The ability to manage change effectively is a key skill for managers in a society where rapid change has become the norm and new technologies are continually being introduced. However, research shows that many, if not most, change efforts fail to achieve their objectives, at least to some extent. Paying close attention to the process of implementation will pay dividends in terms of your ability to achieve objectives and achieve and sustain organisational success.
1. Agree the implementation strategy
Before you begin to embark on a programme of change, you must have a clear strategy based on the objectives and outline plans which have already been set. The details of the implementation will depend on the desired outcomes and on the approach taken, whether this is to be top-down, bottom-up, or a mix of both. Decide also whether to introduce change by division, by department, or organisation-wide. Bear in mind that a ‘big bang’ approach is not normally advisable as most organisations only have a finite capacity to cope with change. When deciding which approach to take, it is also important to think about where the key influencers are and how communication channels will work. A programme of change is unlikely to be the only corporate initiative underway at any given point in time.
Ensure that the strategy and goals behind the programme are consistent with those of other organisational initiatives, and that all are pointing in the same direction. Make sure that employees receive consistent messages about the organisation’s core values and beliefs in relation to all the initiatives.
2. Agree timeframes
Every change programme needs a start date. Also, aim to set a finite time span for the implementation, regardless of whether it is being introduced incrementally or simultaneously across all divisions. The timetable must be stretching enough to convey urgency, but attainable enough to be motivating and realistic.
3. Draw up detailed implementation plans
Draw up detailed implementation plans with each divisional or departmental head in line with both the strategy and timetable which have been agreed. The team responsible for the changes can act as a source of advice and consultancy when necessary, but line managers should be empowered to determine how to implement the change in their areas of responsibility, in accordance with its overall goals. For senior management, decide how progress will be monitored and whether stage reviews are necessary.
4. Set up a team of change champions
The change champion team will not necessarily include top management, but will benefit from a board level champion. The team should include the key people involved in designing and delivering the change, as well as those affected by it. This team has a key role to play in benefits realisation management – defining and disseminating the benefits of the changes and communicating them effectively in their own parts of the organisation.
5. Establish good programme management practices
Treat change in the same way as you would handle any project or programme. Consider using a recognised project or programme management tool or methodology, such as ‘Managing Successful Programmes’. Keep objectives in mind, set milestones and monitor progress in order to keep the programme on schedule and on budget. Don’t assume that change will necessarily be wholly successful or painless. Undertake a risk analysis and make any necessary contingency plans. It is imperative to flag up potential problems as early as possible. Also keep track of the costs associated with implementing change and ensure that a contingency budget is in place. Establish ground rules for the programme team, particularly with regard to information sharing, decision-making and reporting.
6. Communicate clearly
The importance of good communications to the success of change programmes cannot be underestimated. Good communications should be based on careful stakeholder analysis in order to ensure the right messages get to the right stakeholders through the best channels. Identify your stakeholders, map them carefully, and then communicate with each stakeholder group in a manner that will encourage their positive engagement with the aims of the programme. Do all you can to ensure that employees at every level of the organisation understand the reasons for change and know what will be happening, when it will be happening and what is expected of them. Often, it is uncertainty rather than change that really worries employees. Provide as much information as possible and quash inaccurate rumours as soon as they arise.
Don’t assume that everything is clear to everyone after a single message. Communication should be ongoing. Provide opportunities for employees to seek clarification, where necessary and give regular updates and progress reports. Make sure to report on early wins and celebrate successes.
7. Ensure participation and help to minimise stress
All change is stressful and it can be especially stressful if imposed without consultation or adequate communication. This can have a detrimental effect on how well change is adopted and sustained in the longer-term. There are, of course, instances when change is imposed to address an issue such as a financial crisis, but mechanisms can be introduced to facilitate the process. Fear of the unknown rather than change itself is often a major stress factor but its impact reduced by being as open as possible about the consequences of change.
8. Personalise the case for change
Individual employees must feel they can take ownership of the change programme as it evolves. This is much easier when they can personalise it and relate it to their own work and team. Ensure that line managers are able to present the corporate case for change in terms which every individual in the company can relate to. Consider what change will mean for each individual in terms of: status (job title, budget responsibility); habits (changes to working time, new colleagues); beliefs and attitudes (move to a customer focus); and behaviour (new working practices). Changes to working practices will need input from the HR department at the planning stage and may require specific change activity or union consultation, for example.
9. Be prepared for conflict and manage it effectively
Change usually brings about conflict of one kind or another, simply because people have different views and react to stressful situations in different ways. Try to bring conflict to the surface rather than allow it to fester; tackle it by examining and analysing it with those involved and seeking ways to resolve the issues. Conflict can often be positive. For example, open discussion and clarification can lead to the resolution of difficulties and the introduction of improvements. When conflict resolution cannot work through explanation and discussion, you will have to negotiate and persuade.
This means avoiding getting into any entrenched positions yourself, and working out how to influence others if they dig their heels in too deeply. It also means finding ways to reach agreement on the best way forward without major loss of face for either side, while at the same time, being mindful not to prejudice the underlying change initiative.
10. Motivate your employees
Sustained change requires very high levels of motivation and this will be difficult without strong relationships of trust and respect across the organisation. Recognise that employees need to feel valued, to have their efforts and achievements recognised, developed and challenged. Be aware that different types of reward motivate different people.
11. Develop skills
View the change programme as a learning process. Give attention to developing both technical and interpersonal skills at all levels within the organisation and integrate this into corporate training and development programmes. Specific training to enable change, such as providing an induction into new systems and technologies may also be needed. Change also provides an opportunity to develop learning capability and build a culture of learning into the organisation. Creating goals and plans that everyone can subscribe to will enable everyone to benefit. Turn learning into something that people want to buy into, rather than a chore – help people to feel the ‘buzz’ of discovery and involvement in new developments. Set an example by updating the skills of top management.
12. Maintain momentum
Incremental change is often a long process, consisting of very small and often imperceptible changes in behaviour and attitudes. Accept that change may be a stop/start process. Watch out signs that initial enthusiasm is flagging and the pace of change is slowing to an unacceptable rate. Plan for this and develop strategies to create a sense of purpose and urgency and give fresh impetus. To gear the organisation up for renewed efforts after setbacks, seek innovative ways to remind staff of the overall case for change and to reinforce its value to them. A set of quick wins and visible success points is a useful framework for achieving this. Leading indicators of potential benefits are also helpful in maintaining interest and demonstrating progress.
Think about how to address problems which have prevented progress in the past. Ask yourself what and who is preventing progress, and who can help to unblock the situation. Your analysis of stakeholder groups, and of their varying interests and perspectives, (as mentioned in point 6 above, should help you to gain an understanding of the forces in play. Aim to break the code of silence that engenders organisational protectionism and maintains the status quo.
13. Monitor and evaluate
Monitor and evaluate the results of the change programme against the goals and milestones established in the original plan. Are these goals still appropriate or do they need to be revised in the light of experience? Existing performance measures may not be compatible with the changes introduced and may hinder change unless revisions are made. Check that all the measures used are consistent with organisational vision and goals. Be honest in your assessment of progress. If there is a real divergence between the planned goals and reality, admit this and take corrective action without delay. Be open about failure and involve employees in setting new targets or devising new measures. In some circumstances it may be necessary to engage an internal or external change agent. They will have the skills and abilities needed to facilitate a difficult process of change.
Organisations that are otherwise good at what they do may nonetheless find it difficult to manage change effectively.