Change is necessary and inevitable for organizations. It will invariably happen whether leaders and followers want it or not. But that doesn’t mean everyone is ready, willing, and able to accept and endorse those changes with enthusiasm.
In fact, volumes have been written about how people tend to resist even the most obvious need for change. Much of that pushback is driven by self-interest, of course. Change often demands a lot of valuable time. Getting the direction wrong can be career threatening. And if an executive isn’t feeling enough pain from a poorly performing business effort, they may not want to take the risk of chasing an alternative approach.
“Many leaders march to the idea that it’s better to be safe than sorry, which doesn’t cut it today when so much business survival and success is tied to seizing opportunities and guiding people toward them,” says Tim Sanders, Vice President of Client Strategy at Upwork. “The best leaders instinctively know that to innovate, they have to be catalysts for change as opposed to guardians of the status quo.”
While change management doesn’t have a single, globally agreed standard playbook, execs can apply several best practices to lead people past fossilized ways of thinking. Here are a few top approaches:
5 approaches for bringing change to an organization
1. Adopt a change mindset
Jane McConnell, author of “The Gig Mindset Advantage”, says leaders who have worked for years to reach where they are in the hierarchy are typically not at ease with someone who challenges the status quo and questions how the system works.
The trouble with that behavior is it doesn’t leave much room for innovation. It puts the leaders’ own conservatism ahead of the company’s need to adapt and pursue new opportunities. Moreover, it puts the business at risk of being disrupted. Netflix proved that when it displaced movie rental stores. Uber did it when it shoved aside taxicabs. And Upwork is validating it now by upending how people work.
Progressive leaders not only understand this concept but embrace it every single day, says Sanders.
“During my career, whenever I saw a leader who was driving significant change, they had fallen in hate with the status quo,” he says. “They had literally gone from mild dissatisfaction to not being able to stand it. They woke up every morning asking how they could drive change. But to do that, it required some emotional aversion to inaction and stagnation. That’s what every change agent needs to succeed.”
2. Map the landscape
Change should never be pursued for change’s sake, however. Before anyone seeks to break the status quo, it’s critical to know if doing so aligns with the needs of the business and, more specifically, with the current priorities of the CEO, says Sanders.
Some organizations help ensure alignment by creating Transition Management Teams (TMTs), which are collections of company leaders reporting to the CEO. These groups are responsible for overseeing corporate change efforts driven by the C-suite. Once those efforts are considered complete, the TMTs might disband only to reform at a later time as new change efforts arise.
“Every change agent needs a strategic roadmap, but it cannot be out of step with what senior leadership or investors have in mind for the organization,” Sanders advises.
3. Plan, plan, plan
If convinced that change is necessary, the first step for senior leaders is to work with their next level of managers on a plan. This plan should include: clearly defined goals and objectives; tactics; key stakeholders; obstacles to success; key performance indicators (KPIs); and timelines.
It doesn’t have to boil the ocean or be overly aggressive. In most cases, starting small is actually advisable, says Sanders. But the plan should roughly spell out how change will be accomplished for each key area of the organization. For example, a stated goal to drive product innovation to overtake a stagnant industry leader might call for bringing in more part-time and freelance employees with backgrounds for accomplishing that. Importantly, the plan should also be a living, breathing document that could be applied and adapted to almost any change or effort over time.
4. Sell it strongly
Once a plan is devised, leaders need to do their utmost to sell it internally.
Bestselling author Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, notes that great change agents don’t push harder; they push smarter.
“They identify the barriers to change and mitigate them,” Berger says. “They figure out what’s getting in the way of change, what’s stopping people from moving forward. And then they tackle those obstacles.”
In short, change agents figure out who and what might be holding their organization back and programmatically set out to change their minds, Berger says. Not so much through facts and figures. But by trying to understand what their motivations, needs, and priorities might be. And then painting a picture of possibility in their minds for how a newer approach, such as remote work, might change their world for the better.
“Capture their imaginations with illustration and metaphor,” advises Sanders. “Leaders tend to lead with dry statistics, and people resist that because they question the sources or think the stats aren’t relevant. But by finding novel ways to illustrate the problems, and the potential to overcome them, it becomes visceral for them.”
5. Communicate and seek involvement
When executing on a change management plan, it’s also vital to keep key stakeholders updated on its progress. This means clearly and constantly laying out the goals, activities, and milestones the organization has achieved–and still needs to achieve–in order to reach success.
Too often, however, even with the best of plans, desired updates don’t happen. Executives are either too busy, fast-moving, or private to share their activities with the full organization. But to be successful, change absolutely requires a team effort and must be continuously ingrained in the corporate culture, which starts with top leaders insisting upon that happening. A constantly shifting mix of key stakeholders for individual programs and projects can help avoid groupthink and head off the impression of business royalty making all the decisions. And even if others aren’t directly involved in decision-making or execution, being as transparent as possible can help drive more consensus and support for change management. Human nature, after all, is to reject and criticize undertakings they don’t understand, which can be detrimental to workforce culture and morale.
“Change can’t happen in a vacuum,” says Sanders. “It must be a team effort where you continually update and improve processes by eliciting and taking guidance from everyone in your organization.”
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