Change management

Fundamentals of successful change management

The overall success of a change initiative depends upon the ability to proactively identify and manage cultural and organizational problems

Senior managers tend to find project deliverables not appropriately incorporated into routine business practices. Change management aims to address such issues and helps managers and employees deal with the stress of changing environments and responsibilities. The acceptance and adoption of change are different for every person and understanding how to have a positive influence on team members and key stakeholders will help decision-makers relate to them on a one-to-one basis and lead organizations to successful change initiatives. In an increasingly volatile and competitive business world, it’s vital to have the right tools and techniques to maximize an organization’s ability to change and enhance performance.

The success of a change depends upon the ability to proactively identify and manage cultural and organization barriers
The success of a change depends upon the ability to proactively identify and manage cultural and organization barriers
Fundamentals to successful change management — Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I. Fundamentals of change

Change management is about owning and directing the change journey. Change management is about understanding corporate strategy and its relationship with the people. It’s about communicating with everyone from senior executives in the office to the lower-level employees such as the construction workers in the field. Change management focuses on designing education with an understanding of human nature, and what makes employees nervous and enthusiastic. It also involves understanding how employee roles change as organizations change, and it ensures this is managed smoothly and proactively.

  • Building skills: tap into the most common approaches for building skills in an organization and leverage those to increase focus on change management goals and techniques
  • Integrating efforts: work with analysts, project managers, and other change managers to integrate change-related efforts
  • Enforcing change using mid-level managers: seek out middle managers as the primary change drivers. While senior leaders need to embrace and reinforce change and first-level managers tend to monitor consistency and followership in the policies, it’s typically the middle managers who are close to the actual work and in touch with senior leaders who make change happen across the organization. Get their full buy-in if change efforts are to be successful

Personalizing change

While change managers are fostering change at a group or organization level, the change process is an individual experience. Make sure you don’t project your perceptions of change onto others. They’re unlikely to process change the same way you do. Here are some tips for personalizing change for others:

  • Realize that what’s simple or traumatic for you is probably not the same for others. People need to process changes in their way, and the management team needs to accommodate these processes.
  • Understand what motivates people: Money, prestige or recognition are often motivators, but they can also yield the opposite effect. Talk to stakeholders and understand what motivates them before taking actions that aim to make change easier for them.
  • Tailor change messages to accommodate individual needs: people have preferences about how they absorb information. Some are auditory, others are better off experiencing a change through touch and feel, and then others that desire visual presentations. Create change messages in various forms and the change program is more likely to get buy-in from a greater percentage of the stakeholders.

Managing ambiguity

To control the related ambiguity associated with change projects, consider the following tips:

  • Communicate the change as early as possible: ensures everyone knows what’s happening. While the potential for change emerges people will dream up change scenarios with awful impacts and become fearful. Even if the change is not the best news, stakeholders should understand the impacts and deal with facts, rather than rumors.
  • Provide education to as many stakeholders as possible: engaging in rich conversations helps people understand what the organization is trying to achieve. The more interactions, the more the change leaders can learn how to guide the team through the change journey, potentially maximizing the results from the change
  • Assess new or modified roles that may result from the project: as new roles need to be in place and working well for effective change and new roles can be an opportunity for stakeholders to transform a feared change to one that inspires and motivates growth and a new way to contribute to the organization. Although, this will only happen if the role change is well understood and the pathway from their current role to the new one is planned appropriately, otherwise, chaos, demotivation, and unfulfilled project objectives will ensue
  • Ensure measurements: to assess the effectiveness of the change objectives and processes. Plan interim measurements as the new processes are tested, and then final objective measurements when new processes are stabilized. Ensure expectations are reasonable but don’t compromise overall goals. That way, people will understand what’s expected and they can help achieve goals.

Categories of organizational change

In organizations, whether the private or public sectors, change is a strategic driver of performance. Along with individual and procedural changes, clear and culturally value-based and strategic change initiatives are vital for organizations to survive. Such initiatives can often be big complex projects and need to be managed with care. There are three categories of organizational change projects:

  • Second-order: these initiatives involve wholesale changes in the way business is conducted rather than incremental. Such changes are typically a reaction to notable changes in the marketplace. A great deal is involved in second-order change initiatives including new policies, cultural adjustments, significant job shifts, supportive training, and new KPIs. In most cases, these changes are so broad and impactful and cannot be reversed. The organization is sent on a new course and the costs of reversing change would be significant. These initiatives require extensive planning and thorough buy-ins from all levels of the management team.
  • Third-order: these are rare but vital and used generally when a business is facing obsolescence, for example with companies such as Kodak or Radio Shack. Third order change initiatives require exceptional skill and dedication where the change steering committee needs to be in lock-step with the organization’s senior leadership as it seeks to change the very purpose of the organization’s existence. In third-order change initiatives, one not only has to manage the elements of a second order change but must perform innovation and market analysis management as well.

II. Phases of change management

No matter what the scale of a change initiative, there are five distinct phases

  • Planning
  • Early examples
  • Implementation and support
  • Reinforce and adjust

Formulation and refinement

First, you must form the compelling reasons for change, otherwise, you’ll get few people engaging with you.

  • Create a distinct picture of what things will look like when the change is complete: after creating a compelling reason to make a change, create a picture or refinement of the potential outcomes, and then, select the proper approach.
  • Identify change agents and the organizational capacity for change: the ability to manage organizational change is restricted by the capable and willing resources available. Expecting staff to take on a major change effort while holding them accountable to perform their normal day job will be a recipe for failure. As part of change formulation, identify change agents and how to support them.
  • Outcomes mapping — determine the steps that need to be taken: the sequence of such steps is not always obvious and can come with trade-offs. In an organization, deriving the series of steps that the management team understands and can support is critical for buy-in.


When creating a change plan, highlight what will change but place equal weight on what won’t change as it’s often the stable pieces that help staff through a period of change. With this in mind:

  • Focus on creating, maintaining, and monitoring support systems that can assist staff, including HR, health benefit providers, access to managers as drivers of change, and informal information exchange groups where team members can pose questions or share ideas. Communicate that these support channels exist and when queries arise address them quickly — nothing will kill a change initiative quicker than a nonresponsive support system.
  • Create a resistance plan. Not all resistance is the same and understanding the source of resistance is important because appropriate responses will vary. Some of the most common sources of resistance include: 1) perceived power shift — when employees feel the change will diminish their power in the organization. It’s important to understand how they perceive they’re losing power and determine how the value they provide will be preserved and to be frank if power is truly shifting and their importance in the organization is diminishing. 2) bad past experiences — seek to understand staff members’ worries and demonstrate how this time around change will be different. Aim to make plan changes based on what you hear and potentially involve resistant staff members in implementing those changes 3) self-interest — some just won’t like the change efforts, despite the benefits. Try to continue to communicate the changing status to them, ensure they know about available support systems, and let them be. It’s difficult to address specific self-interest resistance, so try not to spend too much energy on it.

Early examples

You don’t have to be perfect to start, but you have to start to be perfect. Set up a prototype for a test environment to demonstrate an early example of change can be powerful for change initiatives, helping the change team and staff who are trying to understand and respond to the change.

  • It helps demonstrate a commitment to a change by taking action. In many cases, the most effective way to get staff members to believe and embrace behavioral change is to see it demonstrated by the managers who evaluate their performance.
  • It can help monitor how different groups grasp, apply, and accept the change in their areas. This is particularly useful when teams are located in different geographies or countries. As cultures and norms differ, so will the acceptance and interpretation of the change.
  • It gives more time to work on the outcomes. The sooner one gets a sense of the outcomes the change approach will produce, the more time can be spent fine-tuning approaches and instructions.
  • It can help produce a business impact assessment, helping guide the management team, in areas such as processes that need further education, role changes, education and training, and organizational performance assessment. An early change example can shed light on change aspects that are proving more difficult for employees to adapt to. Changing processes almost always means adjusting the metrics used to determine the success of deliverables. These metrics might require new processes and evaluation tools. The business impact analysis brings this to the attention of the management team.

Implementation and support

Good support is vital in change management otherwise staff relationships will not be happy ones.

  • Utilize user champions: educate people you’ve put extra time into so that they can help others. There should be one for each department or about one for every 20 people in larger groups. This may seem very ambitious, however, significant change requires significant support and implementation. User champions across the organization will serve as the eyes and ears of the implementation team. Helping out staff and ensuring change progresses as smoothly as possible.
  • Focus on the day-1-activities separate from day-100-activities. Day 100 is when the second round of changes could come once the initial changes are stabilized, embedded, and working. Do not aim to solve all of the organization’s inefficiencies at once.
  • Focus on the big picture results. While there may be some bumps when you implement a change initiative and you need to react to those quickly and decisively, however, significant change initiatives will create broad change, as long as you aren’t getting a flood of calls from everywhere, looking for advice on small issues.

Reinforce and adjust

Organizational change should not be viewed as the movement of a chess piece from one square to another. Instead, I like to think of change being like an item attached to an elastic band. You have to move and then hold your piece in place, resisting the pull of the elastic until it stretches out and goes slack. Depending on the change, this can take days, months, and in the most extreme cases, years.

  • Don’t be afraid to change. As measuring and evaluating outcomes of the changes made, it’s not uncommon to learn and discover needed adjustments to the change efforts. Don’t change things too early unless you’ve found an obvious flaw that needs to be corrected with the support of the staff members. Remain open to gradual adjustments.
  • Focus on people with new or significantly changed roles. People in such roles will likely be pivotal to process improvements and undergoing the most significant personal change. Ensure that time is taken to provide one-on-one focus and support to these staff members.
  • If the change has involved layoffs, communicate transparently with those remaining. The staff members who were not laid off and are still working for could be experiencing significant emotions. Take time to be available to these people, keeping support mechanisms open, and be ready to listen at all times.

III. Competencies for change

Process management

Good business process management involves ensuring that the ideas behind a change initiative are translated to employees and their work once the change is in place, providing valuable instructions to make sure things come out right.

  • Business process assessment aims to create the requirements needed to facilitate change. To do this, gain a deep understanding of what the organization is doing today — situation ‘as-is’ — and the process change that can be implemented to make the organization more efficient — situation ‘to-be’. User stories can help provide a visual image of what people in the organization want to achieve.
  • Business process analysis strives to manage the actual change process itself. By first validating any changes proposed during the initiative, second, promoting any change ideas that come from staff members during the initiative, third, managing changes to the actual process deliverables such as product instructions or customer benefit descriptions that need to be made, and fourth, drive efficient and effective testing of any new products or processes associated with the change initiative such as the use of any technology products created as part of the change.
  • Business process management ensures change completion criteria accomplishment. Change initiative should proceed with documented and agreed-upon outcomes. Without significant management focus, it’s easy for the initiative to go astray, compromising the desired organizational outcomes.


When crafting change management communication, determine the message you want others to take away, which is easier said than done because there are a lot of different activities in progress during change. To build a successful communication strategy:

  • Build a business impact analysis template. This document captures the elements of the intended change that should include the business area or areas that are impacted, the roles impacted, the level of impact, the nature of the change required, the strategy to implement the change, and who’ll be responsible to monitor the outcome of the change.
Bussiness impact assessment for change — image by Ariodion
  • Share senior management directions with the staff, maturely. The dynamics of changing an organization are complex with ideas and directions that come from senior leaders often getting adjusted as they’re reviewed by trusted advisors or key middle managers. Experienced change managers will wait to communicate such directives until adjustments are appropriately put on the table and evaluated.
  • Integrate management directions into staff support mechanisms. Change is stressful enough for clients without having to deal with mixed messages. Ensure time is taken to incorporate messages from confirmed senior leadership direction into support team scripts.

Stakeholder management

Communication in a change management initiative requires taking information about change and communicating it with all of the stakeholders while maintaining a degree of personalization for the more influential ones. Aim for managers and the team leaders in areas with the most degree of impact. These people have influence due to significant technical knowledge, personality, or both.

  • Understand what success means to the most important stakeholders. Any change that alters a person’s job environment may not be viewed favorably without significant conversation and understanding. So spend time to understand the influencers’ pains and worries in regards to change.
  • Does the change align with the perceived purpose of the organization? Understanding how a purpose is defined can differ throughout an organization and this is vital to stakeholder management.
  • Understand stakeholders’ personal situation to get their support. Changes that a person may be enduring outside of work could have a substantial impact on how they may receive or support change initiatives at work.

Knowledge transfer

Ensuring stakeholders have sufficient knowledge of the intent of a change initiative is important to buy-in. This can consist of information on why and how the organization is making the change.

  • The how: convey a sense of permanence to what is being done. An explanation of why the organization is changing should explain the long-term impact of the change.
  • The how: explaining how it will be accomplished. There are several important items to consider when detailing the approach to change such as tools and processes, the progress steps, decision-making rights, and policies and constraints.

Training and support

With the end in mind, it’s important that change managers perform business impact assessments before planning or conducting any training or setting up support systems. When making assessments, apply the topics to find areas that needs training and support:

  • Progress steps — In any work environment, it’s important to convey perceptions of how the team is performing, helping team members understand their performance and the standard against which they’ll be measured. Train employees, so they know how new processes are measured otherwise employees will likely struggle to understand how they’re doing in the new and changing world.
  • Decision making — this can be the hardest to train because it’s often performed by subjective rather than objective means. However, stakeholders must understand the facts and measures that will be evaluated when making decisions during change.
  • Policies — Document the policies, explicitly capture changes to policies, detail questions about policy changes that may come from the stakeholders, and make sure that policies are an ongoing conversation between management and employees during the entire change initiative.
  • Constraints — sometimes, changes to policies can cause conflict with behaviors that the change initiative is aiming for. These potential conflicts are important to discuss with stakeholders and management so behaviors align with the intent of the change initiative.

Managing risks and bottlenecks

A substantial organizational change is full of hazards that could potentially bring the initiative to a halt. A risk is something that may occur but hasn’t yet impacted the initiative, so one can proactively try to manage them. Bottlenecks are things that have occurred and are having an impact on the change progress, and one needs to react to and resolve bottlenecks.

  • The departure of key individuals from the business. This can have two forms of impact: 1) the departure could send a signal to others that the changes aren’t a good idea, 2) the departing stakeholders could be pivotal in helping design and embed the changes. Here, mitigation actions to inform and support others that could take the place of departing staff members are typically put in place to address the personnel departure risks.
  • Organizational readiness problems. Despite the best of change efforts, other business dynamics such as changes in the competitive or regulatory landscape or personnel can leave the organization unprepared to implementing a planned change. The primary mitigation action to address this is to perform a readiness assessment that examines the overall degree of change that’s happening in the business and the degree of collaboration between departments where change will be substantial. Effective collaboration between teams is often the best way to address the lack of organizational readiness issues.

Managing role changes

During change initiatives, some roles will change dramatically, requiring significant training and support and others may seem very similar on the surface but having changed considerably. Change teams need to work with stakeholders to carefully plan the roles and resources that will be required to help staff members cope with role changes. For this:

  • Define explicit owners for each of the new processes that form the intended changes. Many change initiatives result in processes that cross over multiple departments that haven’t worked closely before. Assigning ownership in these cases can involve power and authority shifts which are not easy to manage. Work with your senior management team and recommend options and have those senior managers direct where ownership of new processes should lie.
  • Define the roles involved in the new business environment. Working with processes and the owners determine what new job responsibilities are needed in the organization.
  • Working with the management, identify the most suitable candidates to fill new roles. Perform skill-mapping and a pathway that defines the training required to ensure team members can perform their new jobs appropriately.
  • Plan and conduct the training required to build the team members who are ready to fill roles when changes are implemented. Accommodate some one-off training sessions for some roles with the timing being closer to when the actual changes occur.

Monitoring benefits and progress

A change initiative dashboard requires management commitment and metrics:

  • A set of monitors that measure the effectiveness of change. Every new process considered in the change initiative should include considerations for new KPIs that directly highlight business success.
  • Environmental changes that drive sustainability for the change objectives. These are policies and practices that make changes part of the everyday world in the organization. 1) Include new measurements in performance plans for employees, related to the new changed objectives. New measurements can reinforce the behavioral changes the management team wants to witness. 2) Build a policy review board, closely linked to the steering committee, made up of key employees, who ensure new policies are understandable and effective. This board can make recommendations to the steering committee for changes or adjustments, keeping the employee base engaged with the change initiatives for the longer term. 3) A new set of criteria for approving projects. With new processes, project approval criteria needs to be refreshed. 4) A new training plan for new employees. Training should not end with the conclusion of a change initiative but new approaches need to be embedded that last the course of the desired period of outcomes for the newly implemented objectives.

IV. Shaping the journey

Creating urgency

People rarely change unless they feel a compelling personal reason to do so. Creating a need to change is vital in maintaining the momentum required to make changes a reality.

  • Discuss circumstances in the marketplace that make change a priority rather than just a corporate directive. It can be a challenge to motivate individuals to change solely because of a senior leader’s decision. However, conditions in the market or industry can represent a compelling reason for a business to change.
  • Align the message with and between senior leaders. Nothing will diminish a change initiative’s momentum quicker than senior leaders acting out of tune.
  • Discuss the negative side of the ‘do-nothing’ option. Reinforcing the story told by senior leaders with the potential outcomes of not changing can be a powerful motivator. Therefore, discuss the consequences of not changing.
  • Mix the sources you use for factual information. As a general rule, individuals value different types and sources of information. Some will believe statistics, while others react to a real-life story. It can help if you use a mix of information.

Build a shared vision

To take staff through a change initiative one needs to share information with them and build a shared vision. There are several factors to consider when sharing a vision with the staff.

  • Tie change initiatives to any understood and accepted corporate strategy. It can be a boost to change initiatives if people understand how the change will enhance how they will strategically move the company forward.
  • Prioritize goals. It’s important to ensure staff members are focused on the highest priority objectives. Without outlined priorities, actions can be inconsistent and create challenges for change efforts.
  • Prioritize business’ usual activities along with the change tasks. And also make sure that the management aligned with the balance between change and standard work assignments.
  • Develop realistic dreams. Change initiatives can have far-reaching and long term strategic objectives. However, if they get too far ahead in vision, they may leave stakeholders stunned instead of supportive. To make life easier, share the steps that lead to the vision.
  • Put the vision to the test before sharing it widely with the staff. This is to see whether the vision aligns with the key stakeholders’ understanding of the business and market landscape. Make adjustments if necessary and then share your change vision more widely.

Building a community

For a successful change to occur, one needs to build a change-community with the right make-up, training, and support to successfully navigate business change. The foundation of change-communities is its champions. Often called the ‘change champion’ or ‘department champion’ or ‘change agents’, they’re given the mission to understand change agendas, absorb the change, test the results, and integrate those changes into their department. When managing champions consider:

  • Training these individuals so they can support the business. Training in a change initiative is almost an ongoing process. The primary change sessions required to ensure the champions are equipped and capable for change are: 1) orientation training, which ensures champions know what they’re doing and how they’ll go about making changes. 2) Solution development training, that aims to provide greater details on each change allowing champions to help evaluate approaches. 3) Testing, or assessment training, which will allow champions to test the changed business elements appropriately and thoroughly. This will also allow champions to train others in their departments. 4) Support systems training, change champions will require in-depth help and support to complete their tasks; they must also know how to raise concerns or issues they encounter.
  • Supporting champions throughout the change initiative. After selection and training, champions need to be supported throughout the change initiative. This includes the means to record concerns or issues in a concise and simple manner. The steering committee must also establish expectations for how those concerns and issues will be addressed and how the champions need to be involved in implementing solutions. Furthermore, champions need to share ideas and know how to properly evaluate any change concepts being considered. Therefore, champions need to be provided access to materials to assist them in training others in their department, and since training others is a particular skill, support from expert trainers may be needed if the degree of change is to be substantial.

The importance of early changes

People have to experience a change before they realize it won’t be too difficult. So implementing part of a change agenda earlier, rather than later, can provide a powerful boost to any change initiative. However, one needs to evaluate some factors before engaging in an early initial change:

  • Thorough testing. While implementing an early change can give a change initiative a great boost, implementing something that breaks the business can have the opposite effect. So ensure that the right people and test programs are in place, and then diligently execute it before putting early changes in place.
  • Evaluate the magnitude and impact of the change. The change item selected should be significant enough to make a difference to the business, but not so big that it would put the business at substantial risk.
  • Look for ways to publicize the positive impacts of the change initiative within the organization. Use the corporate newsletter, or all-hands email from a senior leader to share the success of the early delivery far and wide.
  • Be sure to plan for the perceived risks of early efforts. Early success can generate so much enthusiasm among the management team that they may vie for the position to be next so they too can reap the benefits, placing workload pressures on the change team with internal rivalries. Another consequence may be that the early change may have given the impression that all upcoming changes will be as straightforward as the early one, which is rarely the case. Aim to work with senior management on priorities before implementing the initial change. Laying down a plan, getting buy-in, and then sticking to that plan is the best way to reduce the perceived risks that early success can introduce.
  • Enthusiastically celebrate early wins, with the team, while emphasizing there will be more to come.

Walking the talk — demonstrating results

To the extent possible, work with senior leaders to help them demonstrate the desired changes:

  • Ensure consistency. Make sure new procedures are executed the same way across the entire business. If staff see that new rules are being applied differently in other departments, the meaning and benefit of those rules will be lessened and support for changes will dwindle.
  • Make appropriate changes to governance models and monitor them. Tediously data-driven and hands-off managers may be in for a shock with the new change initiatives that pushed them to manage in new manners. To ensure consistency and effectiveness, governance models need to be built, taught and reinforced to ensure decisions align with the changes desired in the organization.
  • Ensure technology systems are quickly modified to handle change. Proceed for a short time using IT work-arounds at the beginning of a change, however if systematic changes are not made in a reasonable amount of time, staff will likely get the impression that those changes weren’t so important after all, reducing the business benefits the change initiative achieves.

Evaluate the change

The changes put in place when paired with effective measurements can create improvements in the business and reveal new opportunities. A good evaluation of the implemented changes can reveal the following:

  • Ripple effects. When changes get implemented, employees start managing their business differently and sometimes a small change in an area can inspire other more substantial and viable ideas. Therefore, after a change implementation, it’s a good idea to review measurements across the whole business, listen to staff ideas as they surface, and implement viable ones.
  • Weaknesses will be revealed. Don’t be surprised when new opportunities arise from staff members.
  • Newly-found energy. Successful changes can inspire the team to look for improvements and sometimes business-as-usual will not look so promising with everyone wanting change. It needs to be made sure that new ideas are appropriately thought through, and a sound business case is in place for further changes.

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