A change manager is (aptly named) a person who brings about change within an organization. Like a vigilante for justice, change managers fight for the benefit of their citizens, whether they want the help or not. They are a necessary component in the growth and evolution of the organization — and are not always a beloved figure.
Typically managing projects affecting a large number of stakeholders, this person often faces a wide variety of responses to the changes they’ve been tasked with implementing. These changes might include anything from new HR policies for employees to implementing a new system that affects customers and partners. My work in change management has been primarily been focused on the later — large scale technical implementations that affect millions of users worldwide.
Ever heard the adage “change is constant”? How about “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”? There’s an underlying mentality in the business community that people will naturally resist change. There are industry-accepted change models, such as Prosci’s ADKAR model, that include a ‘reinforcement’ phase to ensure that changes stick — or else. The reality is that people, for the most part, are resistant to change that they don’t understand. As with any audience, the initial response for the affected group members is always, “How does this affect me?” Answering this question is one of the most important roles of the change manager.
There are many proverbs about change, from cultures all around the world, because change can be hard. And, let’s face it, not all change is positive. Whether it’s transitioning to a new technology system, changing your pricing structure, reorganizing a business unit under new leadership, or sunsetting a much loved application, there are plenty of necessary business initiatives that can negatively affect customers, employees, and partners. The job of the change manager is to help the affected group adapt and meet the coming changes with optimism – or at least with minimal frustration.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned through my work in change management:
- Communicate early and often. I find that at a minimum you should begin communicating major changes 2-3 months in advance; however, this threshold may increase or shrink, depending on the expected impact on your stakeholders. This can be tricky, especially when the project is technical in nature and rollout timelines and specifics often change throughout the course of the project. For this reason, it’s critical to keep the lines of communication open during the lead-up to the deadline.
- Help them prepare. Part of your regular communication should include training materials or other resources that will help the affected group to understand what is expected of them and how they can prepare for the changes. This might take the form of training videos, documentation, live sessions, or simply an open door policy for questions.
- Exercise empathy. Remember that question I mentioned earlier that every affected person is asking themselves? “How does this affect me?” Empathy means putting yourself in that person’s shoes and seeking to provide them with all the information they will need to be successful. It also means understanding not only the tactical questions they might have (e.g. How do I complete this new task?) but also the more personal, emotional responses (e.g. Is my job safe? I’m worried/concerned/angry/sad…). You must be able to anticipate and respond to these as they arise, presenting as much information ahead of time as possible. Oh, and don’t forget – you have a wide variety of personas to consider, so the list of possible objections and responses may be longer than you think.
- Be flexible. Using empathy in your project planning also means having a willingness to adapt to your audience. This group of people may have different needs than other projects you’ve worked on. They may communicate differently, have different levels of expertise, or have different expectations. When applying your change model of choice, be sure to consider whether each step is necessary, how important each step will be to this group, and how best to accommodate their needs, not the needs of the model.
- Follow up. Don’t disappear once the change is implemented. Be available immediately afterwards to ensure that people are adapting to the changes successfully and that any concerns are being addressed.
- Transition ownership. I find this one is often a weak point in change projects. Part of your job is to create sustainable success. This means ensuring that ownership of the project’s outcomes (e.g. support for the new system) must be transitioned to the appropriate team for long-term support. It’s not sustainable for you and your team to own long-term support for every project you implement.
- Own your responsibility, and yours alone. You will not make everyone happy. You are likely not the person who made the decision to go ahead with this change, nor do you likely have the power to alter it. While you will need to be able to explain the change, you don’t have to agree with it. Accept that it is what it is and do your best to help the affected people to make the most of it.
- Find the influencers and the advocates. One of the best ways to build confidence and acceptance is to find the people willing to learn about the change and become advocates with their peers. It’s one thing to have someone from the project telling you how great this thing is going to be. It’s another thing entirely to have someone who will be equally affected by the change telling you that it’s going to all be okay.
Just remember that no matter how frustrated your people might get, you are ultimately their lifeline during this challenging time. Become their partner and show them that, in the end, you are the hero they need.
Well, Caped Crusader, do you feel ready to change lives and save the world?