I was recently asked for advice pertaining to change management:
I am on a committee at work to try and figure out some ideas to make things better/easier/more enjoyable for employees when the company makes some sort of change. Such as when everyone at the company needs to learn a new procedure or piece of software or company rule.
This is a tricky question, because it’s so general. Every situation will have its own quirks, details, and difficulties that add to the complexity involved in affecting the change positively. On a tangent, Davin and I got talking about the process through with Telus and BCTel (the two main phone companies associated with Alberta and British Columbia, respectively) went through the process of merging about a decade back, and what a debacle the entire affair turned out to be. This kind of change is obviously on a scale large enough that it requires a plan specifically suited towards its success and various intricacies, and is out-of-scope for what I’ll be talking about today.
What I’m going to aim to do is describe some of the things that we are seeking to do whenever we look to affect change in the processes and methodologies that the people we work with use on a daily basis. I plan to cover:
- Why attempts to affect change are resisted
- Aiding the acceptance of change
- Things we should avoid
As a preface to this, I do not have any formal training or background in change management. I do however have experience with this subject. While working for the University of Victoria, I was part of a group of three co-op students and one supervisor that were designing and implementing a completely new system of information management that was to be used by all of the different co-op programs at UVic. Going through the process of training, migrating old data, designing an interface that made sense to people, and subsequently migrating those people from an old (and arguably rickety) system to the new one, all provided me with a lot of valuable experience.
On top of that, I have managed a large number of projects and application deployments that have required middle-tier and end-users to change over to new ways of accomplishing old tasks, new workflows, etc. Coming on to a new project and managing it, or even just having a new person join my team that I haven’t worked with before are both situations where I need people to make changes to their habits. I don’t know anything about how previous employees were managed on other projects, but it’s quite likely that things were done slightly differently than the way I do.
Lastly, I’m just the kind of guy that enjoys doing analysis. I think about this kind of stuff often, and I like to analyze my own routines and attempt to change myself for the positive, and determine how and why I am succeeding or failing at any given point in time.
Many attempts to introduce change into existing workflows and processes fail. Before we can determine what to do correctly, we need to understand how it is that we are doing it incorrectly.
A lot of changes occur with the following workflow:
- Management discusses a perceived problem
- Management determines the way to solve the problem, and the required changes
- The required changes are passed down to employees via memo that says something cheerful like “Exciting changes are coming to company X!”
- Employees read the memo and notice that the changes are not exciting
- Employees feel annoyed at management for introducing inefficient/annoying changes
There are a number of problems here.
The visibility of this entire process is completely opaque to the employees, right up until the very end. They have no way of knowing what led to the development of these new procedures, why these new procedures are being instated, and least of all that they were even being considered in the first place. A memo at the end of a pipeline is a bad way to communicate upcoming changes to your staff.
(these are different, though similar to, transparency)
What about the optics of this process? Well, there are none. As far as the staff can tell, this is a completely arbitrary change that has just been passed down from high up on the mountain. Some people may be in love with the feeling of power that being able to make unquestionable judgements like this provides them, but these people do not make good supervisors. There are exceptions to every rule, but people generally like to be included in processes that affect them. There is zero inclusion in the process I’ve outlined above.
No vested interest in success
Is there anything in the process that I have outlined above that would cause employees to be vested in the success of this new change? I can’t see anything. Some of you may argue that, “If they don’t follow this new procedure, they will get fired!”. While this may be true, the only thing this approach to introducing change will motivate your employees to do is accept it enough to not lose their jobs. We’re not looking to have people perform “good enough”. We’re looking to introduce change that will make people better and more efficient. We don’t want to be “good enough” managers, we want to be awesome.
So, now that we’re armed with the knowledge of what makes introducing change a failure, we can construct some steps that will hopefully ensure our success.
Employing transparency is important to the success of most changes. No one appreciates the feeling that they are pawns just waiting for the next arbitrary decision to be foisted upon them from some mysterious being high above.
People are creatures of habit. We don’t like having our daily routines change, and we’ve evolved to resist changes like this so that we can create efficient routines that work for us. The greater the amount of lead-in time that you can provide people with, the better they are going to be able to adapt to that change.
There is obviously a balance here. Telling someone that in five years, you’re going to change the system they are learning is a bit too far off for anyone to realistically work towards. However, doing this initially, and then maintaining transparency throughout the development process is an excellent way to keep people abreast of what is going on, and help them adapt their mindset to the changes that are in the hopper.
Transparency allows you to ensure that employees are able to adapt along with the system, and keeps things in the forefront of their minds. Many people shy away from transparency because they feel that letting people see into the decision-making process will cause them further aggravation. You can determine how much transparency you want to provide employees, but opacity is never desirable. If you’re worried that they’re not going to like hearing about the changes that are being planned, think of how much worse they’ll take them if the first time they hear about them is from a memo telling them that they have to change next week.
Consider the optics
Okay, so what do I mean by optics, if not transparency? Optics are the way that your actions are perceived by those around you. Whenever any of us undertake an action, we have
complete knowledge (or at least, in theory we do) of why we are taking that action. When you are on the management team that is planning, designing, implementing, and rolling out a new change in policy, you have full view of the entire process from start to end. You understand why the policy needed to be created, you are aware of the decisions that went into creating this new policy, and you are aware of why the policy is being rolled out at a specific date.
(Incidentally, I’m using the term policy here, but this applies to anything that will affect changes in other people’s workflow and routines)
Your employees, however, do not have perfect knowledge of your process. Depending on how transparent you have been, and how much lead-in time you have provided them of the upcoming changes, they may have either a rough idea of why and how this policy has come into being, to no idea whatsoever.
Good optics are one of the main reasons to try to be as transparent in your management as possible. If people can see that you are willing to make visible everything that you do, the optics associated with that are that you are:
- Being up front and honest
- Have nothing to hide
- See them as equals and worthy of understanding what goes on behind the scenes
This last point bears further elaboration. Even if your employees aren’t your equals, it is best to make them feel as though they are, for the sake of optics in situations like these.
When rolling out new decisions and changes, always be sure to consider the optics, honestly, from the perspective of those that do not have access to the amount of knowledge that you do. If this sounds easy, let me assure you, it isn’t. It requires people with a good deal of empathy (a very important quality in a manager) to be able to understand how other people think and feel in a given situation.
Get people to vest interest in the success of a change
In my opinion, this last point is by far the most important. When you are asking people to make changes to their workflows and habits, you are asking them to put in effort that they wouldn’t otherwise have to do. If you aren’t willing to consider this aspect, then you are going to find yourself with a staff that aren’t willing to take on the burden of new changes.
It is my own experience that the best way to get people onboard with new changes, and to invest in a decision, is to include them in it. Nothing fosters a sense of personal value in the success of something like collaboration does.
When you get people to collaborate with you on something, it is no longer only you that stands to benefit from the success of that finished product. The success is shared by all of those that have collaborated.
Ask for feedback, even if you don’t intend to do anything with it. Share the core problem that you are attempting to address with people, and find out if they have any thoughts on it. Is it even really a problem for them? Have they considered solutions to that problem before?
There are so many reasons to take this approach, but I will outline just a few (this post is already turning out longer than I intended):
You may learn something you hadn’t considered
Two heads are almost always better than one, and it is this principle that you can look towards as one of the many benefits to soliciting other people for feedback. Learning the right way to request feedback is a skill in and of itself, and I generally wouldn’t recommend taking an approach like holding a company meeting and asking people to shout out any feedback they have (although this can work in some situations as well). What’s the worst thing that can happen? You may get some ideas that you had already thought about or won’t end up using.
People want to be listened to, and to feel important
Simply asking people what they think about something is one of the best ways to make them feel like you care about what they have to say. We all want to believe that we are intelligent, creative, and have good ideas. Even if that doesn’t hold true for all of us (and certainly for any of us all of the time), it is still nice to feel this way.
A lot of the time, people just want to feel that they’ve been heard. In my experience managing projects, I would say that a significant amount of suggestions, ideas, and feedback are more about people wanting to feel like they’ve been listened to, rather than to have their ideas actually implemented.
Make your employees feel important by soliciting them for ideas, and listening to them. And please, be earnest when you listen to them. Don’t just nod your head rapidly, counting the seconds until they shut up. Be genuine in your interest.
It doesn’t require a lot of effort
The above two items should be sufficient enough to follow this advice, but if you’re still hesitant, do it simply because it doesn’t need to require a lot of effort. You don’t need to go and shake hands with every employee and spend thirty minutes talking to them; sending out an e-mail to everyone explaining what you’re doing and requesting feedback can be enough.
Once again, in order to stay in the realm of the concrete and implementable, let’s take an example.
Let’s say the company you are on the management team, and you have noticed that there is a large amount of garbage being thrown out at the end of each day. You pay a fee for the volume of garbage that is carted away each day, and hey, you want to be a greener company too (that’s pretty vogue these days right?).
The wrong approach
The management team considers the problem, determines a solution, and then three weeks later, sends out the following memo:
Because Megacorp pays for the garbage removed from the premises based on the volume disposed, we will be instituting a new policy to allow only smaller (1L) garbage cans in cubicles, starting next Monday
The right approach
The management team considers the problem, and sends out an e-mail:
Because Megacorp pays for the garbage removed from the premises based on the volume disposed, and in an effort to continue our company’s drive towards a greener approach, we are considering new policies to cut down on the amount of waste generated on a daily basis. We are interested in any and all feedback, so if you have any, please send it to email@example.com.
I am obviously hamming it up a little bit here, but we can already see that this approach is much more transparent (the employees are finding out about this new policy change far before anything is actually implemented), has much better optics (the change doesn’t seem to be only for the company’s selfish motive of paying less for garbage disposal), and is encouraging staff participation and collaboration. (Even better would be having a contest for the best suggestion, but rewarding innovation is a topic for another post).
An update could be provided part way through the process:
Thank you to everyone for your excellent suggestions. After consideration and review, as well as considering the feasibility of each of them, the management team have decided that the best way to proceed is to reduce the size of garbage cans in each cubicle to a 1L container. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to send them to lordborak@megacor
Have an awesomely great day!
Later on, the policy could be introduced with an e-mail like:
As e-mailed previously, the new garbage can policy is being rolled out next Monday. Thank you to everyone for your cooperation, and speaking up about your concerns. We appreciate everyone making the effort to help Megacorp cut down on waste, and to drive towards our shared goal of “living greener”
And once again, there is an opportunity to turn this policy change into something fun if you want to provide some kind of incentives. On that note, if I get any comments requesting it, I will post about some of the positives and dangers of providing employee incentives and rewards for things like this.
It doesn’t look like much, but I think that when we hold them side by side, we can really see the differences. The better approach provides excellent transparency to the employees. It’s not giving them a view into the entire process, but it’s certainly making clear to them the intent, and the path that is being followed to reach the desired goal. Not only that, but the optics of the second approach are superior, and definitely encourage a sense of participation and mutual achievement between the employees and the management team.
The end result didn’t require that much additional effort from the management team, but I guarantee you that the changes will be received much better.
The key to all of this really comes down to empathy. When you are making changes, remove yourself from your own headspace, and consider how these changes will be received by other people. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking of your staff as employees, or drones, or any other label that you find convenient. They are people, just like you and I. Treat them as such.