Knowing how to effectively lead a change management process can make those dreaded transitions easier.
I distinctly remember when I made the move from second grade to third grade. After my first day as a third grader, I jumped into my mom’s van in the carpool line crying.
I told her that I hated it. I wanted to stay in second grade. I liked that teacher better. I liked that classroom better. I liked that desk better. This major change was just too much for me to handle. I wanted to go back to the way things were.
Sound familiar? While I’ve since grown up and moved on from my third grade trauma, I’ve noticed that this whining over change is common well into adulthood—especially when you look at various workplaces.
There’s no denying it: Change is painful. It’s much easier to stick with the way things are than to switch things up and navigate a transition.
However, change is also a natural part of business growth. Things can’t stay the same forever, and it’s up to you as the manager to lead your team through that without any third grade-worthy tears and tantrums.
Unfortunately, that’s where many companies fall short. According to the Project Management Institute, only a measly 18% of organizations are effective change enablers, meaning there’s plenty of room for improvement when it comes to change management.
So what do you need to know to successfully lead a change management process and make those inevitable transitions a little more painless for you and your entire team? This post breaks down the details.
What Is a Change Management Process?
The term “change management process” is likely something you’ve heard before. Yet, tracking down a firm definition can prove challenging—especially when various industries seem to have their own applications of the phrase.
We’re going to keep things simple. Think of a change management process as the series of steps you follow to institute change within your company. It’s almost like a template you adhere to when a change needs to be introduced.
Change management has been studied at length, which means there are tons of academic models out there—and organizations themselves have come up with their own unique processes.
However, one of the most common change management processes out there is Kotter’s Eight-Step Change Model. We won’t dive into each of the steps in detail, but below is a brief overview.
1. Create a sense of urgency.
Because change isn’t always pleasant, we all have the tendency to push it off for as long as possible. The first step in the process is to instill a sense of urgency so that your entire team sees the change as something that needs to be addressed immediately.
2. Build a guiding coalition.
This sounds fancy, but it’s really as simple as finding people in your organization who can serve as change leaders and help you spearhead that transition. They’ll help you communicate the value of the change, lead by example, and overall make sure things stay on track.
3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives.
One of the biggest reasons that people are resistant to changes is because they don’t understand them. This step requires that you understand how things will be altered following the change and why that matters—and then adequately explain that information to the entire team.
4. Enlist a volunteer army.
Part of the process of communicating the change is getting everyone onboard with it so that you can all rally around the process and a shared goal. Buy-in from your team is important before the change can be successful.
5. Enable action by removing barriers.
Roadblocks happen. Change management is most effective when leaders can identify barriers—whether it’s redundant processes or hierarchal bottlenecks—and promptly remove those.
6. Generate short-term wins.
When change can be so difficult, nothing is more motivating than some early accomplishments. Throughout the change process, make sure you’re taking the time to recognize achievements and inspire your team to stay the course.
7. Sustain acceleration.
Celebrating those early achievements doesn’t mean you can call the whole change process a success after one small win. You need to press harder after that and relentlessly pursue the change until it’s actually made a reality (in its entirety).
8. Institute change.
To truly make the change stick, ensure that there’s an understanding of how the continuation of that change matters. The more you can ingrain that new way of doing things into your organization’s culture, the more sustainable it will be.
Why Does it Matter?
Here’s an enlightening statistic: Research from McKinsey & Company found that 70% of change initiatives never reach their stated goals.
There’s likely many factors involved in that failure to achieve those objectives, but a lack of a formal, well-defined process is certainly a piece of the puzzle.
It’s tempting to want to jump right in with making a change, but these transitions can’t just be haphazard—they need to be effectively monitored and managed. When you boil it down, that’s really the root of why your change management process matters.
6 Tips for Instituting Change on Your Team
Following Kotter’s steps for change management will certainly help you get your team onboard and ease that transition. However, there are several other best practices you can use to make instituting change a little smoother.
1. Pay attention to individual change processes.
Especially when you’re the leader, it’s tempting to look at changes from a bird’s-eye view. You see how they’ll streamline operations or positively impact the entire organization.
But your team members? They take a more self-focused approach. Their minds immediately begin churning about how this change will impact them—how will they need to adjust their own day-to-day operations?
“Everyone in the organization is responsible for change. It’s not just the job of ownership or an ad hoc committee,” explains Larry Mietus, Founder of Speaking of Strategy. “Team members need to look at what they do every day and reflect on changing policies, procedures, and processes.”
It’s too easy for leaders to forget that side of the equation, which is why it’s important that they recognize not only the larger, organization-wide change, but also the individual shifts required to make it happen.
“It’s important for leaders to respect [that] people will lose something—perhaps something as significant as their job title or responsibilities,” says John Schantz, Vice President of Strategic Accounts at Root. “Showing empathy to this fact through communications, town hall meetings, or one-on-one conversations goes a long way.”
2. Match rewards to the change.
Rewards are important for keeping your employees motivated. In fact, 88% of employees agree that it’s important for companies to reward employees for great work.
However, leaders must recognize that a change in the organization might require a change in the rewards system as well. Edoardo Binda Zane, Founder and Trainer at EBZ Coaching, provides a fitting example.
“The most common type of change organizations want to make is going from being a traditional one to being more dynamic, agile, resilient,” he explains. “That requires a shift in your culture, and a shift in what the goal of your work should be: learning more about your ever-changing customer environment to acquire and retain new clients, rather than pursuing financial margins with established clients. If that is true, however, you can’t reward leaders undergoing a change process the same way you did before change took place.”
“In other words: If financial margins are still the source of their bonus, they will have no incentive to go in a new direction,” he continues. “Change the way they are rewarded and you will create this incentive for them.”
3. Communicate both benefits and drawbacks.
If there’s one thing that can’t be overemphasized about change management, it’s the importance of communication. Leaders need to be prepared to over communicate about the change to keep their team members engaged and informed about the transition.
But this doesn’t mean that they can blanket everyone in the same general spiel about the importance of the change, because not everybody responds to the same thing.
“Some people are motivated when they learn the benefits [of] change [and] others need to understand the risks of not changing,” says Sandra Mobley, Managing Partner of The Learning Advantage. “Describe how the change will benefit employees as well as the company, and what happens if employees aren’t willing to change.”
Talking about both sides of the coin will help you better engage all team members in a way that resonates best with them.
4. Lead by example.
There’s nothing worse than a leader who subscribes to the, “Do as I say, and not as I do” philosophy. Team members will have a challenging time getting onboard with a change if their leaders seems to constantly contradict that transition.
That’s why it’s so important for managers to lead their teams by example—especially when they’re navigating a change.
“It sets the right tone for those in the lower levels of an organization who are closely watching (as most everyone is) how their leaders behave,” writes Victor Lipman in an article for Forbes. “It disarms any resentment that may be felt, rightly or wrongly, toward those in high managerial places. It’s difficult to resent managers who roll up their sleeves and wade into the trenches when they need to, and who share the same sacrifices their teams do.”
5. Identify informal influencers.
Of course, leaders throughout the organization need to believe in the change in order to convincingly translate that information down to their own teams.
However, too many organizations make the mistake of thinking that those who are higher on the org chart are the only ones who can help drive change.
“Identify informal influencers within the organization and involve them as change evangelists,” says Mobley. “They often have more power to get others onboard than line managers or supervisors.”
6. Understand resistance, rather than combat it.
Even if you do everything right, there’s still bound to be some resistance to change in your organization. It’s uncomfortable, which means people tend to bristle when something threatens their standard way of doing things.
“Resistance is your friend and a natural part of the process,” encourages Randy Pennington, Author of Make Change Work. “If there is no resistance, there is no real change.”
The immediate reaction is usually to squelch that resistance—to shut it down before it can become a larger problem. But that’s actually the opposite of what leaders should be doing.
“When encountering resistance, I ask the person to reverse brainstorm potential challenges. I let them talk about everything that could go wrong, then we group those into levels of likelihood and troubleshoot through possible ways to overcome the challenges,” shares Sarah Morgan, CEO of BuzzARooney LLC, an HR consulting firm. “If the person is willing to change, the reverse brainstorming exercises usually breaks them through resistance.”
Ch-Ch-Changes: They Don’t Have to Be So Difficult
Third-grade me will be the first to tell you that change can be painful and will sometimes have you promptly wishing to return to the way things used to be.
But change is also positive—it’s evidence of growth and evolution. Your company isn’t stagnant and is pressing forward.
Following a well-defined change management process and implementing the above six tips will help you spearhead organization-wide change with as few headaches and hassles as possible. But above all else, remember to be patient. Changes—especially big ones—take time.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” states Damien Andrews, Managing Director of Dajon Data Management, a digital transformation company. “Many business owners or managers imagine that implementing a change in the organization is an easy process and, unfortunately, they often fail in change management when they don’t get instant results and just give up.”
“When discussing change management, I like to compare it to a series of sprints rather than a long marathon,” he concludes. “It is much easier to reach your goal when you are sprinting towards it bit by bit rather than starting an unmanageable journey without a clear finish line.
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.