Practical Change Management

There are few organisations that haven’t faced experienced restructuring, downsizing, incremental change, acquisition or mergers. Constant organisational change, in order to remain competitive or cost effective, is the norm. Yet how many managers, asked to take a key role in change management processes, have had the training to do so? How many simply learn on the job? How many do it on top of an already demanding and busy role? How many have a model to guide them? And yet, when an organisation embarks upon yet another change management exercise, how common is it to critically evaluate how well the last major change project was implemented, note what was successful, identify what didn’t work so well and use that information to guide the next process?. Not very common, I’d say.

Change management models abound and there are some useful guides to have, if ‘thrown in the deep end’. One simple model is Scott & Jaffe’s five step process: (1) prepare and anticipate key elements (2) get people together to plan the response (3) establish ways of working together (4) activate a flexible response and learning cycle (5) reward and acknowledge the people who make things work.

Using a slightly different approach, Kotter’s model has a few more steps: (1) establish urgency (2) create a guiding coalition (3) develop vision and strategy (4) communicate the vision (5) empower action (6) create short terms wins (7) consolidate the gains (8) produce more change (9) anchor the new approaches in the culture.

Change models are a guide to follow, however the steps don’t detail what else is involved. The other elements critical for successful change management, are people, preparation and plans.

Picking the right people with the right skill set and abilities for key roles is critical. Different skill sets will be needed for the roles of project manager and the various roles within the steering committee i.e. spokesperson, legal advisor, communications/PR, finance, property and service delivery. These roles should have position descriptions, so the incumbents are clear about what their responsibilities are and the outcomes they are to achieve.

Having got the right people in the right roles, their first task is to familiarise themselves with the context and scope of the project. That done, planning and preparation for the change project can begin. Every aspect of the project must be considered both individually and as part of the whole project, for there will be many interconnecting and inter-dependent parts. The planning must include financial considerations, timeframes and key milestones; the internal and external stakeholders, service delivery and risk management issues; resources required (people, equipment and finances), communications, monitoring and reporting issues; support for staff, staffing issues and legal requirements.

The planning should result in a comprehensive action plan that guides the project manager and steering committee. The action plan should establish the separate areas to be worked on, the actions required under each area and the name of the person/persons responsible for doing them. The plan should also identify the outcomes expected, the key milestones and the deadlines for the actions. The plan should also include the project’s monitoring and reporting mechanisms, as this gives the process and project some checks and balances and if required, opportunities for adjustment.

A separate, comprehensive communications plan is also needed. It should reflect the different phases of a change project, which include: (1) what is going to happen, (2) where the organisation is heading (3) what that will mean for staff and other key stakeholders (4) how things will occur. At each phase the recipients of the message may be different and the content will change also. The timing of the information may differ, as well as the media channel to be used i.e. personal meeting; information on the intranet; a group email from the Director.

And there are some common traps to avoid, if possible. One trap is raising expectations and then not delivering on what’s been promised, or, not delivering when something was due, time wise. Of course the unexpected always occurs, and the best laid plans may go awry. Be mindful though, that staff waiting for information or for what’s been promised will initially believe the dates and the promises. Non delivery will dash hopes, lower expectations and create stress. Several episodes of non delivery will make staff angry, distrustful and cynical.

Another trap is not fronting up to staff often enough to talk about the proposed changes; delays or alterations to the proposed timeframes or initial changes. The lack of both personal contact with a key change agent and information can create uncertainty and the creation of misinformation or rumours. It is difficult when change agents know information that may be commercially sensitive and can’t be shared with staff. They may be seen as withholding information when in fact they can’t give some information out, for good reason.

Watch also for information leaks. Sometimes formal announcements which are due on specific days and times are a non-event, when the information is known and circulated beforehand. In worst case scenarios, sometimes everyone knows the leaked information except for the people most affected. If leaks have occurred, the communication processes need to be checked. The trail of information should be followed to find out how and who spilled the beans – and something done to avoid a reoccurrence.

Change management is demanding work and it can be greatly assisted by using an appropriate model and focusing on people, preparation and plans. Ideally, constant practice makes perfect. What could be simpler?

© January 2006

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