“Life is full of change.”
“Before change is after change.”
“Change has to hurt.”
Do you know such sayings? Have you heard them several times? Well, in principle there is truth in them, at least in some. The only problem is that for some people, the knowledge of change management stops after just such a quote. The consequences: Many changes are indeed painful, even if they don’t have to be, managers are annoyed by complaining employees, and after the last change, the employees are already afraid of the next one, or give up altogether and look for a new employer.
Does it have to be like that? Well, probably not. Because there is change management, which can help to master changes more effectively and actually can support in creating a more effective team, a more productive department or a more motivated company.
One of the most important elements in change management is leadership. Because who is usually affected by a change? That’s right, it’s people. And forgetting them is exactly the mistake that can be observed again and again: Small groups focus on the desired changes, plan everything carefully and then ultimately fail when rolling it out.
An example: The rumour mill has been bubbling for a fortnight: The upper management is once again working on far-reaching changes. And then, Friday evening, 6:35 pm, it happens. An email with a snappy headline appears in the inbox. The content is short. Three choppy sentences say that the new structures of the various departments are attached to the mail and that you should familiarise yourself with them. More information will follow. And in the next team meeting, the manager then scrolls apathetically through given slides and answers the first question with: “I don’t really know that either. But we are supposed to live it now.”
You think such a scenario is unlikely? Well, …
Change management is a complex matter. You can make your life a bit easier if you look at the mechanisms behind it and take a few things to heart. And that’s exactly what we want to do now. 10 tips that can help you to introduce your changes into the company more effectively.
Talk, talk, talk
Tip 1: Communicate – Actually, change management should be called talk management. Because one of the most important things you have to do to successfully complete a change is talk – and do it a lot and to many people. This is exhausting and takes time, but often measures fail because they are not communicated properly. And that, in turn, costs even more time and is even more exhausting.
Let’s be aware of the following: Intended changes often fail because they are not supported by employees or are even blocked by them. But are employees blocking because they are mean and vicious and have basically only started in the company in order to harm it? Probably not. A common reason why people are reluctant or defensive is fear. Fear of losing their job. Fear that there is something else behind the vaguely announced change. Fear of suddenly having to work with colleagues they may not like. Fear of losing the fun at work. And, and, and. It is precisely this fear that can be countered by sensible communication.
Involve people early
Tip 2: Involve employees at an early stage – And you should start as early as possible to do so. I remember a project in which the task was to question the frontend stack used in an entire department. Until then, it consisted of different technologies in the various teams. Nothing was uniform. Everyone tinkered with what they liked best. It was clear that this had to change.
Instead of discussing the solution for the department in a small group and then announcing a decision, we first started to communicate in larger rounds that we saw potential for optimisation for the current situation and were planning a change. And all this before we even had a concrete tendency for a specific technology. We explained where we saw problems and what the global vision for the solution would be. And what happened? The staff suddenly started thinking about possible technologies.
A short time later, we had agreed on three favourites. It was time to sit down in a small group, choose one and inform the rest of the department of the decision? Right? Not so fast…
We communicated that we now had to make a selection, invited all employees to support us if they were interested, created a decision matrix together and gave individual groups the task of filling the matrix with life for the respective technology. Afterwards, we sat down in a large group and made the decision for a potential candidate on the basis of the group results and the discussion. To be on the safe side, we planned a 4-week prototype phase in which three selected teams would try out the new technology. After all, it should accompany us department-wide for the next few years.
And then something happened. Not only the three selected teams started experimenting. No, all the other teams also started, too. A short time later, the winner was chosen and we were able to communicate the results. In other words, we announced the upcoming change and that we would switch to a uniform technology.
The whole process had taken about three months, but at that point we didn’t need to “pick up” anyone. The reasons for the change, the benefits, the details – everything was already clear because we had already started the change management before the change was announced. By involving those who were affected by the migration early on, we were able to ensure that any uncertainties were clarified in advance. And this approach had another advantage. Those affected could actively participate in the change and express their concerns, fears and suggestions already in the process. This influenced the decision. If we had not done this and only decided in a small group, it would have been possible to make a worse decision (in retrospect).
Where are the influencers?
Tip 3: Use the influencers – Of course, this approach only scales to a certain extent. Once a certain number of employees are affected, direct contact can no longer be established without further ado. Nevertheless, the basic idea of (timely) involvement also works for larger departments. There are always employees whose opinions have a great influence on others – the influencers. Instead of involving everyone directly, you can invite specific employees who have a strong influence. If you involve them in time, they can help to carry the ideas into the company and thus increase participation. Classically, leads can already discuss ideas with their team and feedback valuable input. But you should not limit yourself to management, but consider involving employees from all levels.
“No! That won’t work at all!”
Tip 4: Find the sceptics – Regardless of whether you decide to involve as many staff members as possible ahead of time or only start communicating with them after the change has been announced, it is also important to know who should be given special attention if you want to implement the change without too much friction. This is because people deal with impending change in different ways. Depending on their personality, cultural background, current life situation or personal goals, they can react differently (and to different degrees).
If you look at the reactions to change, you can usually identify three groups. Those who are in favour of the change or support it (supporters). Those who are sceptical about the change (sceptics) and those who reject it (deniers).
Anyone who has worked in a company for a long time will have noticed that the employees who run through the corridors jubilantly and euphorically when the next change is on the horizon tend to be in the minority. Likewise, the number of those who deny and actively or passively resist change is not very large in a (healthy) company. Most employees are naturally sceptical about change because it is often associated with uncertainty and questions. After all, a job fills a large part of one’s life. And major changes therefore not only have an organisational or structural thought, they also have a direct influence on people’s lives. This influence can be felt to different degrees depending on the changes. It can go as far as thoughts that threaten the existence.
That is why you are well advised to have a good proportion of sceptics in your group of “influencers”. Here you have the chance to address or clear up any doubts or misunderstandings in advance. And a sceptic who has been convinced or has better understood the core of the problem solution can more easily convince other sceptics and thus reduce scepticism.
Whine, whine, whine
Tip 5: Find those who complain – And I would go one step further and engage with those who complain. Unfortunately, it happens all too often that these employees are labelled as negative influencers. Terms like “uncooperative”, “stubborn” or “toxic” are used to describe these employees. And without question, there are toxic employees and very clear steps that should be taken in such cases. But not everyone who “grumbles” is toxic. And not everyone with a negative attitude always has been.
Before we start labelling everyone a “negative influencer”, let’s be clear about the following: In the IT industry, it is (currently) not overly complicated to find a new job, even if you don’t have “rock star” tattooed on your forehead. So why should an employee who is frustrated and constantly upset stay in a place where they are in a bad mood every day?
There are many different answers to this question, but one can often be found: They are loyal.
They have identified with the company, the product, the mindset, the branding or the culture. Often they have been with the company for a long time and/or even had the reputation of being decision-makers, key players or drivers. Usually there are triggers (which are beyond the scope of this article to go into) that changed their motivation. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way back.
Their high identity and loyalty can be a real goldmine for your change. If you can win them over, you will often experience high passion and support. And often it is enough to simply involve them in the change early on. Because these particular “negative influencers” are not total deniers, but just strong sceptics who can be transformed into “positive influencers” with a little effort.
This, by the way, can also be observed when it comes to integrating a company into the acquiring company after an acquisition. Or in general: When strong cultural changes are at play. Often worlds collide here and the feeling can arise that something is to be taken away instead of seeing the change as an opportunity for further development. Especially here, it is worthwhile to look closely at people’s emotions, behaviour and their backgrounds.
Of course, I don’t want to belittle the harmful influence of true “negative influencers” here. This is a topic that should be dealt with intensively. But there are already enough “my way or the highway” managers out there. And before you start stigmatising employees in the middle of a change situation and maybe have to replace them, it may be worth taking another close look at the situation.
Not too much and not too less
Tip 6: Avoid over- and under-communication – No matter when we start communicating, we should do it often. Under-communication is another common problem when introducing changes. If too little information reaches the employees, it increases the chance that behind the sparse information they might suspect a bigger change – uncertainty and fear can arise. And that is exactly what must be avoided. So share all information frequently, even if it means to repeat the topic.
However, over-communication can also be problematic. Too much of it can lead to being annoyed by the change and no longer being open to it, or even rejecting it. In addition, not everyone is open to information at all times.
To avoid this, make sure you use communication channels that allow people to decide if and when they want to consume the information. Besides emails and documents, it can also be helpful to record all-hands and meetings so that they can be viewed later.
Keep it simple, Spongebob!
Tip 7: Communicate with simple, clear words – Your company consists of many different personalities. Everyone is different in their own special way. And just as each person is different, information is also received and understood differently. In international companies, intercultural misunderstandings and loss of information due to the use of a single common language can also occur. For this reason, it is advisable to communicate the change in simple and clear terms in order to avoid potential misunderstandings. There are people who tend to dress up the changes in flowery words thinking that it will sound professional and well thought out. Don’t make this mistake.
Try to create clarity through simplicity and keep your texts short. No one wants to read novels in emails. And too long messages distract your employees from doing other things. If you do have to write longer emails because certain contexts are important to you, then at least use the classic TL;DR or a “Long Story Short” at the beginning of the email to summarise the content. This way, the employees can decide for themselves whether they want to consume the content now or later. And additionally, by writing the summary, you train yourself to summarise the most important things in a short and concise way.
It was not all bad
Tip 8: Understand what emotions changes can trigger – What happens when you are told that everything will be better from now on? Right, you think that everything was bad in the past.
The problem with announcing changes in this way? The employees were usually part of the previous solution. They may have worked in this setup for several years, invested their lifetime. And it is precisely these employees who can get the feeling that they are responsible for the “bad” things that now have to be replaced. Negative mood, insecurity and a basic rejection of the change are pre-programmed.
The beginning of something new is always the end of something old. And you should honour this old. Then everything that needs to be changed has certainly not always been bad. So when you announce changes, remember that the achievements of the past also get appropriate attention.
Another popular mistake is to talk only about the advantages of the new setup. This can also create mistrust, because no solution is perfect. And actually, it is also clear to everyone that what is currently being touted as the ultimate will be replaced by something else in two to three years.
Therefore, you should make sure that you do not only praise the advantages of the new solution, but also explain which disadvantages it has and why you still think it makes sense to accept them. This creates trust and avoids looking for weaknesses that could be used as a point of attack. If you are open about the disadvantages, you increase acceptance and take the wind out of the sails of possible discussions about the disadvantages right from the start.
A good structure for change communication is:
- Appreciate the advantages that the current solution has. Perhaps go back to why it was chosen at the time.
- Show what the disadvantages are from the current point of view and why a change is necessary.
- Show the advantages of the new solution and how it can solve the current problems.
- Also show which disadvantages were analysed and why this solution was chosen anyway.
Tip 9: Change takes time – Now that we have learned a few tricks, we can really get started. The initiative “What I always wanted to change and never dared to do” can start …
But be careful! Changes do something to people. They can create uncertainty and it often takes time to get used to the new situation. Too many changes in a row can lead to your staff being in a perpetual state of uncertainty and habituation. The successes expected from one change can be negatively affected by the next if it happens too soon. So wait a while for the changes to settle before you start the next one.
In addition, your team or department will usually need time to get used to the change. Often, what looks so easy on paper takes some time to establish in practice. It may be that productivity slumps a little in this phase before it gets better. Plan for that!
And another hint on the subject of “giving time”. Changes often start with one or a few people. It takes a while until the idea has matured and reached the “bottom”. What has already been discussed at a higher level is totally new for many employees. They need time to deal with the issue. You should give them this time and not immediately expect that what has taken you several weeks to mature in your head will be understood and implemented in a few days.
This can also be observed on a small scale if you “only” lead an engineering team. As a leader, you will usually think a lot about how to change things. You will have conversations with others about new topics or get coached to form your opinions. It usually takes a while for these thoughts (e.g. in the form of a change) to reach your team. Always remember that you have a head start on them. After all, you have already spent days or weeks on the topic. Give them the time they need to catch up with your thinking.
And what happens when the change is over?
Tip 10: Make transparent whether the change was successful – After the change is before the change, right? Well, one small piece is still missing. When the hard work of the change is done, the processes are established and the new setup has actually proven to be right: Then talk about it! Show what the situation was like before the change and what has improved. The uncertainties and fears during the introduction will be put into perspective when the employees see that it was worth it. They will trust you more in the next change and introducing those will be easier.
And if it should happen that the changes you have planned have not led to the desired success, be transparent and open to admitting the wrong decision. Because before the change is after the change. And sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.
You have probably recognised it: Change management should actually be called change leadership, because the biggest impact is always on people and they need to be picked up. In this respect, you will automatically go into the right direction if you rely on your leadership skills and concentrate on your employees.
In this sense: Let’s change something!