Change has become an increasingly prominent feature of the professional world today. This is the case not only in the tech industry, where developments have been happening at such a fast pace that almost every company includes characteristics like “curiosity” and “adaptability” in their company values. It’s also the case across industries. Nothing has brought this as much to light as the corona crisis over the last year. The impact of the changes that almost every industry has gone through will not be fully understood for many years to come.
On a large scale, change can mean a company switching from 100% on-site (with maybe minor, notable exceptions) to completely remote, overnight. On a smaller scale, change happens every time a new person joins a team, every time roles get switched around or restructured, every time new responsibilities are folded into a team. It could mean suddenly having to work with a new boss or adjusting to managing a new team. A lot of the time, change is a result of conscious decisions. Sometimes it happens because it’s unavoidable. Maybe a competitor released a new feature that heavily damages your business, so everyone needs to scramble to catch up. Maybe a new law was passed and comes into effect that involves comprehensive changes in your processes.
If you work in tech and/or you manage a team of people, chances are that dealing with change is going to be something that hits you at some point. The tech industry especially is moving at such a fast pace that it’s impossible to avoid. My experiences have ranged from introducing new ways to measure performance, a process that’s almost always pretty fraught for some employees, to changing the responsibilities of everyone in a team, to scaling a team rapidly over a very short period of time. All of these come with their own challenges but they do have some things in common.
Difficulties in Managing Change
Dealing with change is hard. You might be one of those people who are open to experience and therefore find it very easy to adapt to new circumstances. This is a pretty common trait for managers. Very many people, however, are not. If you lead a team, that means that the majority of your teammates will not respond that way. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t like change, then cut yourself some slack, it’s only human. Change means instability. Instability leads to insecurity. Insecurity creates fear. It’s fundamental to understand this. In most cases, that knee-jerk response to change is driven by the individual’s personality. It cannot be avoided. Once you’ve accepted that, it’s much easier to understand why managing others through large-scale changes can be such a stressful experience for everyone involved. It’s also easier to accept that it’ll be a struggle no matter how you approach it. There’s a limit to how effective your support can be, simply because a certain amount of that reaction is personality-driven.
Then there’s the additional complication of dealing with the particular change. If you’re a manager and you have to push a change through that you don’t quite personally agree with, it’ll be a little more challenging. If the long-term consequences of a change aren’t immediately visible and that sense of insecurity is baked into the situation, it’ll also be more challenging to handle. Every type of change will be slightly different and there’ll be different reasons behind it, so your approach should always be tailored to the situation.
Value of Effective Change Management
Effective change management is an incredibly powerful skill to develop. Because change has become so commonplace today, being able to handle it properly and, more importantly, providing support so that your team is able to handle it, will pay off in the long-term. Good change management will reduce how stressful the situation is for everyone. The more adaptable your team is, the less time and energy you’ll need to invest in getting everyone up to speed, the less resistance you’ll face when new processes are being implemented, and the quicker your team will be able to react to new situations. Being able to react quickly has become necessary for companies to stay competitive today because conditions can change very rapidly – the corona crisis has been the perfect example of this.
Ultimately, you want the change that you’re implementing to be successful. It’s possible to push it through and make things happen, despite the fact that they might cause stress in your workplace or be unwanted by your teammates. This just causes bad will in the long run though. What you want to do is to be able to make changes without damaging the trust your employees have in you (or in your company). The best way to do this is to treat it seriously and to do it well. Part of your job as a manager is to support your team in challenges that come their way and to set them up for success in whichever way you’re able to. You’re fundamentally responsible for their performance and their performance will, most likely, naturally dip every time something major changes in their environment or working conditions. Lessening the impact of that and enabling your team to work at their best level, for as long as possible, is the ultimate sign of success for a great manager.
Much more goes into change management than the following points but they’re a good starting point. You can start applying these as small improvements to your current process and then continue to build on that foundation. These are the different stages involved in implementing any larger change.
Stages of Implementing a Change
The first stage is the preparation. It encompasses basically everything involved in setting up this change. When you come to a decision to implement something new, it usually happens at the end of many weeks, if not months, of thought. The best thing to do is to talk openly about these issues amongst your team in the lead up to any decision. Whatever you can do to include them in the decision itself will make a huge difference.
For example, let’s say you run a support team and you need a more flexible hiring model, due to the specific circumstances that your company is facing. Because of this situation, you start researching different outsourcing companies. In an ideal scenario, before you even get to the point where you start researching, you should have already discussed with your team the kinds of challenges you’re facing currently and that you’re thinking of a way to handle them. This means that by the time you actually get to outsourcing some of your support, the shock response is much lower.
As another example, let’s say you’ve been struggling to manage performance in your team, either you’re finding it difficult to understand how everyone is performing in comparison to others or you’re finding it hard to identify what low performance looks like. To solve this problem, you start thinking about the KPIs that you have available and defining some general standards across your team. You should also start talking about this openly with your team well before any decision is made. Wherever and however you can include your team in the process that leads up to the change, you should do so. If you can’t include them, for whatever reason, be prepared for the pushback. That’s when the communication stage will hopefully come in handy.
Here’s a quick checklist to get your preparation done right:
- Research the different options you have available for dealing with your challenge
- Consider what the short-, mid-, and long-term consequences of this change will be
- Get as much buy-in from the people most impacted by the change as possible
- If you’re able to communicate it openly to start, try to at least get buy-in from your experienced and senior staff
- Make yourself articulate, as concisely as possible, why it is you’re implementing this change
- Understand how this change will impact the different layers of employees you have across your company
- Talk to others (in the industry or in your company) who have implemented similar changes and learn from their experience
Communication is one of the most complicated things to get right here. If you approach it systematically, it will likely go better. Here are some tips that might help:
- Create a communication plan for yourself but don’t overthink it. You want to make sure that you’re articulate and you know what you want to say but it cannot sound rehearsed.
- Once again, be absolutely clear on the reasons you’re implementing it. I cannot emphasise enough how essential it is to cover the “why” behind every decision, especially one that has an impact.
- Be as honest and open as you can be about the background and everything that went into the decision in the first place.
- Talk about the goals that you’re trying to achieve with this. Envision the best case scenario and conceptualise it for your team, so they can see it too. It’s easier for people to jump on board if they understand what you’re working towards.
- Try to ensure that everyone is informed directly, from the source, as quickly as possible.
- Be vulnerable. Maybe you’re also worried about how it’ll turn out or you can’t exactly predict the consequences. It’s better for you to say that than to pretend that you have all the answers.
- Try to talk to people individually, rather than to the group. It’s much easier to listen to someone properly when you’re talking one-on-one, and it’ll be easier for them to hear what you have to say too. One-on-one conversations are by their nature more humanising and bring people closer together.
- Make sure you plan in time to give people room and space to process it.
There are some messages that should come through as clearly as you can possibly make it in your communication. For example, that you’re happy to discuss it in-depth with people whenever they need, that you understand they might have questions and concerns, that you will support them in whatever way you can. It’s easy to underestimate how much of a difference the feeling that someone’s got your back can make when it comes to adjusting to something new.
Remember that knee-jerk responses might happen and deal with them in an open-minded and understanding way. Focus on the person that you’re talking to, give them the space to process what you’ve said, and then pick up the conversation again at a later stage, maybe in a private setting. Remember that a certain amount of that response is personality-driven and can’t be helped. The only way to improve the situation is by responding to those reactions in the best way that you can. That means staying calm, professional, being understanding and giving people the benefit of the doubt.
There is such a thing as too much communication though. One of the hardest aspects of change management is knowing when to cut your losses. If you’ve invested hours of your time discussing the change with someone in your team and they still aren’t convinced or on board with it, you have to at some point accept that that can’t be helped. If they’re not only unconvinced by it but they actively raise the discussion repeatedly with you or other teammates, you need to disengage from it and shield your team from it as much as possible. It’s important to recognise that you have limited time, energy, and resources. One of your key responsibilities is to invest that in the right place and trying to have the same discussion repeatedly is not a good use of your time. The more you humour it, the more it’ll hold your team back from adapting to the change and moving on.
So, communicate. Communicate a lot. Expect that it will be necessary for a long time but pay attention to whether it gets too much.
Now you’ve prepared to the best of your ability, you’ve informed everyone who’ll be impacted – it’s time to actually roll out the change. Structure the implementation as though it’s a project; break it down to different stages, make sure you have people responsible for each stage, and create a timeline to work towards. The specifics of this stage will be very different depending on what exactly you’re implementing. On this general level, there are four main things to keep in mind.
Assume a longer timeline
The first one is to assume that it’ll take weeks, if not months, for people to adapt to it. How long exactly will depend on the person, the type of change, the kind of environment you have and many other factors. Just remember that it will take longer than you think it will and try to stay approachable for that whole period of time. Once people have started adjusting to it, they might have new suggestions and feedback that didn’t occur to them before. Maybe some of those suggestions will be things that you didn’t think of previously either. Have an open ear for all of these things.
It could be that everything is technically rolled out but it takes a long time for you to truly understand the consequences of the decision. For example, it’s possible that rolling out KPI goals across your team will have an impact on the culture and working environment in your team. This isn’t something that you can see or understand in the short-term. It’s important to give yourself time to really get how people react to it, why they react in certain ways, and what the best way to move forward is for you. It’s much better to build this time into your plan, rather than scrambling to get everything done as quickly as you can.
Demystify the change
The second one is to try to demystify the change as quickly as possible. If you’re rolling out a process that everyone in your team will have to suddenly start using for large proportions of their working day, show them what it will look like, talk to them about the purpose behind it, and how you’ll use the data from it. If you’re changing the management structure within the team, give them access to their new managers as quickly as possible, make sure they have opportunities to interact with this person and get to know them and so on.
Establish success criteria
The third one is to establish success criteria early on in the process of implementation. The more specific you are with your success criteria, the easier it will be for you to evaluate how your implementation went by the end. If at all possible, it’s great to make your success criteria measurable. Even if the main goal you want to achieve isn’t measurable in the first instance, think of ways that you could make it so.
For example, let’s say you’re rolling out a career path structure across your team so that every individual has the opportunity to advance their careers. Perhaps this is something you started looking into because you felt that your retention rate wasn’t as good as it could be and some of the reasons behind that were down to career development opportunities. It’s pretty easy to measure whether introducing career paths had an impact (by taking, for example, the 2-year retention rate from before and measuring it against the 2-year retention rate afterwards).
It’s possible that you decided to implement career paths for a different reason though. Maybe your retention rate is actually fine but what you want to increase is employee engagement. You have the perception that employees within your team are looking for development opportunities and feeling frustrated because they have minimal guidance, direction, and structure to help them. You work on this in any number of ways but you chose to go for career paths. In this case, the best way to make the impact measurable would be to run an employee engagement survey before that asks everyone to rate different aspects of their experience. Then you could run the same survey afterwards to measure the impact of your project. Your success criteria could look something like “increase overall employee engagement by x%.”
It’s useful to make your success criteria transparent so that everyone understands that you will be evaluating the change and reacting to what you learn. This isn’t because you need to give the impression that you’ll roll changes back over time but rather to establish an open, transparent culture, in which failure is allowed and accepted. It’s a way to say: we’ll see if this works and if it doesn’t, we’ll react to it because we’re measuring it and can tell.
Limit the frequency of large changes
When you’re going through the implementation of something like this, you should always limit exactly how often you roll out big changes across your team. It’s much better to do smaller changes incrementally, give people time to adapt to them, and then build on them slowly, rather than shaking everything up every few months. It could be that you can’t avoid it because those changes are forced by external circumstances (for example, an acquisition). That can’t be helped. Where you can help it though, you should definitely try.
Change fatigue is real and it will slow your team down immensely. It’ll also make it hard for them to regain their engagement and vitality, and it won’t help you when it comes to building a resilient, adaptable team. You can recognise if this is happening if people react to your announcements with passive resignation or refuse to engage with you in a one-on-one conversation about the topic because “what’s the point of talking about it anyway?”. If you hear anything like that, then this is a red flag. It’ll likely be too late to roll things back at this point but it’s a good impetus for you to think about any future big changes you have planned and to see what you can do to slow them down.
Once you’ve rolled the change out, you should give it some time and then evaluate how successful the whole process, from start to finish, has been. How long you wait to do the evaluation depends on the kind of change and how long the process to get there was. If it took 6 months just to roll it out, it’ll likely take 6 months for people to even start adjusting to it. You want to give yourself enough distance that you can look back and identify both short- and mid-term consequences honestly but not so much distance that you forget how the initial process went. It might help to keep a “lessons learned” document where you jot down thoughts related to how it’s going throughout so that when you’re doing the final evaluation at the end, you have enough information to look back on without relying exclusively on your memory.
This is where identifying the success criteria at the previous stage will come in useful. Whenever you do something new, whatever it looks like, it’s important to reflect on its success because it’s only through that reflection that you actually learn from the experience. If you want to be able to take lessons out of every experience you make, this is a great habit to get into. So dig out your success criteria, analyse where you are, ask yourself what you would do differently now with the knowledge of hindsight. Make sure that, by the end of this, you have a very clear picture of the parts that went well and the parts that you know now you could’ve done differently or better.
The right balance is just plain and simple honesty. When you have the list of things that went well, look at them and question if every other person you would talk to, who went through the same experience, would agree with you. Better yet, you can go ask them directly. Folding in more perspectives at this point will always make the evaluation more valuable. If you aren’t sure, it’s better to tend towards more critical than to look for the best in everything. Yes, being overly critical can be unfair and it might push you towards setting unreasonable standards for yourself. That said, it’s preferable to err on the side of humility here because it’s better than being blind to larger mistakes that would impact you if you were to repeat them again.
It’s best to share your evaluation and make that transparent as well. It’s likely that their perspectives will enrich yours and it will also allow you to establish a culture around reflection and learning from every experience across your team. Ultimately, to know if your change was really successful, you need to look at its adoption rate (how many people have participated and engaged with it) and what their impressions and feelings about that change are.
We’re preparing a worksheet that you can go through for yourself, every time you’re preparing for a change. It’ll guide you through the things mentioned above and hopefully help you manage change to the best of your ability. If you’re waiting for it, let us know!
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