Organizations have always had to evolve and adapt, but now they must do so at a faster clip than ever. The rate of change happening today is significantly greater than it was two decades ago, making change management an ever-present challenge in every industry. Generally speaking, change is driven by both external and internal factors.
Grand technology shifts, like the release of the iPhone in 2007, are one example of the former category. No one imagined how the small, handheld device was going to transform the way customers across industries worked and lived.
Internal factors, on the other hand, refer to the people and processes within an organization. Some companies pride themselves on being agile. For others, the way they operate is part of their DNA, making change much harder.
No matter what your starting line looks like, the reality is that all organizations must learn how to successfully manage change in order to stay competitive. Because good change management means the ability to adapt, there's no magic formula for it. Yet over the years, I've been able to identify some steps that consistently put business leaders on the right path.
- Assess the current state of your organization. Before your organization can move toward its goals, you must have a good understanding of where you're coming from. Assess your organization's current state via the balanced scorecard approach, which offers four different measures of the status quo. Next, be sure you can make a clear business case for why the current state needs to be disrupted and what that disruption should look like for various stakeholders: customers, employees, shareholders and so on. These early steps can lay an important foundation for long-term change.
- Clearly define your end goal. Defining a clear end goal before you start is crucial because it allows you to outline a timeline. Everything should be time-boxed and rolled out in phases. Apply the change to a small group first and see how it goes before you iterate. It's OK if you fail the first time. However, having a time limit on that failure is crucial to ensuring success by the established deadline.
- Understand that it's not a one-person job. Business leaders can't have a savior complex when it comes to implementing change. You don't need to make all the changes yourself even if you have all the skills to do so. One previous employer of mine tried to drive change by assigning the task to executives. I saw this fail firsthand. Instead, identify a team of change agents with the right skill sets, mindsets and passions regardless of their organizational level. It's their job to inspire and support people on the ground. Sometimes, to ensure widespread buy-in, it could be useful to rotate change agents and have them recruit their own.
- Communicate constantly. Having change agents means having an avenue to communicate with your employees on an ongoing basis about progress. Be honest and transparent — even about failures. When things don't go as planned, say so. This shows that your organization is willing to recognize failure and quickly adapt to move in the direction of success.
- Benchmark against best-in-class. External factors shouldn't just be a catalyst for change; they should be considered throughout the journey. It's important to keep a pulse on the market throughout any transformation. In a previous organization, I remember one project my team had worked diligently on. We kept our head down and focused on all the steps outlined here. However, by the time we launched, others had already developed the mobile technology we were working on. The landscape had changed. To avoid such a situation, have your change agents benchmark against competitors and visit other companies for ideas on methodology and process.
- Be prepared for resistance. It's inevitable that some employees will be resistant to change. In these cases, try to understand their individual hesitation or motivation. Ask honestly why the change is a challenge and what's causing panic. Maybe they're worried their job is at risk or they lack the right skill set. If you take the time to talk to employees, you can understand their mindsets and explain how the change fits into their career goals. Of course, some people will be unable to articulate their resistance and simply won't want to be part of the journey. In that case, you must be prepared to make tough decisions. If you can't get someone to buy in, they may not be the right person for the job at the time.
- Realize that success requires failure. As already mentioned, change management is not a one-step process. You will have to iterate and learn many times over. However, with those iterations, you'll begin to see success. People will start to see the impact of change — whether that means more quickly delivering value to customers or simply not falling behind as competition gets stiffer. When that happens, change will become a movement. Your team can organize around it, and people should buy in even more.
The reality is that change is nonnegotiable even in seemingly slower-paced industries. Technologies are changing the way employees and customers alike go about their business. If you don't adapt, you'll be left behind. The good news is that adapting isn't as much of an uphill battle as many think. By engaging change agents across the organization, accepting failure, and clearly defining both your goals and your competition, you can help change management to become a movement — one that breeds success.