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More often than not, we fear change. In fact, tells us “Many people spend a great deal of time and energy trying to avoid change.” And this doesn’t just happen in our personal lives. This feeling is evident in the business world too. From denying the need for change to resisting the actions required to accomplish it, people are resistant. They are resentful. They are emotional. The reason behind these feelings isn’t a mystery; it’s human nature to fear the unknown. But just because many of us don’t love the idea of change doesn’t mean that accomplishing change is impossible. In fact, organizations can take key steps to make strategic change a reality.

Organizations must embrace change to succeed. To help leaders with this difficult task, here are nine steps to successfully managing change in your organization.

Step 1: Create a process and follow it.

The organizations that are most likely to be successful in implementing change have a concrete idea of where they are and where they want to go, and are willing to follow a well-defined process to help them get there. The playbook for change is just as important as the talent to execute it.

What to do: Find a proven process that you believe will work for your organization and the nature of the change. Make sure it considers the roles of your leaders, managers, and individual contributors. The best change processes include rigor on alignment, implementation, and sustainment.

Step 2. Ensure your leaders are on board.

Without complete alignment, clarity, and conviction at the executive level, your desire to change will suffer. Employees are watching the executives, and if their leaders aren’t on board, people will know. This will hinder acceptance or – more likely – keep your change efforts from being successful. We often find that change efforts are an intellectual activity for executives and an emotional one for everyone else. While the executive team is driving the change, they may or may not be impacted by it personally. But your people will be. They need to know the executive team is clear on, aligned on, and personally committed to the change. In short, the executives must become the change that they want to see in others.

When managers and employees on the front line are asked about their confidence in a new strategy, they often respond with the same comments. They say the strategy isn’t the problem; rather, it’s the fundamental uncertainty and disbelief that leaders will change their behaviors to bring it to life. Leaders must be transparent with their own behavioral change to set the pace for the rest of the organization.

What to do: More than half of executives (54%) do not believe their company’s strategy will create success. This statistic tells us that even executives are not always committed to change. It also tells us that leaders must be engaged and aligned on the current state of the business and the barriers to success. Alignment is about creating so much clarity that there is little room for confusion, disorder, infighting, and other distractions. It enables unprecedented accountability and leadership rigor that can’t help but drive successful change management.

Step 3. Make sure your playbook takes the needs of all stakeholders into consideration.

Whether this is done by completing stakeholder-specific plans or simply contemplating the thoughts and considerations of leaders, managers, individuals, and customers, seeing the change through the eyes of stakeholders is valuable for preparation and planning.

What to do: At a minimum, consider the perspectives of employees, managers, customers, and partners before completing the overall plan. Fully thinking through how the change affects everyone across the business enables better engagement because there’s clarity on the outcomes needed by each group.

Step 4. Dedicate time to consider individuals, as not everyone will feel or react the same.

Every individual goes through their own personal process during a transition. This personal transition process usually involves three phases:

  • Letting Go:Every transition begins with an ending or a loss. When things change, people leave behind the way things were in the previous situation. This is hard for people to do.
  • Exploration:Also called the neutral zone, this is a potentially confusing and frustrating time between the old way and the new.
  • Acceptance:Acceptance can only happen after people have let go of the past and have spent some time exploring the future. In this phase, people let go of the past and start to identify with their new destination.

Executives leading change – and who are personally impacted by the change – experience this same change process. Leaders are often uncomfortable exposing their own vulnerabilities about change with their people. Nothing is more powerful in leading change, however, than to see a leader personally committed to changing their own behaviors and sharing personal change experiences.

What to do: It’s important for leaders and managers to respect the fact that people will lose something – perhaps something as significant as their job title or responsibilities. Showing empathy to this fact through communications, town hall meetings, or one-on-one conversations goes a long way. Make sure people understand the new rules of the road – what they need to do differently in their processes, behaviors, roles, and responsibilities. It’s equally important to ensure managers are prepared to lead people through this transition and that they can provide the right level of clarity when needed. People will get to the final transition at different points. It will be important to offer several opportunities for people to learn and discuss. It can’t be a “one and done” approach.

Step 5. Dedicate time to educating managers on the why, how, and what behind the change.

Managers are critical to keeping employees engaged and productive and can be instrumental in helping leaders manage change. Managers are also, unfortunately, the most overlooked group in an organization when it comes to developing the skills that make the difference between change failure and success. These include communicating, interpersonal skills, team building, and coaching. If managers can’t operationalize the desired changes, then the total investment and effort will be sub-optimized. Managers must understand the strategy and then translate it in a way that is relevant for each employee.

What to do: Every manager should receive the tools and knowledge to truly understand the business, including what changes are needed and why. They need to know their role and many need to up their game in working with people, especially in times of change. They must be able to connect their teams to the business to help them understand the “why” and “how” of their job. Finally, they need to understand how their team delivers results and how it affects the strategic outcomes the organization is driving toward.

Step 6. Plan for issues.

Without a doubt, your change program will encounter issues. For example, people will resist the change, and you need to be proactive in planning for that. Let people know it’s okay to struggle with change, but the “struggle” needs to be time bound. Help create forums for people to challenge the change, discuss the change, and then be engaged in the solutions for successful changes they can make in their roles.

What to do: Set the expectation that resistance is a normal part of change and that it is actually expected. Being curious about resistance and how to honor it will help you create even stronger plans for executing strategic change. As a leadership team, it’s important to be thoughtful about specific plans (see #2), define clear measures, pilot and test the concepts with certain parts of the organization, prove those successes, and then share those successes before moving forward. It’s a slower road, but it has proven to be much more effective in implementing change.

Step 7. Get excited for each successful milestone.

As the change takes hold, you’ll have some successes you’ll want to replicate quickly (at both an organizational and individual level). To do that, capture those successes and communicate them broadly.

What to do: Convert the early wins, no matter how small, into success stories people can understand. These stories let people know what you want more of in the organization and allow others to reflect on whether they could do anything similar. These stories also reinforce that small contributions really do matter.

Step 8. Don’t let your actions be “one and done.”

Organizations that continue to discuss the why and how of the change are most likely to find success. Creating methods to enable ongoing dialogue at all levels of the business demonstrates a commitment to the change that is authentic and healthy. This brings greater clarity to what is working and what isn’t working. Those conversations, however, must be continued and reinforced.

What to do: Potential ways to sustain important conversations and help manage change for the long term include town hall forums or manager meetings. Focus on asking questions such as, “What is going well?” and “What needs do you have that we haven’t thought of?” Alternatively, if it works with your business model and company culture, some organizations set up an online forum for people to share ideas and questions.

Step 9. Have a set list of goals you’re striving for.

Success should not be fuzzy. When your people understand the size of the prize and how their contributions matter, they’re more motivated to achieve the desired results. Everyone should be visualizing the same thing, and they should be in lockstep on how to achieve it.

What to do: As part of your sustainment activities, you should regularly report on organizational progress toward the defined targets. It’s also critical to make those targets clear during the rollout of the changes and new strategy.

Change Isn’t Fun – But It’s Critical to Your Organization’s Survival

No one wants to change. Do you want to go on a diet? Do you want to stop experiencing the holiday traditions you’ve enjoyed for decades? Asking people to change often creates immediate stress, anxiety, and fear. And this happens at the workplace too. But innovation and change are paramount to any organization that wants to establish itself as a market leader and stay there. The nine tips above can help leaders make the difficulties of strategic change more palatable, and better yet, lead to success!

October 1, 2021

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