• Keith Shaw

Managing Change: Challenging and Essential.

Have you ever heard someone say “change is hard”, with that knowing concerned look on their face? Have you said it yourself, and then moved onto the next fire burning in your inbox? As leaders, we are hurried and more is asked of us each day. Change is one of those things that needs to be approached with care. Slow down, those you influence and the families or organizations you belong to are relying on you to get it right!

When change management is discussed in business schools, the success outcomes are measured in savings created by the speed at which the change is implemented successfully. The less time employees are listless, unproductive or confused and worried, the less money is lost. Manage change poorly in your organization and you burn money.

Today, to do lists and action items are many and the pace of work is so fast that even experienced leaders can find themselves in react first, think later patterns of behaviour. This is bad. Change management is a fundamental competency of any good leader. Recognizing and subsequently leading people through change is essential. Leaders cannot bumble their way through this one and feel good about taking a paycheck home. With that said, there are a lot of resources to support those of us tasked with creating and managing change; read on!

By reviewing the insights below, I hope you’ll be able to more easily recognise when you are in a change situation, know where to turn for resources, and take confident action to be a source of strength and consistency when the world is shifting on someone, a work group, or an entire profession. In doing so, you’ll be able to focus on the human side of change, and when successful the other markers (dollar bills!) will fall into line. As well, you don’t need to be a manager to manage change, the ideas below can help parents, spouses, and informal leaders recognize the symptoms (or better yet anticipate) of change and help people (or yourself!) through.

Recognizing change. All people approach change differently. The same person can react differently to different changes. What may not be a big deal to you, can be a catastrophic change to someone else and vice versa. So the first thing to remember is to respect and meet people where they are at in the process. In short, if someone you’re influencing sees the change as a big deal, we need to respect their reality and work from that point. Minimizing a person’s feelings about change (e.g. come on honey, it’s no big deal, we’re just…) is not productive and can limit your ability to connect with that person and positively influence them. Be on the lookout for increased water cooler time, emotion or frustration or other departures from normal. Yes, knowing your people (their baseline individuality) helps here for sure. A review of the five stages of grief (anger, denial etc.) is a good idea too (see link at end of article). Yes, change equals loss and grief is a part of the process.

Use a framework: My favorite for its efficacy and simplicity is John Kotter’s eight steps and role of thinking and feeling outlined in his elegant fable, Our Iceberg is Melting. Kotter’s steps are:

Create a sense of urgency

Pull together a guiding team

Develop the change vision and strategy

Make it happen

Empower others to act

Produce short term wins

Don’t let up

Create a new culture

If you are not the one that created the change (ie. you did not pull together a guiding team and develop the change strategy) that’s ok! I’d like to highlight where I gain most of the benefit from Kotter’s process, when supporting people through change.

Creating a sense of urgency. Even if you were not the one to decide on the new direction, you can communicate with urgency. Helping others see that the status quo is no longer an option and that change on our own terms now, is better than change with less control later, is a strategy that’s worked well for me. How can you demonstrate with visible action, by your own example, that change is needed now?

Pull together a guiding team. For me this has guided me to pull together my early adopters and influencers in the group. A lone crazy leader advocating for a change is less compelling than a trusted coalition of peers and leaders that are all in agreement that change is needed. Think of what someone will do when the news of change is first felt. Typically they will turn to someone they trust. If that person reinforces your message with calm confidence, you will battle less to move change forward than if your influencers were not ‘in the tent’ with you in the first place. Message, you need to know who these people are before the change comes and build trust in them however you can so that support will be there when you need it.

Empower others to act. This one is huge. When change occurs, people can feel helpless and out of control. People can freeze, as with fear. When you as a leader are able to help someone see what they can do to take action, you create activity and engagement where there was overwhelm and paralysis. Fear and its symptoms are common in change situations. Action, however small, can break people free of this. Little by little they begin to see that they do have a measure of control especially when supported with the next step below.

Produce short term wins. Again, this is critical! That person who took the first tentative steps out of the fear den needs to be celebrated. How can you set up the process so that their first actions result in something to celebrate? This cycle of action, win, action, win, is virtuous and can help people see the way forward. In any change, the first actions are observed by the many and success encourages others. Just like when a sports team scores and the fans cheer, wins during the process are infectious and can raise peoples' spirits about the future and gain more support for the movement.

Create a new culture. Too many times, we decide that the change process is over too soon. Don’t be President Bush standing on an aircraft carrier with a big banner saying “Mission Accomplished” too early. We are not in war, but for me as I manage change this photo reminds me that the forces that are pulling people back to the way things were are strong and I need to overestimate the effort I need to put in. As someone leading change and who’s been rewarded in life for adapting well, I am good at change (laughable hubris I know). My opinions and feelings of when change is done are falsely positive and, recognizing this, I know I need to keep pushing beyond when I think the job is first complete. Knowing these facts from Kotter, and my own tendencies to pull back just as the change is solidifying (and so keep up the effort) enables me to be successful.

The role of feeling. Many of us think we are rational beings and manage that way. In fact, often we are not. Creating rational explanations for the change is important but only part of the process. People are visual; people are emotional. By connecting with a person’s emotions we can help them ‘feel’ the change. Taking time to outline a narrative or description as to what the change will ‘feel’ like is a powerful strategy. You can do this by creating statements that start with “Imagine when…” or “Won’t it be great when…” and fill in the blank with the positive effect the change will have. For this one you get out what you put in. The more detailed and compelling your future picture is, the more successful you’ll be in selling your version of the future. Taking time to visualize your version of the future is an essential step for being able to help others see it too.

It’s cliche to say that change is hard. People nod and agree but an alarming few actually take deliberate action to manage change properly. Too many iterate and ‘feel’ their way forward leaving people to worry, quit, or simply remain unproductive for longer than necessary. If you are a parent, coach, teacher or leader of any kind, you have a responsibility to the people you influence to know and practice the art of change management to the best of your ability. And that ability is not fixed, it grows. You’ve improved your knowledge by reading this article. Take more action to skill-up and sharpen your knowledge on this important part of the modern leaders toolkit.,some%20linear%20timeline%20in%20grief.

Kotter, John P., and Holger Rathgeber. Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. 1st St. Martin's Press ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006.

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