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Change management process: Best practices for planning and execution

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They say the only constant in life is change – which just may be twice as true in business. Whether dealing with new competitors, shifting economic conditions, unpredictable supply chain issues, or even the rise of paradigm-shifting new technologies, there always seems to be something requiring businesses to adapt. 

Despite this, change is often difficult to do. Breaking old habits, introducing new processes, and sometimes even just recognizing the need for change in the first place, may all be met with resistance. This may well be why only about a third of today’s change initiatives end successfully.

This goes to show that change isn’t something that you should just respond to, but is instead something you can learn to prepare for. Let’s take a close look at how you can do this through an effective change management process.

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What is a change management process?

A change management process refers to any system or framework a business or organization puts in place in order to help them design, build, implement, and manage change strategies. These changes may range from small to gradual to large and transformational, and can involve many different aspects of the business, such as its culture, internal workflows, core products or services, communication processes, or more.

There are four main approaches to change management depending on the type of change that is desired:

  • Anticipatory: This is change in response to something expected to happen, such as the impending arrival of a competitor’s product.
  • Reactive: This is change in response to something that has just happened, such as a shift in the stock market.
  • Incremental: This is change that happens slowly, through a series of smaller adjustments. An example may be the introduction of a new product management system.
  • Strategic: This is change that is implemented at a high level and is designed to impact the larger organization. An example of this would be a merger.

Regardless of the type of change management approach, the process is designed to help businesses navigate through the different stages of change. Broadly, this includes assessment and recognition of the need for change, through planning and implementation, and then finally the management and assessment of any changes that were made.

By following a structured and systemic approach such as this, the change management process enables businesses to more effectively come up with a comprehensive plan that addresses the challenge they face, as well as measure their progress along the way.

Change management challenges

Even with a standardized approach in place, leading an organization through change can still be a difficult process. Change, at least for some people, teams, and business, will never be easy. Here are some common challenges you may encounter:

  • Lack of resources: Implementing change typically requires making an investment, whether in time, money, technology, or people. Finding enough of these resources to properly support the change, especially when not enough people support it in the first place, may be difficult. 
  • Leadership or staff resistance: Effective change requires support from both the management and employees in order to both provide direction and ensure the change management process is effectively carried out. If either of them aren’t committed, then this process may fall apart.
  • Communication problems: Transparently communicating both the need for change and how it will be implemented once it is underway is essential to its success. If any of this is unclear or insufficient, then it will be more difficult to gain buy-in from everyone involved.
  • Technological changes: If the change management process involves introducing new tools or technology, then there is likely to be a learning curve involved. If this is not managed properly, it may slow down progress or even halt it altogether.
  • Different perspectives: Especially when it comes to large strategic change, there may often be a variety of different perspectives on what needs to be changed and how. If these perspectives are unable to align, then they may compete and interrupt the process.

Benefits of implementing a change management process

Organizations of all kinds regularly adopt change management processes because they offer an effective and efficient way of navigating difficult transitions. Here are some of the benefits of change management that make this possible:

  • Minimize disruptions: By taking a systemic approach to change, businesses can anticipate and plan for likely disruptions, reduce chances of resistance, minimize downtime, and ensure a productive level of workflow throughout the transformation process.
  • Promote acceptance: Using a framework that emphasizes transparency and consistent communication, an effective change management process will increase buy-in by proactively explaining the rationale behind any changes, addressing concerns, and involving employees in key decisions.
  • Enhance team performance: Mismanaged change can interrupt productive workflows and damage morale. But with a well-executed change management process in place, team performance can stay consistent and may even increase as improvements are introduced.
  • Foster adaptability: Change management gives structure to what may otherwise feel like an unstructured process. This helps employees understand the benefits of change, as well as how effective change takes place, making them more likely to embrace new processes and technologies in the future.
  • Increase competitiveness: By systemizing the transformation process, change management helps organizations be more agile and responsive. And when an organization can adapt to changes quickly, they’ll be more likely to gain a competitive advantage. 
stakeholders listening in on strategy meeting

Developing a change management process

An effective change management process combines a systematic framework with the flexibility to address the unique needs and dynamics of both individual employees and the larger organization. After all, successful change involves not only altering processes and systems but also influencing and educating the actual people involved. 

Here are some steps you can use to develop your own change management process:

Understanding the need for change

You should begin by first making sure everyone agrees that change is necessary. 

Start by identifying and clearly defining the challenge the organization faces. Try to be as specific as possible. Do this by not only listing out the specific reasons why change is needed (for example, a drop in revenue or a shift in the market), but also by evaluating how different parts of the organization will be impacted. Explain what will happen, both to the organization as a whole and to individuals, if change is not implemented, then compare this with what things will look like if it does. 

Your goal should be to use factual, verifiable data in order to persuade leaders and employees alike that organizational change is essential for ongoing success.

Setting goals and objectives

Once the need for change has been established throughout the organization, you should identify exactly how much change should occur. In other words, what needs to happen in order for the change management process to finish?

Try to make this step as inclusive as you can. Work with leadership to come up with high-level goals that align with the organization’s mission, then get individual teams and stakeholders together to brainstorm goals, objectives, and other milestones to meet. Encourage participation by inviting employees to discussions and feedback sessions, then asking for their input. The greater their ability to influence decision-making, the more you will be able to build ownership and reduce resistance.

Defining organizational structures and roles

Even after everyone has agreed on the parameters, introducing organizational change of any type can still lead to confusion if not properly managed. But you can help avoid this by proactively describing how different elements of the organization will function once the change management plan is implemented.

You should consider this from both a structural viewpoint (such as teams and departments) as well as a more detailed one (such as individual roles and relationships). For the former, be explicit about defining how different teams and other groups of employees will work together. What will their new functions be? How will they overlap and support each other? For individuals, try to clarify any new responsibilities, define levels in the hierarchy, and what their reporting structure will now look like. This will make it easy for everyone to know what exactly they should be doing – and how to ask if they aren’t sure.

Training & development

No one should expect organizational change to happen overnight, which is why you’ll need to put some thought into how you will equip employees with the skills and knowledge needed to adapt to the change.

If you’ve established the goals and objectives for the change management plan, as well as clarified everyone’s roles, this should be a relatively straightforward process. Assign managers and any other leaders or experts to build a training program that communicates all the necessary information. Get them to provide employees with as much information upfront as possible so that any questions, concerns, or misunderstandings can be addressed before the change occurs. You should also work with management to come up with ongoing support during the transition. This could include help desks or even individual mentorships. This way, no one will be left behind as the change takes place.

Creating a communication plan

Developing a comprehensive communication strategy for your change management plan should go hand-in-hand with any training programs you develop. After all, if employees don’t know where to ask questions or how to share information, then any progress may come to a halt.

Start out your communication plan by addressing the “what,” “why,” and “how” of the change. This will help align everyone with the high-level elements of the change management plan. Next, specify the methods for keeping employees and stakeholders informed. This could include how frequently you intend to communicate updates, the appropriate channels for receiving information, and where to direct any questions or comments. As part of the communication plan, be sure to also establish some mechanisms for feedback so that you can continue to iterate and improve as the change takes place.

Continuous monitoring

As a final step, be sure to establish a culture of continuous evaluation and iteration so that you can measure progress, make improvements, and determine success.

If you haven’t already, this would be the time to define any key performance indicators (KPIs) you can use to mark milestones. This could include the impact of the change on organizational performance, employee satisfaction, and other relevant metrics. As you do this, try to document any lessons you’ve learned throughout the change management process and, if possible, apply those insights to current or future initiatives. Remember to also celebrate your successes while staying flexible as organizational needs evolve.

people in class

Planning and implementing the changes

As you plan out each part of your change management process and begin to implement them, it can be helpful to divide up the steps described above into three different stages. This can keep you organized (and from getting too overwhelmed) so that you can stay on track and prioritize what needs to get done.

The first stage should be dedicated to planning and preparing. This is when you should be seeking alignment on the type and extent of change by setting goals, defining how organizational structures and roles will shift, and getting buy-in from any stakeholders. 

The second stage is when you implement and manage the change. This will include any training and preparation immediately prior to execution, as well as your ongoing efforts to move the plan forward, track and measure performance, and identify challenges. In order to ensure successful progress, it’s important to both keep close track of KPIs and other metrics you’ve identified, and hold teams and individuals accountable for their responsibilities. Consider using project management tools or other technology in order to gain more detailed insights into your organization’s performance.

The third stage is focused on iterating and improving, maintaining successes, and finally transferring ownership of the new changes to the rest of the organization. The challenge of this stage is not only ensuring changes have been successfully adopted, but that they will continue to function over the long term. The goal of this stage should be the achievement of any goals set during the initial stage, as well as measurable and consistent performance improvement.

Managing teams and people during change implementation

Discussions of organizational change have a tendency to focus on structures, such as how a company’s data should be organized, the logistics of moving physical offices, or the efficiencies of new workflows. And while these are vital, it may be even more important to focus on the actual people that make up the organization. After all, change won’t happen unless individual employees let it.

Here are some tips for managing teams and people during your change management process.

Establishing company culture to support successful change management process

Your change management process begins and ends with your company culture. That’s because unless there is an environment that is conducive for individual employees to accept, support, and promote change, it won’t be likely to succeed. But how do you ensure this kind of culture is in place?

Begin at the top. Get senior leaders to not only commit to the change, but also demonstrate visible support for it. Through active participation in planning and preparation, they should set a positive example for the rest of the organization. Hopefully, this will help foster another essential aspect of change management culture: an emphasis on clear, open, and frequent communication. Leaders and managers alike should be providing employees with consistent updates on changes, including the reasons behind them, their benefits, and their expected impact. 

Once these ingredients have been established, it should be easier to raise employee involvement, empowerment, and even ownership. Be sure to involve them in any decision-making and feedback sessions to ensure their voices are being heard and valued. And, whenever possible, entrust them to make decisions on how best to introduce changes to processes and procedures within their areas of responsibility. This will help make them even more committed to the success of the change management process.

Assigning roles and responsibilities to entire teams involved in the project

When it comes to empowering teams and employees within a change management process, details matter. While you want to get to the point where you can hand off responsibilities for change to individual teams, this will only be possible if each team member has a well-defined role. The challenge is knowing the best way to go about this.

A good place to start is by establishing a dedicated change management team. Ideally, this would include members from different departments who have a diverse set of skills and perspectives. The idea here is to remove some of the burden of managing and overseeing every aspect of the change process from each team, while still involving a representative cross-section of the organization.

Within this team, you should next assign someone to manage the entire change management process. They will be responsible for coordinating activities and ensuring alignment with any organizational goals. From here, you could take it a step further and appoint a number of other roles and responsibilities. This could include someone in charge of coordinating communication, a training and development lead, a person responsible for identifying and tracking KPIs and other metrics, and maybe someone who can proactively identify and mitigate potential roadblocks.

Once this is done, you can focus on clarifying both team and individual employee roles elsewhere. Do this by listing out any specific tasks and deliverables they’ll have after the change, as well as their new reporting structure. If their roles have changed significantly, be sure to provide them with any available resources and tools they’ll need to carry out their responsibilities effectively. And, as always, offer consistent communication, support, and guidance so that they can navigate the change process. 

Utilizing tools and techniques for better change management practices

Change management can be a very involved, time-consuming process. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools and techniques you can use to help you communicate, give you more structure, provide you with data-driven insights, and streamline the entire change management process. Here are a few noteworthy ones:

  • Change management software: Whether you prefer to use specialized software or your existing project management tool, this can help you centralize important information, track progress, and manage tasks and timelines. They may also be able to help you communicate with team members, encourage collaboration, and monitor key metrics.
  • Communication tools: This can refer to legacy communication platforms, like email, or to newer messaging tools like Slack. Regardless, you should use whatever makes it easiest for you to share information and updates with stakeholders and employees across the organization.
  • Data analysis tools: Gathering data and metrics is an important way to measure the progress and success of your change management efforts. Analytics tools can help you pick out trends, identify areas of improvement, and make better and more informed data-driven decisions.
  • Feedback and survey tools: You’re bound to generate a lot of opinions from your teams and employees as you implement changes. Survey tools can help you regularly gather these thoughts and insights into useful formats, making it easier for you to assess employee mood, address concerns, and make improvements.
  • Messaging templates: A successful change management plan should involve frequent communication. Messaging templates can make this easier by outlining key messages, giving teams and managers a set structure to follow, and helping to automate the communication process. This will help ensure consistent and clear communication throughout the change process.

David is a freelance writer and PI contributor. When he’s not writing, he’s probably thinking about food. He believes pretzels are superior to potato chips and you can’t convince him otherwise.

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