The How Trumps the What in Successful Change

Excerpt from "Own Your Day: New light on the mastery of managing in the middle" by Julie Nerney and Diana Marsland (Practical Inspiration Publishing, May 2021).

Training Magazine

There are plenty of well-rehearsed models out there for how to manage change based on how people respond. But there is less on how you implement change in a way to minimize negative impact and increase adoption. The big learning here is that it has absolutely nothing to do with what you are changing, it is resolutely and unremittingly about how you choose to go about it.

So if you take one thing away from how to implement change, it should be this: if you don’t focus on changing people’s behavior, you’ll never implement truly sustainable change. It’s all about building a consensus and a commitment to that change. It’s about leading and supporting the transitions that people need to make. It’s about investing in those activities to accelerate outcomes.

Before we get into the five simple steps for the effective implementation of change, we’re going to start from the assumption that the change you are implementing has been properly thought through. Appropriate thinking has gone into why it needs to happen and what you hope to achieve. Lessons have been learned from past organizational and individual experiences. Evidence has been used to inform decision-making. You know what the change looks like and you understand the gap between the current and future states. Now, before you start planning for delivery, take the following steps – all of which are done in conjunction with people, engaging them at every step of the way.

  1. Understand the impact of the change

Take a methodical approach to map the groups of people who will be impacted by the change. It might be specific functional areas, departments, or teams. It could be single individuals. But look at that gap analysis and plot all those affected and why. Keep it high level at this stage, for example:

  • Is there a process or policy change they’ll need to comply with?
  • Is there a new way of working which will require practical training, whether that be processes or technology?
  • Will the shape or number of job roles be impacted by this change?

Map those constituencies against the type of change, plotting which will be affected by each element. Some will be impacted by all, e.g., a new operating model fundamentally changing a team structure and ways of working; some by one component, e.g., the way that customers or other departments interact with that area. Completing this task gives you your change impact assessment. Now you can see the scale of the behavioral change you need to support in order to get the outcome you hope to achieve.

  1. Define support measures

You can define the type of intervention required to support those changes in broadly three categories: engagement, training, or documentation. Every change impact you’ve identified will need engagement to win hearts and minds, underpinned by a comms plan and set pieces like workshops or other events; it will just be a question of degrees. If you want people to change their behavior, you are going to need to provide specific input on any new skills or ways of working in some kind of formal training. And if you’re to underpin the change with new standard operating procedures – in whatever form and level of detail your sector demands – then you’re going to need some documentation. Every impact you have identified should have at least one intervention. Some will require more than one. Taking this methodical approach allows you to map everyone impacted against the intervention required to support them – no chance of anything falling between the cracks.

  1. Design your change approach

Now you truly understand the change challenge ahead, you can consider how you want to approach it. Is there some logic to the way you would sequence that support? Are there groups of people who require more support earlier, later, or throughout? Are there constraints on when and how you can offer that support, e.g., legal requirements for organizational restructures or redundancy programs, or times to avoid due to business-as-usual pressure peaks? What interventions are transition critical, i.e. key to the successful deployment of whatever is being changed? And what interventions are benefiting critical, i.e., the key to encouraging adoption and sustaining that change after deployment?

However you choose to tackle this, there are three inputs that will ensure you succeed:

  • Starting from a position of empathy Identifying those affected by the change, and determining what kind of intervention will support them through it, isn’t an abstract exercise. Behind that data and map are people who will either struggle to accept the change, or will be enthusiastic adopters, and every shade in between. Every recipient is a person who’ll be looking at what you are changing through their lens, not yours. Everything you design should be done with your audience in mind: their needs, their convenience, their preferences. All complemented with a healthy dose of energy and pace to counteract the human preference to resist change.
  • Honesty really is the best policy. People aren’t stupid. They’ll have got an inkling of what’s coming. Secrets are rarely kept in organizations. Myths will have abounded. Wrong ends of sticks firmly grasped. There’ll also be times when you need to communicate with partial information or not be able to answer people’s questions. The only way to be consistent and successful in your change approach is to be unfailingly honest and compassionate, recognizing that what is required for one group might not work for another. And that includes a willingness to make it OK to say “I don’t know,” and signal when you might. Badly implemented change has overly corporate, paternalistic, and, sometimes unwittingly, arrogant communication.
  • Be creative, but be pragmatic Every change is unique and your change approach will need to reflect this. Of course, there’ll be principles, learning, and practice from the last time you did this well that you can build on. But change is not a case of one size fits all. Even when it looks comparable it isn’t – two departmental restructures will be underpinned by two different whys, two different sets of prevailing context, two different sets of personalities. So you’ll need to be creative to design interventions that are appropriate… but also proportionate. In a world where time is an increasingly precious commodity, and those impacted are often geographically dispersed, you need to be pragmatic about the most effective way in which your interventions can land. Based on their needs, not your desires.
  1. Bake it into your plan

Now you have a change plan. One that is based on a firm foundation of the variable impact of the change on different audiences. Which has specified the kinds of interventions to mitigate that impact. Which has fed into an overall change approach that is appropriate, proportionate, and empathetic to your audience. Now you can turn that into a delivery plan. You’ve got the why who and what, now for the when and where. Timing is key. Are your interventions laying the groundwork for other activities in the delivery plan to land, are they happening at the same time or supporting after the event? Some will be all of these. The point is, you are baking the resources and time required to bring people on their change journey into your delivery plan upfront, not as an afterthought.

  1. Listen, learn and refine

No matter how brilliant you are, and how good your evidence base is for the plan, you’ll learn from doing. As the old military saying goes: no plan ever survives contact with the enemy! Feedback is the engine room for refining and developing your plan as you implement it. Ask for feedback and act on it. Learn from the early-stage results. Refine your plan. Hone and improve as you go.

If that all feels like a lot of work, we’d say two things. Investing the time to do this properly reaps rewards in the long run. And whatever time you do invest should be proportionate to the change you’re seeking to implement. Those five steps might take five minutes, they might take five weeks. Well, maybe not five minutes, but you get the point. Proportionality is key. While that’s flexible, the principles are not.

Julie Nerney is a serial entrepreneur, transformation expert, CEO, NED, Chair, guest lecturer, and public speaker. With insights from working with hundreds of organizations across every sector, she is certain that how teams and leaders approach work is a far bigger driver of success than what they do. She is a passionate advocate for authentic, purposeful leadership. Diana Marsland’s varied career has seen her work in marketing, project management executive roles in the corporate, public, and third sectors including Halifax plc, the NHS, Action Medical Research, and City University. She believes that managers’ abilities are vastly underrated and that they can flourish with support and encouragement.