Leading Change in Times of Change

Learning to navigate and manage change successfully can help us make the most of its benefits and avoid its pitfalls. Here are six best practices for change management from PLASTARC.

Image courtesy of PLASTARC.

Change has a reputation for being difficult, and understandably so. Change demands our attention, disrupts our habits, and takes up our time with new questions and learning curves.

But of course, change can also be our friend, when it brings refreshment, improvement, and new opportunities into our lives.

Loathe it or love it, change is a fact of life. Learning to navigate and manage change successfully can help us make the most of its benefits and avoid its pitfalls.

The need for workplace change management can stem from any type or size of change. Maybe your organization is updating its technology, or reformatting its space, or simply trying to do more with less — in any case, you’ll likely have some kind of physical transformation taking place, and you’ll certainly have people’s sensory experiences and emotions in play. All of that can make for a heady combo, especially when it comes in addition to everyone’s regular workload.

Change management is one of PLASTARC’s core competencies (okay, it’s a borderline obsession): a topic we’ve long been researching, and a process we’ve helped scores of clients approach successfully. We see change management as an exercise in UX (user experience) design.

We’ve distilled half a dozen best practices from our years of experience in change management; below, we relate them to the research of one of our discipline heroes, John Kotter. Dr. Kotter pioneered an 8-Step Process for Leading Change that we’ve found to be inspirational and affirming in much of our work. (While we’re at it, we’d also like to give a shout-out to our friend Martha O’Mara, a fellow advocate of using the Kotter model in workplace change management. She co-authored a terrific paper[1] on the topic for Corporate Real Estate Journal in 2014.)

Images courtesy of PLASTARC.



Six best practices for change management

1. Start now
  • PLASTARC says: Start early, start often

Start practicing all possible upcoming changes now. Don’t wait until the day your office is going to start using a new software to screen a video tutorial about how to use it. Understand the scope and degree of change on the horizon and plan incremental steps toward it.

  • Professor Kotter says: Create a sense of urgency

Help your people see the need for change through a bold, aspirational statement of opportunity that communicates the importance of acting, and acting now. A sense of urgency can be a powerful tool in a world that’s moving increasingly fast.

2. If you make the workplace a business solution, oppositions to change become oppositions to the business
  • PLASTARC says: Find your advocates and know your audience

Who already holds influence in your audience? Who’s a natural connector who could help others get in the swing? These people are critical resources in your change management dossier; they should be considered and leveraged along with formal organizational leadership. In addition to these valuable change agents, take care to tailor your change strategy to the particular individuals who are poised to experience the change most directly, as well as to the overall culture of the organization. Work to discover what these groups value (quality? speed? expertise? inclusivity?) and how they expect to be introduced to a new idea (top-down? ground up? as a matter of fact, or a premise up for debate?).

  • Professor Kotter says: Build a guiding coalition

Formal hierarchies have a place in many businesses, but such defined “operating systems” struggle to adapt quickly enough to the opportunities and challenges change can present. Invest in a second, more agile, “network-like” structure that can work in concert with the hierarchy to maintain order while seizing the moment.

3. Listen to each individual and strive to understand what the benefits are to them. Search for ways to answer their big question: What’s in it for me? (WIFM)
  • PLASTARC says: Sell it

Your organization markets products or services to consumers. Good change management effectively markets change to your organization’s employees. Just as in the case of outside consumers, the changes you’re implementing internally need to be positioned relative to local value in order to be successful: What’s so great about this new thing? How will it make employees’ lives better? How will it help your organization’s overall business strategy? Make these connections clear and voice them often. Underscore the business case for change.

  • Professor Kotter says: Form a strategic vision and initiatives (part 1) and Enlist a volunteer army

Show people how the future will be different from the past, and how they will make the future a reality through clear initiatives. Your strategic vision aligns your team around an image of who they want to become together, and prompts everyone to raise their hands to help make it happen. Large-scale change can only occur when great numbers of people rally around a common opportunity. They must be motivated to buy in and move in the same direction.

4. Research is a vital precursor to successful change management and provides the groundwork for these first three phases
  • PLASTARC says: Listen and laud

Research builds a “case for change,” so that when you’re actually doing the work of it, it doesn’t seem spurious, mercurial, or (most importantly) only cost-driven. Ask employees directly what questions and apprehensions they have about the planned changes. When people feel their concerns are being sincerely heard, they feel calmer and more ready to proceed. Publicly recognize employees who make an effort to be change agents and early adopters.

  • Professor Kotter says: Generate short-term wins

Wins are “the molecules of results”; the proof of progress. People’s achievements must be captured, recognized, and communicated early and often to track of progress and motivate everyone to keep going. Teams that discover and generate wins reduce resistance to change efforts: when people are excited to show up, share their successes, and celebrate their impact, they see change as empowering, not threatening.

5. See every change management effort as its own campaign, requiring sound market research and advocacy efforts
  • PLASTARC says: Enable ownership

Autonomy is reinforced through individualization, so provide opportunities for employees to self-assess or receive individualized training. Hearing from a trusted colleague, rather than from an “outsider,” is also a great way to strengthen people’s self-identification with anything new. Panel discussions with staff who have gone through a similar change before are repeatedly one of the highest-rated change communication tools.

  • Professor Kotter says: Form a strategic vision and initiatives (part 2) and Enable action by removing barriers

When a compelling strategic vision and set of initiatives is written in the hand of the leadership team, their words speak to each individual in an organization as well as to the collective, creating a terrific level of ownership. Removing inefficient processes and outdated hierarchies provides people with the freedom necessary to work across silos and use their existing skills, expertise, and institutional knowledge to generate real impact.

6. Work to see change issues from as many perspectives as possible
  • PLASTARC says: Make it real… and beautiful

Seeing is believing. That’s why people love to take a walk-through of their new work environment while it’s under construction. Such a site tour can be complicated to organize, but it’s well worth the effort. (When you’re done, provide a place for employees to view and share videos, photos, and impressions about their new space.) Similarly, don’t underestimate the power of beauty to illustrate the effectiveness of a change and elicit support for it. Whether it’s the presentation you give to explain the change, or the design of your future work environment, if people are attracted to how something looks, they will want to be part of it.

  • Professor Kotter says: Institute change and Sustain acceleration

Make the connections between employees’ new behaviors and organizational success as clear and tangible as possible. Don’t stop: take every opportunity to illustrate these beneficial, causal relationships until they’re strong enough to replace the old ways. New habits, structures, and policies are what will transform your beautiful vision into a beautiful reality.

Lastly, we say: enjoy yourself. Despite its many benefits, change can be stressful. Agility is a good quality to hone in ourselves and encourage in others no matter the situation, but we’re especially resilient in stressful situations when we commit to being flexible and focusing on the positives. Whenever possible, make aspects of the changes you’re managing pleasurable and socially engaging. Find ways to have fun.

[1] Mandel, A., O’Mara, M., & Temmink, C. (2014) “Change management models for workplace transformation.” Corporate Real Estate Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 281–292.

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