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Truth: Organizational change management isn’t for everyone. It certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. And it’s not for the part-time Polly’s either. Transformation on any level can be a grueling process that demands a lot from those leading the charge, as well as those affected by it. So how do you know whether your organization is up for the challenge? If you’re a lead communicator in your organization, it’s important to understand whether they are or aren’t, as the success of your communications hinges on it. And we’d argue it’s all a matter of your change readiness.

Change readiness is not change management

While it may seem obvious, we want to point out that change readiness is different from change management. At IronStrike, we often work with clients who’re in the throes of transformation. It might be a business growth. Or the introduction of a new product or service. Perhaps it’s the not-so-fun kind like the restructuring of departments to cut costs and improve efficiency.

Like it or not, change happens all the time. The problem is that far too many organizations jump the gun. They decide at the highest levels—and often behind closed doors—that something needs to change. And then immediately go to work on making it happen. In the rush to get to the other side, leaders often forget one of the first and most important steps: determining if the organization is ready for the change. It’s one thing to have the foresight to bring in change management professionals to help. But even before that happens, an organization should be thinking about its change readiness. Because you need to be awake and aware before you can become.

While we’re on this topic, we thought it’d also be valuable to note that readiness is not the same as resistance. In fact, you can avoid a lot of resistance by making sure change readiness is a part of the recipe from the beginning of any change management initiative. For more information on resistance and how to keep it from spoiling the soup, check out this recent blogpost.

Change readiness defined

Now that we know what change readiness isn’t, let’s switch gears and talk about what it is. According to a Harvard Business Review article, change readiness is “your ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk and sustain performance.”

The key word here is continuously. Not just today. Or next week. Or next month. But every single day. Change readiness is about being willing and able to adapt in order to seize opportunities. We’ve all heard about companies that are agile or more entrepreneurial in nature. Forbes recently highlighted a few large corporations like Ericsson, Spotify, Barclay’s and Microsoft that are stepping out of their comfort zone and embracing a more agile approach in their work. These and organizations like them have the courage and skillsets to adjust quickly and easily to ongoing—and sometimes turbulent—market and environmental changes.

So, why aren’t more organizations doing it? The challenge is helping organizations break out of the old ways of thinking and be willing to take calculated risks. And it’s not just the executive team that needs to be able to think creatively. It takes the coordinated and consistent efforts of everyone in the organization. The most successful and transformative changes come when organizations embed change readiness directly into their culture.

Cultivating a culture of change readiness

So how do you create a culture that encourages and supports change readiness? First, we’d like to ground everyone in a bit of change management theory. Some of you may be familiar with the work of Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist who’s credited as one of the modern pioneers of organizational psychology. Lewin argues that there are three distinct phases in any organizational change initiative. Let’s start by looking at what each of those stages represents.

Phase 1: Unfreeze

The Unfreeze phase begins with making the case for why a change is necessary. The goal is to get employees to accept that the change will benefit them in some meaningful way—and then align themselves with the vision. As you can imagine, you can expect a lot of raised eyebrows, questions and even some outright resistance during this phase.

The key is to develop a compelling message (i.e., vision) that clearly shows why the status quo is no longer acceptable. It’s also important during this phase to generate a sense of urgency. You can do this by creating the disturbing and uncomfortable belief that the current situation is not sustainable. This could mean highlighting how failure to change course could lead to layoffs.

Change readiness is a big part of this phase as you seek to break down the core “business as usual” and replace it with a vision of a better future state. Without motivation and subsequent alignment, your change initiative may never get off the ground. During this phase, leaders need to listen, analyze, challenge, explore, reevaluate, rethink and eventually help their teams begin to let go. More on this in a bit.

Phase 2: Change

Once teams have decided to “let go” of the old, they begin to reset as part of the Change phase. Some may refer to this as reorganizing, restructuring or reengineering part of change. Regardless of the term, this is where the rubber meets the road and people start to see tangible aspects of the change. We caution clients to watch for what we call “artifacts” or remnants of the old way of doing business. If not managed well, these can creep into the current conversations and disrupt transformation efforts. This is particularly true if you have someone of influence on the team who’s unconsciously or consciously sabotaging the efforts.

This phase is one of confusion, challenging conversations and clarification as team members begin to understand and engage in the change. Having an implementation plan and giving people a part to play in the change can help you move folks toward the future state. Here again is where readiness plays a role. Whether a person decides to embrace or resist a change boils down to two primary things. Both of which we’d argue can be addressed early in the process, as part of your efforts to make sure folks are ready for the change. The first is the value a person place on the change (i.e., What’s in it For Me). The second is an individual’s belief in their ability to successfully make the transition. We encourage clients to analyze both as part of the change readiness assessment that’s done on the frontend.

Phase 3: Refreeze

In the third and final stage of change, Refreeze, staff continue to adopt new mindsets and habits that support the new way of doing business. During this hardwiring phase, you shouldn’t let up on the gas. Instead, stay focused on the end goal and reward behaviors and attitudes that align with the new environment.

Change readiness dimensions

Now that we have a better understanding of some of the science behind change management, let’s look at some of the key dimensions of change readiness. While there are many factors behind understanding how ready an organization is for change, we’ll look at four that we think are paramount.

Awareness

How aware is your organization of its ability to identify and maximize opportunities? What environmental scans and assessments is your team doing to keep tabs on market changes? And what processes are in place to support product or service innovation?

Agility

Related to the above, how adaptable are your team members in stretching their capacity to take advantage of new opportunities? Are they flexible enough to explore new ideas? And be committed to shifting resources as necessary if those ideas take hold? How effective is your employee engagement efforts related to potential change and your overall ability to implement new processes or programs?

Assessment

How well can your leaders and their teams analyze and assess problems and risks associated with a change? Furthermore, how effective are they at preparing for and communicating “swift and sudden” change that may arise from an external force?

Action

How well can your staff implement change across functions and within existing systems and conflicting priorities? Does your organization have appropriate structures to support the execution, both during and after the change? Bottom line: how good are they at balancing being “change-ready” with sustaining the day-to-day needs of the organization?

Improving change readiness

If the answers to the above questions aren’t exactly what you’d like them to be, there are steps you can counsel your leadership to take to improve your overall change readiness. We recommend starting with these five tips.

Think bigger, bolder, brighter

Today’s rapidly changing environment is causing organizations of all sizes to rethink their approach to how they engage with both staff and customers. Keeping pace requires new, bolder ways of thinking and doing. And that means leaders and their team must shift their state of mind. It’s no longer just about developing better skills. It’s about having better, more progressive mindsets in general. While this is no easy task, maintaining a dedicated focus to this shift over time will eventually have a positive impact on the way your teams interact and react to change.

Don’t forget that leadership styles and behaviors play a key role, too. So, take the time to understand your leaders and the influence (or lack thereof) they can have on staff and others. And keep your eye on the ball when it comes to leadership learning and development. Not just with your leadership, but across all levels and functions. You should be hiring the best and brightest for the future you envision, not today’s reality. For more on how to develop leader qualities, check out this blogpost.

Get it all out in the open

In assessing change readiness, it’s important to uncover and address any major conflicts head-on. There will always be some resistance to change, but considerable conflict is sure to sink a change your organization needs to make. We encourage clients to foster an environment of openness and discovery right out of the gate. This means engaging regularly in healthy discussions with employees, particularly those who’ll be most affected by the transformation. As a communicator, you can develop ways to get feedback on their concerns and advise your leaders to be honest in describing the change impact.

Remember that your organization spent years creating the current culture—and that won’t change overnight. The artifacts we mentioned earlier may linger. So, be diligent in helping people reconcile their existing beliefs and behaviors with those expected in the future. This may include teasing out issues related to various aspects of the business including structure, hierarchy, and change in or loss of decision-making power.

Inspire, encourage and motivate

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Good leaders inspire, encourage and motivate others. This is a crucial quality to have when it comes to change management and is, quite honestly, a fundamental characteristic of change readiness. Being able to get teams to come to a shared understanding of the direction and then gaining commitment is challenging work. But it’s possible, especially if you’re organization has been diligent in building a high-performance team. To ensure your organization is change-ready, stay focused on building emotional intelligence skills that lend themselves to inspiring, encouraging and motivating employees.

One way you can determine how best to engage employees is to partner with your Human Resources or Training team to conduct focus groups and other qualitative surveys. You can assess employee readiness by asking questions about how employees perceive the change and its impact on them. Examples include:

  • The change will result in a more enjoyable/fun work environment.
  • I’m confident in my ability to learn the skills needed to continue doing my job.
  • This change will benefit me financially/emotionally/physically.
  • My job is not at risk with this change.
  • Previous changes have been successfully implemented.
  • I will be recognized and rewarded for supporting this change.
  • I feel support by leadership in making this change.

We could go on, but these give you an idea of how to gauge how people are feeling about an impending change. As part of this assessment, you should also take note of how people view the handling of previous changes. If past changes were done well, it could have a positive impact on future endeavors. If not, you may have your work cut out for you in erasing any lingering resentment.

Slow down to speed up

How many of us have heard the phrase, “Slow down to speed up?” Seems a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Not so fast! We’ve found that the best change moves at a slow and steady pace, with plenty of communication along the way. In fact, we encourage clients to give adequate time and attention to the drivers behind the change, as well as the beliefs, behaviors and actions that might prevent it from taking hold. In other words, take time to really understand what’s happening and why.

Be sure to slow down during the Change phase for diagnosis, digesting and dialogue. Couple these with slower periods of learning and reflection, too. Remember that teams have limited capacity for change. Making too many changes at once can exhaust people and is a common reason many change initiatives fall flat.

Let go

Finally, let go. We mentioned earlier we’d revisit this topic. In times of change, it’s important to not only let go of old ways, but also to let go of the fear that can keep you frozen in time. Fear of the unknown is always scary. But your organization can minimize the unknowns by doing research, assessing employees’ change readiness, engaging in good dialogue and developing a solid change management plan to serve as a roadmap to the future. Remember that letting go is also about learning how to tolerate ambiguity and allowing people to fail through trial and error.

Summary

Change can be fruitful or a failure. One thing’s for sure: taking steps to becoming ‘change ready’ today can put your organization light years ahead of your competitors when the time comes to transform. And come it will! We hope you’ll take a few minutes to share with us how your organization is preparing for the future and how we might be able to help.