Every organisation that wants to develop and grow will need to change. Whether by undertaking projects to implement new technology, whether by changing business processes to increase productivity, restructuring the business or merging with other companies – businesses must embrace change to be successful and achieve their potential.
However, it’s not always that simple to embrace change.
Change disrupts day-to-day working so can be unwelcome, or even actively resisted, by different parts of the organisation or by influential individuals. After all, us humans tend to prefer the status quo than being pushed out of our comfort zones. Major change also creates uncertainty; it can overwhelm an organisation and so hamper progress towards the new business vision or even lead to a loss of confidence in that vision.
So just how can businesses truly seize the opportunities that change offers?
Understanding what it means to change
We all understand that change is closely connected with project delivery but there is a clear distinction between project management and change management. Projects are managed until the point of implementation or delivery (or soon after) – the aim being to deliver something new or updated. But transformational change doesn’t automatically occur because a different system or process has been implemented – it has to be used and become an embedded part of the organisation to make a real difference.
An analogy we’ve used before that neatly explains this is a New Year’s resolution to get fitter. You can buy an exercise machine and some new sports kit but this alone won’t help you get fitter. It is only when you get into the habit of using your exercise machine regularly that your fitness levels will improve.
Transformational change is the habit-forming part of any New Year’s resolution – what you actually do during the course of that year and beyond.
Change, then, is about a shift in attitude and behaviour; it is about forming new habits and relinquishing old habits – and seeing the benefits of doing so.
That is why change management is not a process to be completed at the end of a project but a journey to a new, transformed status quo. It involves preparing the organisation for change; engaging and energising the people involved in, and affected by, the change; and then adopting and embedding the change.
The people within the organisation are crucial to real transformation. After all, it’s the people who have to actively work in a positive, consistent way within the new environment.
People, people, people
While humans can be reluctant to change we also know that humans are also highly adaptable and can succeed in multiple environments both in the natural world and the world of work – if they are motivated to do so.
Change management aims to provide that motivation, and enthusiasm. When done effectively, it engages people in the change, highlighting both personal and organisational benefits. It also acknowledges the inevitable disruption and confusion that can occur during the period of transition.
It involves communicating the right messages to the people affected by the change. It involves training people in any new skills they might require and supporting them in developing new behaviours and maybe a different mindset. Since effective communication is a two-way process, change management also involves listening to, and addressing, any objections and allaying any fears – and providing the right environment in which to do that.
Simply imposing change in the workplace without considering the human impact is a recipe for disaster.
However, on the other hand, dealing with people in a changing work environment will not be effective if too much emphasis is placed on each individual person’s concerns. Such a reactive approach will simply be a drain on resources and risks focusing on the most vocal members of the department or organisation.
Here are 5 ways people can be supported through organisational change:
1. Acknowledge what is being left behind and mark the ending
2. Keep communicating about what is changing and why
3. Maintain two-way information flows to keep connected with what’s going on and how people are really feeling
4. Set short range goals and checkpoints but allow for flexibility, as everyone is learning and discovering what the new way will really mean
5. Help people identify the part they will play in this new world and then let them get on with it.
Change management as part of a bigger picture
Clearly change management does not exist in isolation – it is closely connected to project management, organisational development, communication and leadership. Projects are often the driving factor for change but, alone, they can fail to fully deliver the expected benefits, especially if they are poorly communicated and cause resentment or resistance.
Whereas a successful change management strategy will ensure that a project’s deliverable is fully utilised and delivers the benefits anticipated.
Where organisational change is extensive, complex or there is high uncertainty, a more iterative and phased approach that helps people get used to making continuous small adjustments along the way, would help build resilience and foster a culture of adaptability.
The change approach should also be consistent so that individuals, teams and departments can see how each step works towards the greater vision and goal. Otherwise there is a risk that a series of seemingly disconnected, unrelated changes will simply result in lost enthusiasm and ultimately fail to deliver the over-arching objectives of transformation within an organisation.
So, why is change management important?
Quite simply, it ensures new or updated systems or processes transform an organisation for the better; and that the people are motivated, and have the skills, to embrace the change.