational inertia and dismantle the existing mindset often presented by talks like, “We’ve always done it this way,” “it always worked so why to change it?”
Change – this is the phase where the actual change happens. It is usually accompanied by lots of confusion. One should try to make this transition period well planned and quickly implemented.
Refreezing – the final phase is here to make sure that the change is well adopted, and there is no danger that it will unwind itself to the previous state. It also helps to set the minds of the people to the standard, low levels as anxiety as they get used to the new normal.
Jeff Hiatt, a founder of Prosci, created an ADKAR model. The acronym represents the five outcomes that people need to achieve a lasting change. Hiatt and the team used the input of more than a thousand organizations. This model is closer to the one I would recommend. It has five building steps that help the change to be successfully implemented on an individual level. These are:
- Awareness – the reason why the change must happen
- Desire – creating an internal desire to support and actively participate in the change
- Knowledge – information and how-to necessary to make change happen
- Ability – new skills and behaviors to be developed
- Reinforcement – making sure the change stick and is sustainable in the future
And finally, the framework I would recommend was developed by John P. Kotter and is described in his works Leading Change and The Heart of Change. He proposed 8 steps how to deal with change. In each publication, he used slightly different wording for the steps, but the ideas behind are the same.
Step 1: Increase urgency – one of the easiest ways how to get acceptance for the decision that change is necessary is to create a crisis. It helps to overcome a sense of complacency. Kotter says it himself, to get acceptance for the decision that change is necessary, increase urgency. Once you remove the sense of comfort and people realize that things are bad, they are more likely to accept that something needs to change.
Step 2: Build the guiding team – putting together a core team of people with enough power to make the change happen. Who will drive the change? It is essential to select a core team of leaders and co-workers who are enthusiastic about the change, who believe in it, and who will help to make it happen. These people must have enough formal and informal power to see the change through. By power, I mean not only the formal management power, the decision makers, but especially the informal power coming from personal influence, the opinion makers. Ideally, you start with people who see the need themselves and already tried to do something about it. This time they would have the commitment of the management and bigger chance for success.
Step 3: Get the vision right – creating a clear and consistent vision that can be used as a guiding light for the change effort. Everyone needs to look at the same North Star to march towards. Why is the change necessary? And especially what the final state should look like? These are questions that everyone from the guiding team must be able to answer by heart. Gradually, it should be clear to everyone in the company. You need to identify a clear and consistent vision of what the future will look like.
Step 4: Communicate for buy-in – communication is the cornerstone of every change. It is necessary to communicate the new vision and strategies on how to get there. It is required to ensure that the core team leads by example.
Step 5: Empower action – remove all obstacles that can threaten the project. These are the systems and structures that undermine the new vision. You should strongly encourage risk-taking for non-standard actions to move things along.
Step 6: Create short-term wins – plan a couple of visible improvements that can come very quickly in the first phases of the project and that encourage the next necessary steps. The sooner you can show some positive outcomes, the early wins, the smoother the whole process will be, and the less resistance you encounter.
Step 7: Don’t let up – use the credibility obtained from the first wins and bring the other processes into alignment with the change vision. Consolidate gains to produce even more change. Don’t stop or lose focus until you are completely finished. It is often the first positive wins that lead to people losing focus and believing that the change is essentially done. It leads to the change not being fully implemented.
Step 8: Make the change stick – highlight the links between the new behavior and organizational success. Propose ways to ensure further strengthening of the new state. You need to freeze the new order in place, so the organization doesn’t revert to the old ways.
Ready for future changes
As we live in an ever-changing environment, we can expect some smaller or more significant changes in the future. You want good acceptance also for them. To ensure that not only the last change but all other changes in the future are perceived as positive, you must ensure that your employees know whether the previous change was successful. And whether it was actually needed. If you push changes that are not needed or do not let people know what the outcomes and impacts were, chances are everyone will get cynical towards any other proposed change in the future.
The best way how to show the outcomes is to look back in a couple of months when you can compare the old ways and what has changed for the better. At this point, you can have an informational meeting with your team, followed by a discussion. In case not everything went as we planned, you shouldn’t bury your head in the sand but rather acknowledge the errors made and learn from them.
Managing change is not an easy endeavor, but it can be done in a rather methodical way. When you prepare and plan it properly and get the buy-in of key decision-makers and influencers early in the project, you can be pretty sure you succeed. The most important things you need to the throughout the process is to communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. If done correctly, it can even create a stronger bond between the company and the employees as it builds a culture of transparency and collaboration.
What are your thoughts on managing change? What approaches worked for you and what did you learn from times when things didn’t go smoothly.
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