How to strengthen your most valuable resource in transformative change endeavours

Change is everywhere, just go outside your door and you can literally see it. This was the case before COVID-19 hit and the virus has just increased the rate of change. Now we need to change and adapt continuously on both a personal and professional level, as governments try to steer countries through the impact from the virus. Companies, also need to adapt and that means change. The issue now, is how to make sure that the most valuable resource in times of change – your staff – also play along?

You know that from heart! When something changes we first tend to deny it. Not accept it. We try to keep things as they were or at least remember forever „how good the old times were“. Ever had that feeling? Well, here is the news. That is exactly what your employees go through when something changes in their work environment. It happened to all of them when you started the digitalisation program, the new safety and security policy and even when you had to send your staff, or perhaps some of them, home due to the lockdown. 

Now that companies are facing extreme environmental changes due to the effects of the virus worldwide, strategies had to or still need to be reviewed and changes in the company are more than predicted. However, do you remember how successful your last transformative endeavour was? On a scale from 1-10, 10 being extremely successful, where would you place it? And here come the news: according to Forbes, you are not alone and in fact, if you did not succeed the way you wanted, then you belong to the majority – there are an astonishing 70% of organisational transformations that fail according to that study.

Reasons for failure of change programs are practically infinite, however we at 3E believe that PEOPLE, CULTURE, PROCESSES and SYSTEMS need to be in sync for a transformation process to be successful and while change efforts concentrate a lot on processes and systems, people and culture often tend to be forgotten. 

Think about your people! And help them transit through change!

“I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be“ – Albert Einstein

This realisation by Einstein is one that everyone in a change process needs to find out by him-/herself. And it is not easy to find that point of realisation. Some people who were collaborators in the definition of the new strategy may know pretty early on exactly what the future might look like, but most certainly, the rest of the staff won’t have that picture after management presents them the new strategy or the new project. People have different paces and those paces need to be taken into account during a transformation process. People will need guidance before they can identify themselves within the new picture.

Letting go of something that has grown to be dear to you personally is difficult, regardless what it is. It needs time and a grieving process which is different in each person. As a company it helps people to „give up“ / „let go“ of the old, if you as a manager publicly show respect for what was achieved in the past and show how important that path has been for the good of the organisation. Recognition! Celebrate the past and show the picture of the future in a humble and simple way explaining clearly WHY the change is needed. Show how this ending ensures the continuity of what really matters. Even throwing a party celebrating the past achievements would be a fantastic opportunity for closure. In times of social distancing throw a zoom, teams or jitsy party. Make sure staff get a present to wear and/or a drink to celebrate the past and make sure your message arrives to everyone.

Show understanding for the fears and feelings people will have and picture a possible future for them in the new setting. Be realistic and honest in what you say. Management loses credibility way too easily in transformation processes. As a manager, you have to be aware that people will go though the grieving process  (anger, bargaining, anxiety, sadness, disorientation and depression) at a different pace. Remember that this process is not linear either,  and it can be more of a jumping back and forth exercise.

Sometimes the grieving process can be sped up by letting people take a piece of the old way with them. It might be an old object or a present reminding them of the past. This might help compensate for the loss.

Give people information! ASAP and do it again and again and…

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.” – Christopher Hitchens

The last thing you want to have in a change process is staff mutating into internal investigative journalists that start deploying either positive or fake news. The two pitfalls in here are either people start thinking management is not being honest enough and/or conspiracy theories start floating around in the company. Both are lethal for a transformation process.

Once in a change management course, I heard the trainer say: „in change management, if you think you have communicated enough, you have to multiply that by five, and you won’t even have reached the level of communication you will need“. Well, we were then talking about facts around the change itself in the organisation, not the transition that staff needed to do, in order to move from the old ways to the new ones. If there is something I have seen many times when clients asked us to come in and help the mismanaged change process is that communication was always an issue in those cases. Whatever the news is, be sure, that some people will get upset and it will eventually fade away. But if you hide the news or only partly share it, then more people will be upset for longer and mistrust will grow. So avoid it by communicating early and realistically – and remember to always remind the staff WHY the change is necessary. This will need to become a mantra in your communications. 

When the skies look grey…

„You can’t make a cloudy day a sunny day, but can embrace it and decide it’s going to be a good day after all.“ – Jane Lynch

…and people feel lost in-between the two worlds – the old and the „not yet there“ new one – people will have a huge need for guidance. When you declare the start of a change process, and it is at that moment just an idea, still the old processes and rules apply. However, the more you come to transitioning from the old to the new, people will not know which rules apply in many cases. This part of a change process needs to be formalised for the staff. You will need to give clear and concise rules, that might also change from one week to another, but people need to know how to act. Chaos in the organisation during such a phase is typical, especially when the transition is not appropriately managed. Management will need to communicate intensely with staff making sure they understand that this is a normal phase in a change endeavour and being at times disoriented is part of it. 

However, management should make sure that staff are productive towards the new vision. It might be necessary to create temporary systems and processes until the new ones are defined and tested. 

This part of a transition process in a transformation can also be defined as a creative time for staff. It can be used to develop the new rules, processes, ideas and even products. This is the moment, when you can assign new tasks to staff. This way, you will put their wisdom to good use toward the new vision. Depending on the kind of transformation you are conducting, breaking old structures might boost the creativity in people. 

For people in leadership positions, it must be made clear that during this phase some staff members might declare themselves not capable of moving forward with the company and good solutions for them will then be needed. Sensitivity in this case is of major importance. The staff staying in the organisation will remember how you acted. 

Putting in place a team that only concentrates on the transition aspects of staff and using it as a channel for keeping an ear open and communicating to staff is definitely a good practice. Management needs to keep an eye on staff wellbeing during such a process in order to provide the guidance necessary at the right moment.

Celebrate the new start…and remember that not everybody is yet there

“The best way to cheer yourself is to cheer somebody else up.” – Albert Einstein

New starts can be strange and full or surprises – both negative and positive ones. People might be weary about them, still thinking about the „good old days“. Declaring the new start in the proper moment is crucial and regretfully cannot be identified with a formula. Management should do an act of it and make sure that people are appraised for the hard work they have done. Cherish them, they are the real heroes.

Recognising the past and picturing the good future ahead is also a must, when officially declaring the start. This will help people move ahead with the new vision. However, some of them might not yet be there and still be in the grey and cloudy zone or completely in the past. By declaring the new start, the work to be done with staff members will still continue. They will still need reassurance. They will still need that drawing of a better future. Once first wins start to show up, people still holding to the „old“, will eventually fall into the „new“.

Speed…last but not least!

Always remember the speed! People in management positions who design change projects typically go through their transition before they launch the changes. By the time they announce the change, they have already let go from the “old” and have past their grey skies, and are ready for a new start. But they forget that the rest of staff have not even been able to digest the news. Leaders have to give the rest of the staff the opportunity to catch up with them and need to make sure that people are empowered to do so.

While conducting a transformation think not only about the processes and systems, think also about the people and the transition they need to go through before living the new vision. It will define your culture for the future!

In our group we deeply believe in the importance of ensuring that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE and SYSTEMS are in sync. I hope these thoughts will help you to improve your transformation.

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