We have all heard the phrase “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Attributed to business guru Peter Drucker and made famous by Mark Fields, CEO and President of Ford Motor Company.) But what does that mean for us as human resources professionals? It means that organizations have a natural tendency to resist change and stay as they are. Organizations, like people, prefer stability and will reject your key initiative unless a plan is made to meet their natural resistance. This maturing, multidisciplinary field is called change management* and is based on behavioral psychology principles as applied to industrial organizations. To successfully lead and ensure lasting business change, it’s important for HR professionals to adopt and leverage change management principles.
Change management is defined as an approach to transitioning teams, individuals, and organizations. Our job as human resources professionals is to lead culture and manage reputation risk for our organizations, which often requires implementing major organizational changes that impact teams, individuals, and organizations. Examples include the adoption of new policies and procedures, recruitment strategies, changes to benefit and compensation plans, restructuring departments, deploying new training, and implementing performance management tools. To truly help your organization shape culture and support key business strategies, you need to ensure your initiatives are sustainable—and by that, I mean well-supported at the top, adopted at the middle, and maintained over the long haul by employees.
The risks of poor change management include:
- Your HR initiative is rejected or only partially adopted.
- Business relationships are damaged.
- You don’t receive information that impacts your results.
Consider the following change management principles before leaping headfirst into implementation:
Step 1: ESTABLISH A SENSE OF URGENCY.
Organizations won’t substantially change unless there is a burning platform. (“Burning platform” is a metaphor popularized by change management consultant Daryl Conner. Click here to read about the origins of the true story behind this metaphor.) Start with a diagnosis of the need for the change, quantify the benefits of the change, and evaluate the organizational capability to change. Most importantly, when proposing significant change, leadership must understand and feel the organizational pain that the organization will suffer if the change is NOT implemented.
You are essentially conducting a cost/benefit analysis, so quantify what you can and be patiently persistent. Some major HR initiatives can take a year or more to gain traction with the urgency necessary to align leadership backing—but then you will move forward with confidence, full organizational blessing, and the resources you need.
STEP 2: CREATE THE GUIDING COALITION.
Never underestimate the benefit of having the right support team in place. If you try to push through a project without strong political backing or involving key stakeholders, your project is vulnerable.
So who should you include? Conduct a stakeholder analysis. Who is affected by your project? Consider the current power dynamic. What business processes are you touching? Which functions have people or budget resources you need?
Invite key representatives to be co-sponsors, members of the project team, or an informal advisory council. You will need their support when your change hits the organizational resistance curve. Ask them to help you identify—in advance and as the project progresses—why and how the change may be difficult. Plan for resistance, ** and get your advisory board in place before you need it.
Step 3: COMMUNICATE YOUR CHANGE VISION AND STRATEGY.
In one sentence, can you explain 1. your vision of the future state and 2. why employees should care? To get on board with the change, people need to have a clear vision of the future state, and they need to know WIIFM (“What’s In It For Me”).
I’ve had the good fortune to work with excellent communications professionals. For big changes, enlist them to help you with messaging and tailoring your communications strategy to each key audience (e.g., executives, implementors, all employees). Every large-scale change deserves its own dedicated communication plan. Messaging design, repetition, and timing is critical.
Step 4: EMPOWER EMPLOYEES & GENERATE SHORT-TERM GAINS.
As part of your project plan, create formal and informal feedback loops that give you valid data on how your change is taking hold in the culture—or being passively or actively rejected. Every organization has employees who are super-connectors, early change adopters who will pull other employees off the fence of “the way things have always been done.” Find these cheerleaders for your change, reach out to them, thank them, and empower them to help you. Encourage them to speak up and be ambassadors. And when you find resistors, engage them in dialogue. Be curious, with an intent to learn. You will always gain some information that you need for the change you are trying to make or an opportunity to convert. Use punitive measures as a last resort.
In one project, we were implementing complex IT controls to respond to new regulatory guidance. One tenured team member inexplicably joined our project team meetings with a cynical attitude and draining effect on the team. I took him out to coffee, got to know him, inquired about his view on the project challenges, and his attitude completely changed. I think it was simply a matter of respect.
Next, generate short-term gains. As you proceed in your project, ensure that you have measurable stakeholder goals, and communicate and celebrate progress on a regular schedule. Have metrics in place and measure implementation depth. Address variances and root cause. Make sure you’ve done all you can to make the change easy and organic for your organization.
Step 5. SUSTAIN THE CHANGE.
This is an important step, because this is where true culture change starts. You need to plan for the “aftermath” of implementation to make sure the change sticks. Consolidate your gains, communicate them, measure them, monitor for organizational pain points and return on investment, and be ready to respond and adjust to unanticipated hard and soft costs. Listen to suggestions for tweaks or what isn’t working well. Be willing to revisit process.
Most importantly, stay open to feeling your clients’ pain. To build good relationships, it’s critical to listen to key stakeholders and let them express how they are experiencing the change. Acknowledge that change is hard and empathize with the impact this will have on them. This will not only build trust and a better relationship with you and your team, but it will also help them move on to accepting, and even supporting, the HR change. This is critical at the “top” and also at the entry levels. Those who are “doing” and implementing the change rarely are the ones deciding to make the change, so find a way to respect their role and get their input. Don’t take resistance personally. (Read: Kegan & Lahey, “The Real Reason People Won’t Change” Harvard Business Review, November 2001.)
By leveraging change management expertise, you will ensure that your initiative is truly adopted and becomes a part of the way your organization conducts business. Human Resources professionals who know how to gracefully navigate the change curve are a huge asset to their organizations and serve a critical role as effective stewards of our organization’s culture and evolution.
Good change management ensures that our most important work is built to last.
About the Author
Amii Barnard-Bahn will present at the NCHRA Small Company Conference on October 19. A frequent speaker in HR, legal and ethics forums, Barnard-Bahn is a global Executive Coach and Consultant to HR leaders, CEO’s, and Boards in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also a frequent author and speaker on transformational leadership, employee engagement, and reputation risk management.
*Key contributors to the change management field include Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (whose profound Change Curve model was quickly adapted by businesses in the 1970s), Dr. John Kotter (invented the 8-Step Process for Leading Change), W. Edwards Deming (created the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle as an iterative method to support continuous change improvement), and Kurt Lewin (who invented the Force Field Analysis tool to identify factors that can support or impede successful change implementation).
**In 1951, Kurt Lewin developed Force Field Analysis, an influential framework for identifying the forces that support a goal or block movement toward achievement of the goal. There are simple tools derived from this theory that can assist compliance professionals to create more successful project plans.