Change Management Wisdom: Strategy, People, Communication

Planning, Employee Involvement, and Leadership During Change

Multi-ethnic business people celebrating successful change management.
Jon Feingersh / Getty Images

As the speed of change continues to increase, change management is a fundamental competency needed by managers, supervisors, Human Resources staff, and organization leaders. To tap my readers' wisdom, I surveyed readers about their change management experience.

The survey afforded me the opportunity to consolidate hundreds of years of experience in change management in one article.

I have collected and categorized my readers' thoughts and recommendations.

Their words demonstrate the nuances of change strategy, planning, implementation, and courage much more graphically than any I can offer on my own. Here, in the words of my readers, is their best advice about change management.

Change Strategy and Planning

  • "I don't think that change is difficult to structure or navigate. I think we try to bend the rules; we expect people to embrace the change because we like it or we are paying for it. I have never seen a poorly-structured change succeed or a well-structured one fail. I have seen well-structured changes poorly communicated, with the result being the pain on the way to the change; I've also seen badly-structured changes beautifully executed, with the result that no one changes."
  • "Human behavior is very complex, but I honestly believe that organization change is often overcomplicated by bad execution and lack of clarity and a plan. Change principles are simple (does not mean easy). In my opinion, 70-90% of the successful change efforts I've been involved in have focused very heavily on the basics... Those that failed usually did so not for poor intent or a bad company strategy, but because of bad CHANGE strategy and implementation.

  • More MBA and other business degree programs should concentrate on Human Performance Improvement and Organization Development (and Design) principles. Better identification and selection of leaders would also help staff the top ranks of organizations with those who are better emotionally suited to produce change. Successful change management strategies require not only an awareness of human behavior but also workplace evolutionary trends.

    Many consultants only see half the picture and rely on historical evidence of successes. The workplace trends we are seeing do not have historical context, thereby this tactic will eliminate many potential "solutions" that previously may have worked."
  • "A lot of what I see regarding change hasn't changed over the years.....it's "repackaged", replicated, improved upon, etc. Basically, if you define the objective, train your people (give them the tools), communicate at all levels expectations/WIFM/R&R's), (Note: what's in it for me and rewards and recognition) and reward for success, change (and teams) will be successful."
  • "A theoretical framework to underpin the change."
  • "Doing risk assessments early on and having a specific mitigation plan for all the major risks."
  • "Clarity of mission, vision and objectives for the change effort. Creating an urgency around the need for change."
  • "Creating and communicating a vision beyond the initial implementation."
  • "Change should be clearly related to an important, strategic business objective, otherwise, management attention will wane. Developing a clear, catchy sound bite that summarizes the behavior change enables people to remember the new behaviors."

Communication During Change

  • "You can't communicate enough or talk to enough people. Most employees are quite satisfied with the status quo--20-60-20. Focus on the 60% in the middle--not on the 20% that will never buy-in."
  • "You cannot communicate too much. Have measurable goals so you can track and communicate your progress towards the goals."
  • "Have meetings at least once a week including all members who will be impacted by or are driving the process together in the same room."
  • "Build skills in communication such that the real conversations can be held on a regular basis."
  • "Not trying to answer questions to which we had no answers yet...maintaining credibility."
  • "Communicating clearly and frequently, especially about measurements, results, and consequences."
  • "Getting the whole organization together can build momentum, create a memorable event, and build peer pressure for the change."
  • "Every change seems to bring new stuff to do; in today's marketplace, folks have to have the option of dropping or reducing other tasks...we cannot go on adding forever."

Consulting During Change

  • "Negotiating 'entry' with clients. Having uncovered the people with decision-making abilities - and getting their co-operation. Never doggedly following a model of improvement. Focusing heavily on the human side and relationship forming. Working with peoples' enthusiasm as much as possible. Providing change resource - gophers, catalysts, analysts. Concentrating on evaluation so people can see change happening. Focusing on small cycles of change so that it's not a one-big-bang approach."

    Consequences of Change

    • "Carry the wounded; help the long-term stragglers find another place to work."
    • "At the same time, and again in scenarios of critical change, do not retain (for too long) any key management personnel who show no signs of willingness to accept change."
    • "Publicize rewards and recognition for positive approaches and accomplishments, and celebrate each small win publicly."
    • "Provide positive consequence for change, and negative consequence for not adopting the change. Set up some early wins."

    Employee Involvement During Change

    • "Lao Tzu... the best change is what the people think they did themselves... i.e., high involvement is better so long as it is not overlain cumbersome and doesn't interfere with people being successful in their regular roles."
    • "I find personally and I believe for most employees that it is critical that they are involved in the process. The level of involvement will depend on the employee--inviting suggestions and feedback, delegating aspects of the process, etc. The process is more successful, I believe when the employees are bought into the process and see that their input is valued and makes a difference."
    • "Hold facilitated groups to solicit input after a presentation that focuses attention on a specific area are most effective during the planning stages. I've seen too many loosely organized wide open requests for group input that turn into free-for-alls. These generate frustration and hurt feelings, contributing to further resistance because there was no focused purpose to identify achievement."

    Leadership

    • "A change effort cannot be "optional" for the senior staff. They must lead or get out of the way. The new system will ultimately have to stand on its own feet, but every new system needs support and nurture."
    • "Change efforts must be coordinated by leadership. When change efforts are frequent and happening simultaneously on several fronts without coordination, the organization fractures. Employees become confused and frustrated (and hence angry) because they are being pulled in conflicting directions."
    • "Active management support isn't totally necessary, but active management antagonism is likely fatal. (I've been thrown out by a middle manager who said, "If we're going to have change, we're going to drive it ourselves," even after being invited in by first level management to help) ."
    • "If the structure is not there, the change will fail. Lines of authority and control MUST be respected; you cannot directly change what you do not control. You can influence those in control, but you cannot force them. (2) You probably cannot gauge the size of a change to its targets. What you can assess is the organizational structure and the likelihood that the change, however, large or small, will succeed."
    • "Informal leaders who participate in designing the change effort can sell the effort and deal with objections on a day-to-day basis."
    • "Just because change is required for organizational survival does not mean that cold-hearted meanness is required. I have experienced these attitudes, words, and actions from executives over the years, and it always bleeds through the communication to the organization and undermines the change efforts."
    • "There's a huge difference in outlook between "its OK to fail" (but it would be far better for you if you did not,) and "you have permission to fail." (We expect you might and want you to get the most out of it.)"
    • "Unless those seeking change realize that change management requires them to alter their behavior and to develop their own skills, the change will go nowhere for the better."
    • "Too many companies spend too much time playing with esoteric theories and "techniques du jour" -- instead of just sticking to the basic practices of effective, hands-on management."
    • "Ensuring or obtaining executive sponsorship and creating what Kotter calls a "guiding coalition."
    • "Working with and developing a group of informal leaders throughout the organization plus senior management commitment, attention and role modeling."
    • "Having buy-in from the top and earning it with the front-line supervisors."

    Openness to Change

    • "People who are afforded clarity, honesty, dignity, understanding, and compassion have a greater openness to change."
    • "Expressing the reasons for change honestly and directly will help people be open to change."

    Learning and Training During Change

    • "Identify all necessary training and provide it. Try to involve the impacted groups upfront. Pilot the change, if possible."

    Measurements and Benchmarks During Change

    • "Managers tend to view events as successful without knowing why---they have no measurements or clear expectations about what the change will produce. Staff sees the shortcomings and fewer advances. It's vital for the group to know: How will we know that we have gotten to success?"
    • "Establish measurement systems around the desired changes and report the results frequently."
    • "Data defining the gap between current practices and desired practices is useful in establishing credibility."

    People Matter Most During Change

    • "People can become far more than many expect them to become, if they are taken seriously, listened to, and given some help."
    • "Work on how each person will be affected and how to make that fit their needs as well as the organizations, while broadening participation in the process."
    • "Belief in the value equality/role differentiation among people in the change."
    • "Prepare employees for the change. Outline detailed plans and timelines for the change."
    • "Don't fatigue people with constant small changes. Choose big impact changes that an important segment of your constituents will support immediately. Change for the good of the organization and your customers first, change for profit only second at best, change for yourself last."
    • "The organization and individuals must be able and willing to learn (as in double-loop, etc.) and take responsibility for themselves."
    • "The focus is always on helping transform the entire system to make it more what they want it to be."
    • "Do not assume that the level of enthusiasm will continue, put methods in place that will help sustain that enthusiasm during the long road ahead. Prepare for sabotage, not everyone gets on board and those that don't will sabotage implementation with or without known intent to harm. Capture the opportunities that exist within the times of transition, this is the most creative time for employees and given permission to explore, many wonderful things can result."
    • "Acknowledge and allow people to go through the stages of change (like Kubler-Ross's stages of dying - denial, anger, etc.). They will anyway, whether or not you accept it. And expecting it allows you to better cope with it, and not overreact to early denial or anger, which ultimately helps the overall change effort."
    • "Start at the top. Start with each individual. Start where they actually are (not where you want them to be). This means sometimes you start from short term planning and sometimes vision and values and sometimes individual mentoring."

    Persistence in Change Management

    • "You need to continue the process until the change is anchored in the culture."
    • "You need to monitor the process through its entire lifecycle."

    Sense of Urgency in Change Management

    • "Urgency does not equal fear. Fear hurts. Urgency helps."
    • "Keep the momentum up. 2 - 3 weeks without visible activity causes the effort to flounder."
    • "Anticipate and deal with objections and resistance. Like in a political campaign, if you let them sit, people will assume they are true. Stay flexible. Be willing to modify the process in the face of public opinion and evolving events."
    • "Set the stage by creating urgency and why the change is important - "unfreezing" through communication."
    • "The best change efforts a) like Socio-Technical Systems Planning -- involve external/environmental, technical and social issues concurrently. Faster is better. If things draw out too long without noticeable results and recognition, folks "wear out" and go back to old ways."

    Trust During Change

    • "Fix the trust thing. Everything else, the vision, values, shared sense of purpose, and purposeful change will all follow, simply because people want them to."

    I think I'll end with this trust thing because I agree with this final comment. If you fix the trust thing, you've removed many of the barriers to positive change. So, fix the trust thing; walk the talk; communicate; tell the truth; involve the people; set goals; help people learn and develop; measure results. We know that these are the foundations, not just for effective change management, but for effective organizations as well. Now, go forth and create them in your organization. As one university HR department decided when given a guiding principle of "Making People Matter," as HR professionals they are, "People Making People Matter...Not Madder."

    More Information about Change Management