How to Learn to Manage Change

Have you ever tried sleeping on the other side of the bed from your usual spot? If you’re like most people, you stick to the same side even when you travel, and changing just feels wrong. Now imaging trying persuade a whole department of your co-workers to not only switch sides, but to love it. That’s what organizational change management is all about, and it requires a special skill set. Here’s what I learned about change management when I worked on a team that completely redesigned a department’s work processes.

Make your case (It helps if people are unhappy with the way things are)

No one wants to change if they perceive it as changing something good to something bad. So the first step in change management often involves reminding people what they don’t like about the current situation. It’s one of the few times you actually want to stir up discontent at work. But that doesn’t mean whining and complaining in the lunchroom. It means giving careful thought to what works and doesn’t work about the current situation and asking people what they think is wrong and what could make it better. If you do this skilfully enough, you may even be able to convince everyone that the change was their idea. 

Make sure the people who will be affected are involved in the process

There are several reasons for this. The most important is to avoid wasting your time (and looking like an idiot) by addressing a problem that doesn’t exist. Maybe the way the process is documented isn’t the way people really do it. In fact, maybe it’s not even possible to do things the “official” way. Maybe they’ve already come up with an unofficial solution.

In addition, change management is more successful when people see it as something you’re doing for them rather than as something you’re doing to them. Getting their input gets them on your side.

The final reason to involve the people who will be affected is so that they can give you a reality check. There’s nothing like coming up with a great idea only to find out (after you’ve sold it to senior management and put in weeks of work) that it just can’t be done. Or that it would have unintended consequences. I remember a story about a beverage company that started rewarding their vending machine mechanics based on how many repair calls they made. They were trying to increase productivity, but can you guess what happened? The mechanics started to intentionally leave a job undone so that they’d have to come back and do it again, thereby chalking up two quick service calls instead of one lengthy one. Taking the time to ask a few mechanics, “How would you do your job differently if we made this change?” could have saved a lot of time, money, and unhappy customers.

Forge some alliances

You know who the unofficial leaders on your team are. One of the most important things you can do is to get them on your side, because if they’re not on board, no one else will be either. Find out what it will take to get them to support the change, and do your best to make it happen.

Let them vent

Even if you’ve done your due diligence and are certain that the change will be an improvement, people are going to resist for the simple fact that people don’t like change. Instead of telling them to sit down and shut up (much more politely, of course), get the stakeholders in a room and let them vent. They’ll feel heard, and you just may get some valuable information that will help you avoid an embarrassing problem down the road.

It’s not over until it’s over. And that may be never

Change isn’t over when the new way is implemented. It’s over when people stop thinking of it as “the new way.” And, in a company or department with little turnover, that could take a long time. So you can’t just bestow change on everybody and then disappear. You have to stick around, ask questions, hold hands, remind everyone of why you’re doing it, and keep a close eye out for any real problems. If there are real problems, fixing them right away will remind everyone that you’re on their side and not just trying to make life more difficult.

Celebrate how far you’ve come

It’s important to celebrate when the change is fully implemented and (almost) everyone is on board. If your change process had a name, you could have “I Survived…” t-shirts made. You could have a mock funeral for the old way of doing business. You could have a mock New Year’s party for the new way of doing business. Or you could just take everybody out and buy a few rounds of beer. What you do doesn’t matter; the goal is that you don’t want employees to feel like victims who were subjected to a horrible, unnecessary process. You want them to feel like they accomplished something, and that it’s something to celebrate.

Any change is stressful, even positive change. That’s why stress questionnaires ask about things like marriage, having a child, going on vacation, etc. Different is difficult, even if it’s “good different.” By following these tips, you can minimize resistance and maximize your chances for implementing successful change.

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