Frequently, the intention to change and organizational inertia clash so that nothing ends up actually changing. Smart people spend a lot of time coming up with the change, but comparatively little time on the change plan, which so often involves only a launch email and an announcement that training is available. But the study of organizational change has taught us that an effective change plan must be carefully thought out and embody an understanding of organizational psychology. So this post will give you a sort of checklist for bullet-proofing your change plan.
Communicate Repeatedly and Creatively
Marketing and branding experts advise that between 6 to 30 contacts with a piece of information are required before the content sinks in. The exact number is debatable and also the reach and quality of the message are important, but the key is that the average employee is deluged by emails and other demands of varying urgency, so any single message is likely to be quickly filtered out and forgotten. Think about putting some of the following elements in your organizational change plan.
- Frequently communicate the desired change and the reasons for the change over prolonged period of time (for example, 3–6 months). Advertisers don’t run a commercial just once. Even when you are sick of the message, many people will still not have heard it. People need time to process the message—even more so if it is a message that they don’t want to hear.
- Use different methods (eg., voice, email, staff meetings, videos, etc.). Some people are more responsive to text than audio and vice versa.
- Be creative in devising ways to catch their attention. People program themselves to filter out the messages that don’t seem to fit what they are expecting. Communicating the way they expect might actually trigger a programmed response to filter out the message.
- Reinforce the reasons why the change is important, how employees are supposed to act in the new model, and the organization’s commitment to the change.
- Have communications come from trusted people.
- Ensure that, to the extent reasonable, change messages communicate clarity on what is expected (to reduce anxiety) and a sense of fairness. Studies have shown that these two elements have the most effect in reducing resistance to change.
- Engage sponsors in communicating the change and their commitment to the change—through emails, appearances at staff meetings, and 1/1s with managers.
One of the most powerful influences on behavior is the community, or the group of people with whom we interact. Through interaction with our associates, we shape the meaning of the change and what to expect from each other. We create a culture of shared meanings and values.
Culture emerges from the interactions of the community: it cannot be mandated. Information that is presented in powerpoint file or on a website is inherently incomplete and must be translated working knowledge in the manager’s and employee’s minds. Studies in adult learning have shown that presentations and reading alone have limited effect—for learning to occur, people must interact with the material. Change planning should include methods for facilitating the learning.
Numerous previous efforts have shown that embedding the change in the culture requires the community to interact with each other to learn the material and develop specific knowledge about how it will be applied. However, natural human tendencies and outmoded beliefs often discourage such interactions. We are used to interacting a certain way, which we often believe is the best way, and it is difficult to start new ways of interacting. So, in the beginning of an organizational change management effort, it is important to facilitate the opportunities for people to interact together with the content, to translate the explicit procedure into tacit knowledge of how to work together and what to expect from each other. Some ways to include this aspect in your change plan include the following:
- Create forums for sharing best practices. Hold joint sessions with managers and analysts to discuss expectations, answer questions, and talk through concerns.
- Enable people to be heard and to ask questions to clarify their understanding.
- Hold periodic sessions to reflect on what is working well and what could be improved about how career discussions and career planning are conducted.
- Have managers of managers emphasize the importance of career planning and make sure to allow their managers time for the development discussions.
- Hold brown bags—perhaps invite experts in to talk, or bring in people who have done it before to share their experiences.
- Identify ambassadors or change champions who keep the conversation going by initiating discussions, keeping up to date on the best approaches, and generally evangelizing the change.
Celebrate Wins, Big and Small
People tend to do more of what is most recognized and rewarded. Within any organization, there is always an existing set of both overt and covert incentives that support the current state. To shift the culture to one where career development is the norm will require shifting both formal and informal incentives.
Some ideas to include in your change plan are
- Recognize first movers with incentives.
- Have a group lunch or afternoon party.
- Share success stories of people who have used the new change
- Have executives send voicemail thanks to the first adopters.
The possibilities are endless for appreciating people who adopt the new process. These don’t have to be financial—the opportunity for creativity is huge. Consider such things as thank you cards, tickers with names, and small gifts. The incentive doesn’t have to be big: often the symbolism is the most powerful part of a communication. For example, if an executive makes a personal phone call, it conveys that the organization has a high degree of support for the change. The book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees gives many ideas.
Knowing exactly how a change initiative will unfold is impossible. So, it is critical to gather feedback and adjust as you go. This should be in the following forms:
- Stakeholder perceptions: Create regular opportunities for both analysts and managers to provide candid feedback. This could be through forums and brown bags, mentioned above, as well as selective surveys and interviews.
- Success indicators: It is critical to know if the change is being adopted. Find meaningul things to track that indicate success.
Maintain an environment for open and honest feedback. Although there is a limit to how much venting is useful, discouraging the expression of negative perceptions pushes the reaction into more covert forms. It is far better to surface discontent and misperception and deal with it rationally and fairly than to let it simmer beneath the surface. The urge to discourage open feedback is often fear of losing control on the change initiator’s side rather than an effective change technique.
A change plan often includes a training component. Besides the common areas of training on new tools or processes, consider training key sponsors and managers to carry the change effort forward. A lot of time can be saved by preparing managers with the skills they need to be successful. Do managers have the skills to execute the change? For example, if you are introducing a new career development process, are managers prepared to have development discussions with their staff? If not, encourage them to take appropriate courses or find a mentor.
Although these ideas may seem like a lot of work, incorporating at least some of them into your change plan will shorten the overall time for organizational change to take place and improve the chances of your change plan being successful.