A wise philosopher once said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
Creating something new takes time. Change in business is a process, not an event. Like any process, it requires work. And your level of success depends not just on how great you are at defining solutions, but also on how well you implement them.
Managing change can be quite complex. At IronStrike, we help de-mystify the process by anchoring everything to six basic change management principles. When followed, these change management principles can help you successfully navigate change—big or small.
Change management principles
Principle 1: Cultivate the right culture
It all starts with culture. Having a culture that’s conducive to change is likely the single most important factor in successfully transforming your business.
Start by asking yourself: “Is my organization or team ready for change?” If the answer isn’t a resounding “yes,” then you’ll need to do some further investigating. Think about what opportunities exist, and what those opportunities afford you. Consider the barriers that stand in the way. Ultimately, your goal is to create an environment where change can not only survive, but thrive.
It’s important to note that you’re much more likely to be successful if you take an outsider’s perspective when evaluating your organization’s readiness for change. You’ll want to take a long, hard look in the mirror to really understand the full picture, warts and all. This means putting away your rose-colored glasses and being objective when evaluating your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. You may want to start with a communications audit.
Principle 2: Connect to purpose
No one likes to change for the sake of change. For change to be meaningful, it must connect to a larger goal, or purpose.
Merriam-Webster defines purpose as “the reason for which something is done or for which something exists.” At IronStrike, we often refer to this as a “rallying cry.” It’s that tangible—or in many cases, intangible—thing people can get behind. It can be a word, statement, belief or position that inspires teams to want to do things differently.
In many cases, you’ll need to synthesize the rational and emotional aspects of change to give people a “reason to believe.” It’s only after people establish an emotional commitment that they can begin to generate the passion needed to make the change happen. You’ll know when employees are truly starting to connect to purpose when they begin not only talking-the-talk, but walking-the-walk. Listen and watch for verbal and non-verbal cues in hallway conversations, formal meetings, even casual get-togethers. If you find yourself needing help in defining your purpose, we’d love to help.
Principle 3: Evolve from top-down AND bottom-up
We’ve all been there before. Leaders think they know what’s best for their staff. And staff think leaders are clueless when it comes to understanding what’s really happening on the front lines.
Force-feeding change from the top-down is one of the biggest mistakes an organization can make. Particularly for those with a large or diverse workforce. This approach can create a lot of animosity and mistrust among staff, and is nearly impossible to reverse.
A better approach is for leadership to work collaboratively with staff from all levels to establish open lines of communication and a feedback loop. This helps facilitate healthy dialogue among a variety of stakeholders, giving each a “voice” at the table. The more opportunity there is to provide input on the vision, the more likely people are to embrace it.
Think about it. Don’t we tend to care more about things we’ve had a hand in planning? Sure, we do! People naturally feel more connected to something they’re actively involved in. Particularly when they can make a connection between their role and the overall success of the project.
Bottom line: Don’t try to “sell” people on change. Instead engage them in change. When you do, we promise you’ll find an easier road. Just don’t forget to define clear expectations regarding responsibilities.
Principle 4: Communicate clearly, consistently, frequently
Second only to culture is communication. As we’ve already stated, it’s darn near impossible to get any meaningful change to stick without first establishing the right culture. You can talk about change until you’re blue in the face and it won’t matter. Yet, once the culture’s ready to embrace the change, you’ll quickly find that you can’t communicate enough.
It starts with the top brass at any organization being supportive of the change and sending clear, consistent messages on a regular basis. Like children who look to their parents for guidance, staff will naturally look to their leaders for indicators on how to speak and act during a period of change. And you can bet they’ll notice when there’s a chink in the armor. Be aware, too, that it’s not just in the verbal messages. It’s also in the non-verbal cues that leaders give in group meetings, 1:1s and even interviews.
We’ve all heard the “Keep it Simple, Stupid” phrase. And nowhere does it apply more than to change management. When communicating during times of high change, the simpler your message, the better. And don’t forget to use technology to your advantage. If most of your staff uses smart phones to communicate, then you should be considering ways to share relevant messages that way.
At IronStrike, we specialize in helping companies develop internal communications plans. Some start with a full-scale communications audit that includes research to assess attitudes, perceptions and behaviors related to the change. Others may already have a handle on these elements and choose to focus first on developing key messaging and their employee value proposition. Regardless of where you are, the most important thing you can do is to take action. You can’t sit idly by and expect change to manage itself.
Principle 5: Empower action
So, your company’s on the cusp of change. All the research is done, the strategy’s been outlined and the key messages written. Now what? Now’s the time to empower your staff to become brand ambassadors and help facilitate the transformation.
Harvard Business School professor and leading author on organizational change management, John Kotter, acknowledges that “people see, feel and then change.” The change management principles outlined thus far in this article are all related to the seeing and feeling aspects of change. This principle, however, is all about getting the ball rolling on the task at hand.
In a perfect world, you’d take steps to remove barriers, solicit feedback and adapt as needed to ensure continuous improvement. And remember, celebrate the wins. Every one of them!
Kotter also recommends that organizations foster and encourage determination and persistence. So, if the first few attempts to get the message to stick fail, don’t give up. Change management may not be easy, but it’s worth it when done for all the right business reasons.
Principle 6: Sustain change
Just because you make it from point A to point B during a period of change, doesn’t mean your job is complete. Organizational change management (OCM) is an iterative process that requires ongoing assessment and adjustments. If done successfully, the change itself simply becomes a thread in the fabric that defines your culture. The change sticks. Over time, you’ll want to continue to evaluate the progress and success of the change initiative and celebrate the many milestones to come. Most importantly, you’ll want to make sure to define clear timelines for reporting performance metrics. Transparency and steady communication of the goals, achievements to-date and progress are all vital to the long-term success of the transformation.
When it comes to change management, there’s no magic bullet. Every company and every situation is different. Sometimes it’s not about having all the answers right out of the gate, but about making sure to focus your energy in all the right areas to make smart decisions. As we said, navigating organizational change is a process. It’s something you build toward by first evaluating your situation and identifying potential opportunities and barriers. How you proceed from there is what matters. While the six change management principles outlined here only scratch the surface, they provide some best practices and a framework for how to be wildly successful in your efforts.
Interested in learning more about change management principles? We’d love to hear from you.