I remember hearing often growing up that “Change is the only constant in Life” (Heraclitus). I also remember years ago when my mother said to me “For someone who claims to hate change, you sure seem to embrace it”. More than I was aware at the time, she was totally right. Since then I’ve found that embracing and planning for change is the best way to face it, and I actually do enjoy it. This has worked out well for me since a large component of the work I do is helping organizations manage change during technology transitions. Often overlooked or considered “not essential,” planning effectively for change can often make or break a technology transition initiative. (Read more on change management here)
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to work on change initiatives both from the client and consultant side, and I was recently asked to compare the different perspectives. I was surprised that the first thought that came to my mind was an iceberg. Maybe it was because I had just returned from a trip to Antarctica, or because I’m a long-time fan of John Kotter’s “Our Iceberg Is Melting”, a fable about penguins facing changes in their world. Either way at that moment the idea of an iceberg became the perfect metaphor.
From the outside, we see only a small part of the whole iceberg–as much as 90% can be below the surface. It’s the same while managing changes in an organization. While there are processes, policies, and procedures that define how things are done, every organization has a much deeper culture and community that lies beneath the surface. It’s this underlying culture that can be the most influential factor in how they react to change. When I was the client and immersed in the culture of my organization going through changes, I understood all of the hidden bulk. Now when I am a consultant from the outside, I help my clients manage the functional aspects of change management–the strategies and tactics–but that is only 10-20% of the challenge. I also strive to guide them through the applied change, the changes to the much deeper underlying culture that is the other 80-90% of the iceberg.
My first exposure to change management came in the form of a corporate acquisition during an internship in university. Over several months I watched the new leadership introduce and manage the changes through a series of large and small group meetings, written communications, and formal changes to process and documentation. It was a great introduction to change in the workplace. The new leadership actively accepted and responded to employees’ questions on that first day with patience and compassion, setting the tone for the months ahead. Weekly, and sometimes daily, updates in writing ensured that everyone knew what was going on, even if you’d been away for a meeting with your team. One-on-one check-ins allowed even this intern to ask questions I wasn’t comfortable asking in large meetings.
The new owners had different philosophies from the previous leadership, and it was going to change the culture of the organization. People were given the time to adjust and adapt successfully and were provided the coaching and training they needed to succeed. The new owners paid attention to the whole iceberg…not just the surface. They addressed the hidden 90% that Wilfried Kruger’s Change Management Iceberg highlights–including perceptions, beliefs, values, politics and power and influence.
I’ve had the privilege of leading several enterprise projects on the “client” side, and had the benefit of attending several formal change management training programs. Most of those courses talk about process and methodology and how to apply the wealth of research on best practices in change strategies. Fewer discuss the importance of identifying and leveraging internal change leaders, creating an internal coalition to support the change, and managing internal politics. Changing a culture to accept change requires a change leader, and it remains one of the hardest leadership challenges there is.
At another organization a few years later, I was an in-house project manager during a change-heavy initiative. I was part of the organizational culture and I was able to identify change leaders who would be able to guide our team. It was my responsibility to empower those key people to lead successfully. I needed to arm them with the right information at the right time, alert them to challenges or resistance, and identify quick wins to celebrate. I also needed to provide the right tools and strategies, and the right communication messages at the right time. I was able to succeed because I was immersed in and part of the community and culture of the organization. I could monitor actions and reactions, and plan accordingly.
As a consultant, I put my experience to work to ask questions, listen, and develop a concrete change management plan for my clients. But as I mentioned earlier, communication and engagement strategies are only 10-20% of the challenge. I am not immersed in the day-to-day culture of my client’s organization. Weekly meetings with a project team do not provide the level of insight into a culture that being there full time does. It’s not easy to see the resistance or to know the right people, communication channel, messaging and/or tone that works within the organization. We don’t see firsthand how the change management efforts are being received by the staff, or react on the fly and provide additional support and tactics in real time.
For this reason, my next step is to help the organization address the remaining bulk of the iceberg. We provide a strategy with clear steps that will allow them to enable and support their own internal change leadership. With tools to help with the identification of sponsors and change leaders, comprehensive training and coaching for sponsors and key leaders, and techniques to identify and address barriers and resistance, our clients are able to take the reins of their own success. I can deliver best practice recommendations, as well as coaching and tips based on my experience but the most successful clients are the ones who are able to embrace change and lead their organization.
I love helping transformational change happen, whether it’s watching one of my nephews discover he can program a caterpillar to follow a specific path, or watching an organization transform the way it supports its constituents through CRM and digital engagement. It’s exciting and energizing.
I was lucky to learn early in my career, and relatively early in my life, that going through a change typically leads to growth–both personal and professional. Having made the transition to the consulting side, it’s exciting to meet and work with so many nonprofits who are in transformation. It’s true that change is constant, and we can always learn new ways to manage it better.
What does change management mean for you? Have you had positive or negative experiences with change? What’s the number one thing you need to succeed with a change initiative?