Change Management Principles

Change Management Series – Chapter 2

There are many things said about change – that it is hard, that “everyone hates change” and that there is always a great resistance to change. But is that true? Not ALL changes are hard or resisted. What does make change difficult is when it is unclear / unknown, where we don’t have any control over the change (it’s essentially imposed on us) or where we can’t see any benefits for us (only losses). This part of the series will cover the primary change management principles.

When it is time to implement workplace change, it is important to recognise the journey that people make in order to transition to different ways of working. Everyone starts from a different place, based in part on their personality, workstyle preferences, life stage, past experiences, how much they know about the change already and their openness to change.

The change management process therefore must ensure that everyone has the information and support that they need in order to figure out what the change means for them. It simply isn’t good enough to simply “tell” people or broadcast messages and information and hope for the best. Although the information is important, what is vital is that each person is supported through their own exploration of the change – which takes time and effort.

First principle – rational understanding

Through our experience gained over many years, we believe that the first stage is to ensure that everyone has an accurate understanding of what the change is all about. Leave the rumours, speculation and half truths to one side and focus on what is actually being delivered through the change. What is in scope, and what isn’t?

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People need to have 5 fundamental questions answered.

  1. What is changing? What are we changing from, and to?
  2. Why are we changing? What is the rationale for the change – how will it benefit the organisation / teams / people – why will we be better off once the change has been made? What does success look like?
  3. How will things work after the change, and how will we make the change (i.e. what change management structure and process will be in place to support it)?
  4. When will the change happen and when will I be affected?
  5. What will this mean for me and my work and what do you expect of me?

The first four questions need to be answered as soon as possible into the change journey. These are all aspects of the “rational understanding” that people need before they can be expected to start to explore the 5th question.

Until we can answer people’s questions about the change, they are unlikely to be sufficiently motivated to embark upon the emotional change journey – to think about what it means to break some well-trodden behaviour patterns and habits. Everyone has to decide whether this initiative is worth their time and energy (many change projects are abandoned or fail) and if it appears that you haven’t thought things through and planned them carefully, then the necessary trust and confidence in the project leaders will be lacking.

Principle 2 – emotional engagement

Once we can answer a good proportion of people’s questions (and propelled them up the “rational understanding” axis of our Boston Box – following the white arrow), there is every likelihood that they will be able to move to consider what the change will mean for them, how they will be affected and indeed how they might get something beneficial from the change.

It is for each person to work this out for themselves (but not without help and support). Nobody can tell you what benefits you will enjoy if you make a change – but they can tell you what other people have experienced, and help you explore the opportunities for you and your team. Once it is clear exactly what the change involves, you at least have a clear field in which to draw some conclusions about what you’re losing (perhaps having your own desk) and what you’re gaining (perhaps the opportunity to sit with different people and teams every day).

Emotional engagement is about how you feel about the change and hence how willing you are to explore the options and reconcile yourself to it. At the start of the journey you might feel nothing much about it because you don’t know enough about what is proposed (bottom left quadrant of the Boston box). On the other hand, you might be very engaged and feel very excited about the change… but based on some wrong information. Perhaps you think you’re going to be able to have a dedicated desk because of your role, but that’s not the case (bottom right quadrant of the Box) and so on.

What we ask and encourage is for people to get to a position where they are prepared to “give it a go” – to try things out, to experiment, to explore and work with colleagues to see how they can all get the most out of the change.

Principle 3 – the journey isn’t linear

It is important to recognise that managing the transition of change is tricky. Things can get knocked off track and send people back through their upward / onward journey. Having given people a lot of information upon which they are basing their exploration, things can change. A decision about a solution is altered (perhaps the entitlement to car parking spaces in a new location or the withdrawal of a financial scheme to support bicycle purchase) and people who thought they were getting things figured out are not only disappointed, but they lose trust and confidence in the organisation and the project team.

These things often can’t be helped, but it is vital to recognise what the impact will be on people trying to progress through their rational / emotional journeys. They can cause people to get stuck (they stop trying to decide what’s in it for them) or worse still they may choose to disengage from the change process and reject the support provided.

Finally, at the heart of our workplace change management beliefs is the conviction that telling people the truth is best; that managing their expectations where things aren’t certain can help mitigate disappointment and disengagement; and that supporting them through honest two-way dialogue is much more beneficial than simply telling them how things are going to benefit them.

This blog about change management principles is part of a series of observations about behavioural change management which we hope will provide readers with a good understanding of what is needed to help people change.  This is based on 25 years’ experience from change and workplace professionals, supporting clients making a change to new ways of working. Next time we will consider what the organisational change management team looks like.

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