People tend to think that big changes are infrequent. Or maybe they just used to think that. Think about some of the big changes that have impacted the world in the last few decades. Think about flying before, and after, September 11, 2001. Or what it was like to eat in a restaurant before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those events fundamentally and suddenly changed the way we lived our lives. This of course means they also dramatically affected how we run our businesses. All of us had to adapt to these things in our personal and professional lives. It didn’t matter how much or how little we planned for those disruptions.
For the first 20 years of my career, I spent countless hours designing programs to navigate significant change. Our plans were based on principles reflecting best practices from multiple disciplines. This included business, communication, psychology, and the ways adults learn new processes and systems. Most of those tenets hold true. But the way we think about managing change today is a reflection that fundamentally, this is a core management skill and not a one-time program or event.
A few weeks ago, I participated in a discussion with Stacey Harris, Chief Research Officer at Sapient Insights. We discussed how the business of managing change has evolved in the last decade. This metamorphosis was fueled by an increasing pace of change across all aspects of work. It was then super-charged by the drastic change introduced by the pandemic– the unsettling of everyday work has become a new norm.
How is managing change different in a Small or Medium sized business?
Put simply, the practice of change (or transition) management is about building the capabilities for a group of individuals to ‘stick the landing’ of a new change. This means building understanding, awareness, and buy-in from those impacted. It means building the skills and knowledge necessary to execute in new ways.
Small and medium-sized businesses have different challenges than big companies. That’s undeniable. But fortunately, many of the lessons from bigger companies are still valuable for those of all sizes.
The overall success of any change program is in understanding clearly what it is you are trying to achieve and how you will measure success. Your definitions here should certainly include any financial, sales, efficiency, or other ‘hard’ metrics.
Equally important is to consider interim milestones and value delivered as well as measuring the success of your change efforts (e.g., is your employee satisfaction tanking because your team feels caught off guard).
Understand Who is Impacted
This may sound simple at the start – but I encourage my clients to think about unexpected impacts. Look upstream for the changes for your suppliers or other teams. Look downstream to your customers and your internal support teams. Think about what specifically is changing and how that change will impact each group.
Consider even creating a table with notes about the assumptions you’re making for each group. Also include the magnitude of that change and how each group will receive it. Knowing where your ‘high impact’ and ‘likelihood for resistors’ will help narrow in how you plan to message and equip those groups with the support they will need.
Solicit Input from a Trusted Advisor First
I can guarantee that each person (or group) will have a different perspective. These stakeholders can also offer additional insights that will help you understand impacts and other considerations. This can be your management team, your HR leader, or the leadership over the area you see will be impacted the highest.
With this group, start to develop your ‘business case for the change’ that involves the overall business value of the change – the risks associated with not acting – and how this change supports the overall strategy of your company.
To execute on change well, you’re going to need allies to help you usher in the change. The priority here is to be confident that the change you’re making is the right change. You must also have a solid understanding of the impacts on stakeholders. With that information, now is the time to bring some of those stakeholders into the loop to solicit feedback.
Select a few representatives from the areas being impacted and bring them together to test messaging related to the change and the rationale for it. Continue to refine your communication plans based on their feedback. These ‘change champions’ should be thought of as both a microphone and a speaker. They are out ‘on the line’ helping support the communications you will need to make and will be a rich source of feedback from the organization. Keep this group together during the duration of the change.
Create a Communications Plan
Creating a communications strategy sounds complex, but it really starts by building a list. What do you want to communicate? Whom do you want to communicate that to? When will you communicate it? And how will you do so?
Don’t forget the ‘hidden’ opportunities to reinforce your messages. For example, you could give your leaders talking points or materials. You could share headlines in company meetings. You could also arm your champions with FAQs and ways to answer difficult questions. Last, don’t forget to celebrate successes along the way to maintain momentum.
Science tells us that anytime we encounter the need to change old patterns, the area of our brain that lights up is the same as that which is associated with pain. We all know that changing our ways is uncomfortable. While rationalizing that the change makes sense, this is rarely enough to sell lasting change.
Typically, we see audiences follow a predictable pattern starting with denial and anger about the change. They feel frustrated about not understanding – or not knowing how to change. The best change management programs anticipate these stages and build communications, engagement, and training activities to help team members navigate through the various stages of change.
Change is never easy. We all thrive on stability and routine in order to obtain mastery and succeed. But change is also inevitable, healthy, and vital to the survival of businesses of every size. Your business’ change management plan doesn’t have to be a comprehensive hundred-page document in a binder.
But you should have a strong sense of why you must make this change and how it will impact everyone in your organization. You should also be ready to articulate those details to them in a way that gets ahead of their concerns and earns their buy-in. Change management is about changing processes and details, it’s true. But just don’t forget– it’s also about changing minds.