Combating the Challenge of Change

Change is hard at the individual level. The difficulty is multiplied in organizations. Change causes discomfort, even if it is a welcome change. We experience a loss and grief as we say good-bye to a familiar way of doing things and relating to others. The chaos and uncertainty of transition is disruptive and disconcerting. Finally, we are anxious about the risk associated with the change – do we have the skills to succeed? These are normal reactions to change, whether we perceive the change as good or bad.

Our individual challenge is to manage these feelings, and our resultant behavior, in a way that moves us positively and proactively through the change. The management challenge is to help the whole organization cope with these reactions and stay the course. Most strategic business decisions carry enough uncertainty that the difficulties of change can cause leaders to lose their resolve. They back off or let the change initiative fade, perpetuating a kind of avoidance approach at the organizational level. This dampens the innovation necessary for business success.

It is clear in most organizations that change is now the status quo. Four strategies for ensuring successful change include:

1. Establish a clear business rationale.

A business need or opportunity typically sparks the impetus for organizational change. What we find striking, and disconcerting, is how often that triggering need gets lost in the subsequent change effort. The understanding of the rationale and purpose becomes diffuse, especially as you get further from the decision-makers. Even the executive team members sometimes have very different perceptions of the reasons for a particular change. Every organizational initiative can and should be anchored with a business case for doing it. This way, the change effort will not be subject to the fluctuations in business conditions (e.g., revenues are down, let’s stop developing leaders).

2. Assess stakeholder commitment, concern and readiness.

It takes people to make a change work. Knowing their issues, determining their readiness, and learning of potential obstacles can go a long way to ensuring a successful transition. This knowledge helps to set strategy. There are approaches that work better than others, and each organization has its unique land mines to uncover. In addition, if done right, the assessment process is the first stage of change. Viewing assessment as a change lever will shape the strategy and methods used to gather and analyze the data.

3. Articulate clear outcomes.

So you want to improve organizational performance. Or employee engagement, loyalty and productivity. Put some measures to these and be bold in stating them. It often seems that the fear of not meeting an objective keeps an organization from articulating anything specific, especially in the people side of the business. These actions are natural; we do this all the time with our personal goals. Organizations need to work hard at this and figure out what is appropriate to measure. Regularly ask yourself, “Is this getting us what we want/need?”

4. Institutionalize the Change

This step can be huge, and the specific strategies are dependent upon the content and nature of the change. A few considerations include:

  • Develop a comprehensive communication strategy that will last beyond the transition stage to the point where results are visible.
  • Connect the change effort wherever possible to existing systems and procedures; make it part of the fabric of the organization and be intentional about it.
  • Provide the necessary performance support to ensure that people can thrive in the changed environment.

As mentioned at the outset, change is hard. These steps will make a difference both in managing the transition and in producing the desired outcomes.

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