As organizations have quickly pivoted strategies, adapted the way they work and shifted the way they connect with customers in 2020, we’ve witnessed firsthand the power of disruption to both cause chaos and create opportunity. From supporting remote work and cloud transformations, to developing new offerings and even executing large-scale digital transformations — initiatives once dismissed as out of reach have now become part of the daily routine.
But as we near the end of the year, it’s clear this wasn’t a singular instance of change that can be resolved with a quick deployment or strategic pause. We face ongoing uncertainty in the coming months and years — and there’s no going back to “normal.”
Those organizations that continuously respond and adapt to the needs of their workforce and customers will be poised to take advantage of new opportunities that arise from the evolving landscape. This will require a shift in thinking about the nature of change, not as intermittent points of disruption, but as an unending process.
Fortunately, Organizational Change Management (OCM) provides the framework for dealing with this type of uncertainty — and there are proven tools and strategies to help manage the “people side” of change.
By and large, business leaders recognize the need for new approaches, evolution of technology and optimization of process. Over the past few months, my team and I haven’t spoken with a single decision-maker who’s said they plan to go back to the same model they had in early 2020 or 2019 — and neither does the modern workforce.
An IBM report shows that of those currently working remotely, 80% indicate they would like to continue to do so at least occasionally, while 58% would prefer it to be their primary way of working. Of those now working remotely full-time, only one in 10 say they want to return to their workplace exclusively.
The implications of this trend are significant, and the current situation has been a transformation accelerator for most organizations. Virtualization, remote collaboration, automation associated with supporting remote teams, as well as overarching evolution to stay relevant all necessitate new behaviors, skills, processes and roles. These, in turn, require adoption and sustainment. From there, the cycle continues with each change having a subsequent impact.
So how does your organization begin to prepare for and manage change rather than simply react to it? How do you ensure changes are adopted and new tools or processes are put to effective use? How do you measure success? How do you get the changes to stick?
Organizations sometimes make the mistake of implicitly assuming when they roll out a change initiative, the workforce will instantly and collectively make the shift. But every individual adjusts and moves through the change curve at their own pace — a few jump on board right away, but most will need support to enable adoption. The goal of OCM is to recognize the phases of adjustment and help to accelerate time to adoption and utilization through strategic stakeholder alignment, communication, training and support, thereby realizing the expected Return on Investment (ROI) of the change initiative.
The reality is, many organizations end up implementing multiple change initiatives impacting the same people at the same time. During times of rapid or compounded change, there’s a major risk of change saturation and fatigue, even among the most willing adopters. Change saturation refers to a state when disruptive change exceeds an organization’s capacity to adopt. Chaos and turmoil become the norm and change initiatives can no longer be successfully accomplished. Change fatigue refers to a sense of personal and professional exhaustion felt by an individual as a result of excessive change.
New processes, technologies, restructuring, and regulatory and economic changes can all contribute to these challenges. The solution starts with building enterprise-level change capability within your organization. The goal is to build a culture of resilience, agility and understanding of small, recurring changes as the new norm. This means embedding the tools and techniques for understanding, prioritizing, measuring and managing the impacts of change into your business strategy at the highest level.
Change has to start at the top —when it comes to change initiatives, leadership is the number one factor impacting success or failure. Employees will look to senior leadership for guidance and understanding around the importance of technology and process changes. Senior leaders must commit to collectively investing in and supporting OCM to see the full benefits.
We’re seeing an increase in organizations standing up Change Management Offices (CMOs) to help measure and improve change management maturity. More than 20 years of benchmark data indicate companies with a CMO in place rank higher on the maturity curve, meaning they adapt more rapidly and readily to change than those lower on the curve.
Implementing a CMO allows the right people to stay focused on the right change initiatives. CMO leadership can take a portfolio view of the business to understand who is on the receiving end of multiple changes at once. This provides the information needed to prioritize initiatives, communicate more effectively and make decisions to prevent change saturation and fatigue.
It’s important for sponsors and leaders to employ the ABCs of leadership when managing change: A) remain active and visible, B) build a coalition of other leaders to who can help to support change and C) communicate early and often. Particularly today, this last point of communication is key. Leaders must learn to provide honesty in the face of uncertainty and show empathy with the challenges experienced by their teams. This can help to create a foundation of trust that drives support for change.
Clarity and visibility are key to managing expectations, building confidence and promoting the adoption of new tools and processes. Organizations and change initiatives need to develop a comprehensive communication strategy spanning all stages of the transformation — and a reinforcement strategy to ensure continued sustainment.
Rather than simply reporting on progress as it happens, this strategy should focus on providing messaging to help employees anticipate what changes are coming and why, how their roles will be impacted, as well as the direct benefit to them. It should also include opportunities for two-way communication. When dealing with large numbers of remote or distributed employees, it can be especially difficult to pinpoint where resistance is coming from and why. Collecting feedback early and often allows challenges with adoption to be identified and addressed.
Leverage tools like monthly update emails, newsletters, townhalls and team calls to establish a regular cadence for communication and feedback. A CMO can also help improve communication efficiency and reduce the perception of change fatigue by bundling messaging when multiple change initiatives overlap the same groups.
With any change comes the need for new skills which must be effectively introduced and reinforced. Supporting a newly remote workforce means many organizations are having to rethink the way they design and deliver training.
But even before work-from-home orders, modern Learning and Development (L&D) best practices were shifting toward blended and micro-learning, with a heavier focus on self-paced study. Instead of long blocks of Instructor-Led Training (ILT), digital training programs allow content to be consumed and exercises performed in manageable five-minute chunks, far more in line with the human cognitive process.
Mastering these best practices for training remote teams will enable organizations to more effectively educate their workforce on new technologies and processes without having to rely on in-person training.
Agile inherently means embracing more change more rapidly as teams strive for faster releases and iterative reviews and feedback. If not effectively managed, this state of constant release can lead to familiar issues with change fatigue and resistance throughout the organization.
Like OCM, the Agile framework is designed to help practitioners deal with complexity and uncertainty. Both methodologies focus on dealing with many of the same key challenges and can be used to complement one another.
The same practices used to support adoption and sustainment of new processes and technologies via OCM can be iteratively applied to the Agile development journey. The key is allowing for increased flexibility at a faster pace. For organizations new to implementing Agile methods, we also observe that the OCM practitioner’s scope expands to support adoption and sustainment — not only for the product output, but also the transformation to a new delivery framework.
In the coming months and years, those organizations that embrace the “new normal” of ongoing change will be positioned to find success with new, more adaptable ways of working and responding to disruption.
As you begin applying the principles of OCM to help build a more resilient, change-ready culture, remember to take the time to assess effectiveness, acknowledge growth and celebrate successes. Reinforcement is vital for sustainment.
By focusing on progress toward measurable goals, your organization will be able to build a steady capacity for change that enables better response to the challenges of the future.