Editor’s note: This is a guest post from David Straker on his best lessons learned in managing change.
If you don’t know David, he is the creator of ChangingMinds.org, the largest site in the world on all aspects of how we change what others think, believe, feel and do. He is also author of the amazing book, Changing Minds: In Detail. As you can imagine, this is no ordinary post on the art of change. David has a lifetime of experience as a student, teacher, and practitioner of change management. As you will soon see, David simplifies complexity and he hones in on the essential principles, patterns, and practices that work.
Without further ado, here is David with his top ten tips for managing change.
Change in business is something that affects most of us for a fair part of our working lives. We’ve all got tales of disaster and incompetence, with battle scars from perhaps both sides of the line. Sometimes, if we’re honest, we may even put ourselves in the culprit’s seat for the problems caused.
Creating a ‘top ten’ list is not magic. Just because we have ten fingers it does not mean there are ten key factors for anything. It is, however a useful limit for an article as a list of ‘things to think about in change’ could be very long. Anyway, enough talk and down to action.
Here’s my ten:
1. Take time to understand the real question
Change projects often start out with a whole set of assumptions that are based on limited data or wholesale opinion. This is often accompanied by urgency and unrealistic expectations of what can be done by when. In the contracting phase where I take on the project, I always insist on a period ‘discovery’ in which I talk to everyone involved to get a range of views of the need for the change and the likely support or opposition that may appear. Key question are ‘Who benefits? How? Who loses out?’ There may also be desk research, reading previous reports and so on. From this, I get a better picture and define the project in terms of what is wanted, what is needed and the best approach to take to achieve this.
One of the tricky issues you may well face is where the commissioning manager assumes that the problem is ‘them’ and not ‘me’. Yet with some careful listening you may conclude that the manager is a key part of the problem if not the root cause. Now you will have a nice problem – how to get them to accept this fact without kicking you off the project and getting in someone who will support their innocence.
2. Have courage and integrity
Managing change can be tough and unpopular. You may have to confront a manager who believes that they have a ‘get out of jail free’ ticket that absolves them from engaging in the change. You may also have to face an angry meeting of people who are going to personally lose out big-time.
It can be so tempting to soften the blow by backpedalling and avoiding what you know really must be done. Managing change is not a popularity contest, yet you should do it with compassion and concern.
When people see your courage, they will be less inclined to fight. When people see your integrity, they will trust you more to do the right thing.
3. Engage and impassion the people affected by the change
Deployment of the change starts on day one. It’s easy to start with offline, backroom musing and plotting and then spring it on an unexpecting audience as a fait accompli. This may work in command-and-control cultures but in most businesses you will likely hit a wall, which may feel like foam rubber, but it will still be effective at deflecting and derailing your carefully-plotted rational actions.
The best approach is almost always to get as many people involved as early as possible. Be clear about the problem and engage them in finding the best way forward. Expect integrity, monitor for defensiveness and be up-front if you see it.
4. Believe what people do, not what they say
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been involved in change where managers say they are ‘right behind it’, yet when problems appear they turn out to be right against it. Likewise people will agree to all sorts of things in meetings, yet somehow their agreed actions slip down their priority list as procrastination becomes the order of the day.
When people avoid change or engagement with it, try to understand why. Get inside their heads and identify the thinking processes. People always justify their actions to themselves. If you can understand this inner talk you can speak their language and so persuade them to better ways.
5. When things start going wrong, act quickly
Between college and business, I was a school teacher for a while. I quickly learned there the way that classes operate. The first lesson they are well behaved. The next lesson, someone puts a toe out of place. If you don’t respond, then the next toe and foot follow and before long you have chaos.
People in business are not as obvious as school children but you can see the same kind of incremental resistance. A typical example is change meetings, where they all turn up for the first one, but then a bit at a time they have ‘more important’ things until you end up chairing a mostly-empty room. One of the main activities of the change manager is chasing. Relentlessly follow up with people who miss things or have commitments. Get senior managers to help by first making clear imperative statements and then follow up with real corrective action.
6. Change the motivation system
It is pretty common for businesses to try to change how people behave without changing the underlying system by which they are motivated. A typical example is where the change seeks to make people more collaborative, yet the personal performance system compares people with one another and rewards individual performance over teamwork. In fact the simplest way to change how people behave is to go straight to these performance systems. When you do this, don’t forget to train managers in how to use the new systems.
Also watch out for the informal systems of motivation, which may be embedded in the unwritten culture and in particularly in the way that leaders behave. One of the biggest factors is what managers do when individuals act against the change. If there are no personal consequences then resistance will spread and the change will die.
7. Use positive methods
Change happens through a combination of pain and pleasure, carrot and stick, push and pull. People are more likely to buy into things that use positive pleasure, carrots and ‘pull’. This can be difficult to envisage when you have been brought up in a punishment culture, which can be common in families, schools and workplaces. With thought and innovation, a more pleasant pull can be applied remarkably well.
Positive methods, such as Cooperrider’s ‘Appreciative Inquiry’, work on the principle that people do more of what they feel good about. This is also confirmed by psychoanalysis and ‘Object Relations Theory’. If we feel bad about something we will push it away or run away from it. If we feel good about it we will ‘introject’ it, taking in as a part of our being.
Sometimes negative methods can be used, for example in shocking people out of complacency. But keep this to the absolute minimum. Sometimes you have to show the stick, but it’s the carrot that motivates the most.
8. Burn bridges
One reason people go back to former ways is because they can. It is too easy to keep the old systems going ‘just in case the new one fails’. This not only gives a path for retreat, it also says that you doubt that the change is really going to work, so encouraging people to hang back and slip back to old ways.
A courageous way forward is to ensure there is no way back. If you are implementing a new computer system, have a clear date by when the old one is turned off. If you are changing attitudes, ensure there are systems that catch and address any and all instances of old attitudes.
9. Get help
Sometimes when you are charged with managing change you feel you are responsible for it all and must carry any problems all by yourself. Doing this can weigh you down and wear you out.
Let’s face it: change is difficult! Otherwise there wouldn’t be so much written about it and perhaps you would be reading a nice novel rather than this list of tips. Reading around the subject is a good way to get help and I’d suggest chewing into psychology if you can. Otherwise get help from those who have, and from those who have done it before. Or even just from someone you respect who can step back and see things with a new pair of eyes.
External consultants specialize in change, so you might want to look here, especially if it’s a big change and you have the budget (good consultants are not cheap). Be careful! It is too easy to become dependent and some consulting firms will play on this, with ‘land and expand’ strategies that have more to do with their revenues than your success.
10. Look after yourself
Managing change can be a thankless and very stressful activity. Even if your job is not called ‘change manager’, you may still be mostly making change happen in one form or another and it can get you down. Listen to your body, which will punish you for over-stressing yourself. Take time out to refresh. Get regular exercise. Watch your sleep. And otherwise do whatever works for you to keep yourself energized and enthusiastic.
If you can make it work, I think creating real change that multiplies value is the best fun you can have!
David Straker is the author of http://changingminds.org, the world’s largest website on change, persuasion and influence. He has also written a book on the subject (‘Changing Minds: In Detail’) and consults on personal and business influence and change. You can even talk to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by chrisbb.