Curves ahead: change management for collaborators

Change management is one of those disciplines people tend to think of with wistful retrospection. As in, “It would have been a really good idea to know something about change management before we split that department in half.”

Organizations with collaborative cultures have one advantage over others—the mindset that involvement and participation have value. “You have to make people feel like they’re part of the process, like they have put their own fingerprints on the change,” says Tres Roeder, president of Roeder Consulting.

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Organizations make disruptive changes for all manner of reasons, but many boil down to the need to establish a new competitive advantage. People will embrace their collaborative role in making that change a reality when they understand how that advantage will accrue to them as well. That communication should come as early in the process as possible. “Making a case for why the status quo is not acceptable is more important than any persuasion or communication campaign after the fact,” says Michael Roberto, Trustee professor of management at Bryant University.

One of the fundamental rules of change management is that people tend to invent details to fill in any gaps. That’s why long periods of unsubstantiated rumors about impending upheaval are so stressful. “It’s the not knowing that gets people really upset—the feeling that you’re trying to hide something from them,” says Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of Executive Development Associates. “So if you don’t have a trust bank built up, and you don’t take questions and be as honest and authentic as you can possibly be, then there’s going to be a problem.”

Even the most transparent organization won’t realize full buy-in each and every time. “You need to make a distinction between the notion of being collaborative with the goal of achieving unanimity, and the goal of widespread consensus,” Roberto says. “You don’t want to waste time on the two percent who are just not going to come on board.”

When full collaboration isn’t in the cards

Experts agree that one of the best ways to reduce strain in the change process is to solicit involvement and participation at the earliest stages, even before a firm decision has been made. Yet the biggest changes, such as an acquisition or corporate relocation, are likely to include the least amount of organizational collaboration. It’s a difficult conundrum, but often necessary from a strategic point of view.

When the situation demands secrecy until the change is a done deal, Roberto urges against a “charade of consultation” after the fact. “That’s a mistake a lot of leaders make—they still hold the meetings after they’ve already made up their minds because they think it looks collaborative,” he says. “People see right through it, and you lose trust and credibility.”

Instead, be as inclusive as possible about the tactical details and processes that implement the changes, even if the strategic reality kept most of your key collaborators in the dark. “You can still empower people in the execution of the plan, even if it was unilaterally chosen,” Roberto says.

Note that a wall of words is not a substitute for genuine, after-the-fact collaboration. Microsoft learned that lesson earlier this year with its now-infamous layoff email, which said much but communicated little.

Creating a change-ready culture

Instead of looking at change management as a tool to use in special circumstances, work consistently to promote a culture that is not so tightly wound as to be utterly inflexible. When people are constantly working at or beyond capacity, pressed up against seemingly impossible deadlines, and otherwise stretched to their limits, it is much harder to process change.

When they recognize that they have difficulty making mid-course corrections, these strained organizations will often put pressure on employees, partners, and clients to be exhaustively thorough in up-front planning so as to avoid future changes. But that’s not a realistic approach to business. “You can say ‘Tell me everything you want up front!’ but many customers don’t know what they want up-front, they have to go through a process,” Roeder says. “You have to be willing to work with the people who are driving those changes.”

Even when all seems calm and stable, keep in mind that many employees are still adapting to a previous change. Whether it’s as simple as relocating a department to different office space or making a large acquisition, people go through a mental process of acceptance and transition that can take much longer than the mechanics of the change being implemented. “You’d think that transition happens in-between the old and the new, but it doesn’t,” Hagemann says. “It’s not unusual for anyone going through transition to feel shock, anger, and denial, and it’s important for leaders to understand that chaos and try to work through it, rather than pretend that it isn’t happening.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.