Managing Change

Leaders often think managing change initiatives is like Moses coming down from the mountain with the new order. There is no questioning the new order, it must simply be executed! But, I think most of us can safely say that isn’t how it works.

Working on transformational projects is something we do all the time. Organizations are always pushing forward and often need help with defining the future in an actionable way, expanding their bandwidth, or even just having an outside third party arbitrate the difficult discussions that need to take place.

One such time, while working on a transformational change effort with a not-for-profit publisher and membership society, was a perfect case in point. The board and senior management saw opportunities to better compete in the marketplace and to better serve their membership.

We worked with senior staff to develop a vision of the future state and articulate a clear strategy. Not surprisingly, that strategy required some big changes in their publishing environment. We put together a core team comprising representation from all key stakeholders and followed a structured and logical process to define the future state.

But foundational to all this effort, and critical to successful change management, was the need to work with staff beyond the core group to help them discover and internalize why changes were needed in the first place and how they might be accomplished. The core team saw the future state for content delivery and knew that the current ways of preparing content wouldn’t support that. However, the fundamental premise needed to be more broadly held if it were to be transformational. The need for change had to resonate with the staff.

When discussed in group settings and at a conceptual level, there were nods of agreement from the editors and all the functional areas, the concepts look good. But as concepts evolved into specific actions, the up-and-down nods of agreement switched to back-and-forth head-shaking: “No, that wouldn’t work.” Arms crossed over chests.

The core team was a bit annoyed: “What’s going on? Why aren’t they cooperating? These people are being RESISTANT TO CHANGE. They’re draining the energy out of this initiative. That’s an obstacle that we have to overcome.”

This is a natural step in the process. Buy-in is not “once and done” but a process that requires open-minded consideration of the perspectives and knowledge of everyone impacted. It also requires constant and consistent communication. During that communication, it is not uncommon to find that the “resistance” is well-placed and the big idea has some flaws in it that require adjustment.

We worked with the core team and helped them respect the resistance. Anyone managing change cannot assume that they are all-knowing or that everyone that disagrees with them is being pessimistic or obstinate. OK, maybe one or two people in the group are acting like that, but it shouldn’t be the first thought we have and we shouldn’t go there without some evidence. We need to listen carefully to objections and determine if everyone is framing the issue in the same way.

To successfully define and manage change, we need to clearly explain what we’re trying to accomplish (in multiple ways), consider alternate views, and adjust our goals if needed. The organizational goal itself must make sense to everyone, or we run the risk of creating an “us-versus-them” situation. That mentality would be the real obstacle to overcome. And it would NOT be easy.