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Coping with Poorly Planned Change

Coping with Poorly Planned Change

So, you are sponsoring or have been given a new initiative, organizational change, or system/application roll out that you need to implement in your organization. You know that the new system will create disruption, but you are not sure how much. You also know from listening to other colleagues that a change management process will be useful to improve the probability of success. You have not budgeted much for the change management side of the equation, as the project’s “hard” costs have eaten up most of it. Your boss has said, unequivocally, there is no more money this year. The major problem you face is that virtually no communication with the end-users has been done to this point, and you fear that the project will fall flat on its face.

What is the likelihood your project will succeed? What should you do? Well, to be blunt, the likelihood of your succeeding without a change management process is about the same as flipping a coin – actually, in your case, much less. In truth, one of the most frequent causes of new initiative failure is lack of planning, little or no meaningful involvement of stakeholders, and haphazard execution. If the benefits are not believable; or stakeholders are not “on-board” or at the very least not diametrically opposed to it; or there is a real or perceived perception that the initiative is poorly thought through then you have a very big problem. At this point, money or budgetary limitations will become background noise within your “worry hierarchy”.

At this point, you, as the project manager or sponsor, will be feeling significant amounts of fear, mixed with frustration, and possibly even anger that your hands have been tied and that you are not supported in this task. Do not fear, as all may not be lost.

If the project or initiative is ready to “go-live” and nothing has been done to prepare your target audience, then you may have a problem that is outside of the advice I am offering. However, if at least some of your audiences (primary, secondary, and tertiary users) are aware and some engagement has occurred, then you are “ahead of the game”. Remember Lewin’s change paradigm: Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze.

The following steps can be used to minimize the damage that will inevitably occur as a result of your (organization’s) poor planning regarding this change. Your thoroughness in following these steps will determine the extent of the discord and disruption that will occur. Make no mistake; if you do nothing, then the probability of massive disruption will be high. However, if you do something, anything, the disruption will be decreased. Though it may seem like anything you try results in a fire, remember that if you had not acted, your situation would be far worse than it is.

Step 1: Scan your audience, environment and interrelationships between the two

Do a scan of your primary, secondary and tertiary audiences and profile them immediately. Identify their age, gender, overall belief system (i.e. adventurous or change-averse), length of service, union or non-union, trust/distrust of management, autonomous or highly supervised, general level of knowledge about their jobs, interactions between formal and informal levels in the workplace hierarchy (could also include corporate v. regional), supervisor-subordinate relationships, and knowledge of the imminent change initiative.

The more information you can gather at this time, the more effective your strategies will be as you begin executing.

Step 2: Identify the general level of knowledge and acceptance

If the audience has a general knowledge of the change, then this is good. If they have no knowledge of the change, then this is bad. Let’s’ assume they are somewhere in the middle. Even if they have some knowledge, they will not know the specifics of how the change will affect their roles or the roles of their work-unit or the organization in total. It is up to you to figure out (through whatever means or informational sources possible) how the change will affect the people in your organization (beginning with those directly affected by the initiative). If people can prepare (are exposed to information) in a meaningful, constructive way, and are allowed to “step up to the plate” and take control, even if the situation seems chaotic and unmanageable, then they will be more comfortable with their situation and will adapt more quickly than if they are given no information.

Remember the following formula that provides a general rule regarding overcoming the resistance to change (Beckhard & Harris,1987):

D (dissatisfaction) x V (vision) x F (first steps) > R (resistance to change)

If your audiences are collectively dissatisfied with the status quo; the vision you paint is realistic and achievable and perceived to get you to a “better place”; the first steps you have taken are reasonable, effective, and move toward the solution; and these factors taken collectively are greater than the aggregate resistance to change, then your job as a change manager will be simpler than if the reverse is true of any one or more of these factors.

Step 3: Articulate the vision (no BS, just plain truths) on what to expect

Develop a clear, concise, real-world scenario that is laced with practical examples of what will occur when the dust settles. Make it believable and “relatable”, so that people can visually see and conceptually understand what it is they will experience. Understand that people learn differently, and that some are more conceptual while others are more visual. Also, the vision should include both an intellectual as well as an emotional component, both of which should supplant the current fear-based, poorly informed vision that has likely evolved in the minds of your target audiences by default.

People respond to honesty. They may not like the message or the messenger, but when the dust settles, they will almost always say: “At least she/he was honest with us”. So, based on the previous two situational analyzes, develop a clear, concise, positively framed but realistically delivered message (for each target audience) in language that each audience understands and can relate to. Do not use phrases like: “strategic importance, sound decision-making, service improvements, rationalized service delivery networks”, or anything that will confound or obfuscate (do not use “obfuscate”) the true nature of the changes or what can be expected. The strategy here is to make sure that you “provide enough information; the correct information; tailor-made for the specific audience and delivered in a positive way.

Step 4: Identify your change agents and deliver the message

Remember, “no one is an island”. Immediately identify a small group of change agents who can assist you in your goal. This is important for a number of reasons – too numerous to explain here and discussed at great length in team-related literature. The point is, just do it as you’ll be glad you did. But be careful with your selections.

Change agents can be for or uncommitted to the change initiative. The most important pre-condition is that they understand it. If they are for the initiative, then your job is easy. Simply key in on the message and deliver it clearly and specifically (repeat as necessary). The change agents will need to be people who are respected for their knowledge and will hold “sway” or influence over other people in the department. Ideally, these people will be good at what they do, i.e., technically sound and personable. For those who do not embrace change or be committed to change, build on the seed of the potential positive impacts of the change. Make sure you keep an “ear to the ground” regarding interactions amongst the people you bring into your inner circle. Be very careful whom you select and how they are performing. Change agents are usually “organization” focused and supporters of organizational improvements. Change agents may or may not be formal leaders, but they are certainly leaders.

Whatever you do, do not choose a change agent who has taken a position against the change initiative, regardless of how much “sway” they hold. In my experience, and despite what many textbooks tell you, co-opting people with negative dispositions overall or orientations toward the initiative is a high risk proposition. Often these people have a great deal to lose if they are persuaded to support the initiative and then the initiative falls flat. They will always…repeat, always…default to the “I told you so” or “sabotage” the project at some point if their own personal needs for power, control, or acceptance are not met. At a minimum, they will absolve themselves of any responsibility by taking the retro-active position that “they tried to tell you so, but you wouldn’t listen”. Be careful.

Step 5: Continue messaging and supporting your change agents

Continue to articulate the message and support your change agents in their efforts. By now, you will have repeatedly informed everyone associated with the project in an honest, direct, positive way that that disruptions will occur, and that they will be manageable and brief. Your audience will be aware of the sorts of things that will happen and that some learning will be required. When people are not surprised, but expect and are prepared to deal with anticipated or known problems (notice, I do not say “challenges”) in a change initiative, they tend to handle it. Your goal here is to create a sense of competence and ownership or the “routineness” around problem-solving. Part of your job will be to manage surprises that occur (some may even surprise you). If your audiences are surprised by something major, then they may panic. Try to avoid panic wherever possible, and treat each problem as something that can and will be solved. Almost everyone likes to solve problems, so creation of this type of environment will improve the probability of success.

Step 6: The magic of time

During the change initiative, keep stressing that the “fullness of time” will see an evolution of the current disruption as being simply another “day in the life”. The new initiative will be woven into the organizational culture (or may become the culture) and that the benefits of the new way of doing things will far in a way outweigh the costs. Also, those who managed during the change will have a new set of skills to rely on when future changes occur in the organization occur. Change is a part of the working world now. The days of 30 years service in the same company, without any change are over – economics, technology, social and environmental factors have seen to this. Make sure you consistently stress that problems arising now will be long-over at some point – likely sooner than later – and refocus on the benefits the new environment/system offers will improve and eclipse the “old way” of doing things.

Good luck in your change initiative. If you need assistance, please call Busby & Associates, and we would be pleased to assist you in your current and future change exercises.