Thinking Outside the Change Management Box

Brady Mick on how to make successful workplace transitions.

Changing behaviors is difficult! Image courtesy of the author.

For the past few decades, change management has been the accepted best business process to transition individuals, teams, and organizations to new ways of working. Preparation and support through change are essential for people if you want to drive organizational success and outcomes. Yet, when it comes to the complex needs of people in dynamic work environments, the notion of change “management” is stagnant and unresponsive. According to the Harvard Business Review, despite a huge investment in change management tools and training, most studies show a 60-70 percent failure rate, a statistic that has remained constant since the 1970s.

Though ideal for many business operations, change management fails to take into account the complexity of human behaviors. Emotions and belief systems form the foundation for how people react to change. For many, change represents uncertainty, loss of control, and possible failure. The change may be creating behavioral expectations that are in direct conflict with deeply rooted cultural norms. For companies, understanding this concept is important. Unresolved feelings such as these lead to stress, which lowers morale and can result in reduced workplace performance.

For today’s businesses, moving forward requires adopting a successful transitioning process that not only benefits the company, but also engages employees and addresses their concerns. Forward thinking companies that broaden their horizons by combining change initiatives with creativity in workplace design are increasing employee engagement and generating greater results.

Understanding the role of change management

Change management is “the process, tools, and techniques to manage the people side of change to achieve a required business outcome,” according to change management firm, Prosci. Based upon traditional ideals of efficient management — on time delivery, reported progress, and expected results — this method focuses on resolving an issue by focusing on the facts of the situation. Straightforward change management is beneficial when companies seek to improve operations, such as rerouting deliveries or reorganizing assembly lines for greater efficiency. But because this method focuses solely on showing and telling about the change, it falls short when it comes to human beings.

If you want to improve your approach to change management, begin with understanding and engagement. Image courtesy of the author.

According to leadership consultant, David Rock, in his book, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Leadership at Work, the lack of success is due to the way people are hardwired: “Ordering people to change and then telling them how to do it fires the prefrontal cortex’s hair trigger connection to the amygdala. The more you try to convince people that you’re right and they’re wrong, the more they push back. The brain will try to defend itself from threats.”

However, this is just one of the reasons why change management is not always the best solution for transitioning people.

Here are a few others:

  • It underestimates the complexity of people. Individuals rely on emotions and belief systems to form new expectations and behaviors.
  • It overlooks individual concerns that can lead to workplace stress, disengagement, and reduced performance. According to the American Institute of Stress, workplace stress costs organizations over $300 billion annually in lost productivity as the result of turnover, absenteeism, and healthcare expenditures.
  • It fails to address increasing work complexity. Today, there is more ambiguity about the “what” and “how” of obtaining desired results.
  • It leads to analysis paralysis. People search for more data and/or more reasons to assess what has gone wrong; in the end, nothing gets done.

A better approach

According to management consultant, Peter Drucker, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Although letting go of preconceived notions and adopting new practices is challenging, “managing” people through change is not the answer.

Today, a successful transition requires a deeper understanding of the situation that goes beyond just reason and factual information. Reinforcing the fact that change is directly connected to belief systems begins by establishing a relationship with the people going through change. By engaging rather than managing, companies encourage everyone involved to embrace the change, allowing them to create their own best new processes and behaviors. In turn, this provides the group a better opportunity to express their truths and beliefs, reset expectations, and redefine a new “good”.

Remember, successful transitions are never linear. Image courtesy of the author.

When it comes to workplace design, engagement is equally important. Honest and open communication with the client allows the architect or designer to imagine possibilities. Understanding the customer’s needs leads to stronger designs that address gaps between behaviors and expectations today and those identified as needed for tomorrow.

Overall, every successful transition begins with recognizing the need for change, understanding the impact, and following a series of steps to reach the goal.

Here are four program stages that lead to engaged and productive project change:

  1. Assess readiness. Conduct a readiness assessment or gap analysis. Set aside time to listen to the stories of the people directly involved with the proposed change and take their suggestions into consideration.
  2. Ensure change alignment. Explain upfront that although not everyone may receive everything they seek, everyone adds value and is an essential part of the process.
  3. Communicate clearly and consistently. “Straight up” communications, transparent information, and periodic updates ease people into the new reality and also build a sense of community. Further actions, such as providing tours of the site, allow everyone involved to witness the progress firsthand.
  4. Measure results. Upon completion, reassess the process. Ask pertinent questions, such as “How close did we come to achieving to our desired results,” “Are the workers happy, productive and adjusting to the new space,” and “What, if anything, is missing?” Fine tune future processes based on the results.

Move forward with confidence

In business, change is inevitable. Yet, with increased work complexity and the need to address more people-centered issues, solving business problems is more challenging than ever before. Engaging the team in a comprehensive change engagement process can accelerate the new expectations of the workplace and behaviors for the work. However, enforcing change is rarely the answer.

Successful transitions in evolving business environments demand more than just moving a group from point A to point B. Understanding this journey rarely follows a linear path and requires thinking outside the traditional change management box. Companies that recognize the need to engage comprehensively with everyone involved accomplish this goal by listening, supporting, and informing their people in real time. In moving forward as a team, they are building workforces that are more capable of handling change in the future.

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