Getting your people to embrace change

When you change anything, life becomes unfamiliar. Picture your last office or home move. How long did it take before you knew where everything was and felt like life was back to normal? Change is disruptive, and in the workplace, the norm. When it comes to technology projects, sponsors use a range of styles to manage the transition from old to new. On one side of the scale, they can decree an initiative — and on the other, they can build a broad consensus. Somewhere in the middle is the right balance of pushing an initiative to completion while making sure the inheritors of the change go along with you. There are pros and cons to either approach. The more you encourage consensus, the better buy-in you'll get, but expect the project to take longer. The more you decree a change, the greater the likelihood of bringing the project in on time, but resistance will rear its ugly head when you least expect it (and in the worst case, employees might sabotage the effort).

The ideal outcome is a balanced approach, bringing leadership and direction to the project while allowing inheritors of the change to participate in targeted and appropriate ways. Let's be clear about one thing: embracing change does not mean your people are going to like it. It means that your people demonstrate behavior, attitudes and skills appropriate to the new tools and processes. An unrealistic expectation going into a change project is that people will like what's being rolled out. In the end, they may. But initially, there's no getting around it being a significant disruption.

With this in mind, here are three approaches to help your people wrestle with and embrace change.

  1. Set a context for what's coming (why it's happening), and tailor this communication to each unique audience group.
  2. Show them what the change looks like.
  3. Create environments or experiences where people can wrestle with the expected change.

The first approach gives meaning to the change, the second bridges the gaps in people's understanding of what they have now versus what's coming, and the final approach attempts to uncover behavior gaps that people need to understand in themselves to make the transition work for them. Let's discuss each in more detail.

1. Set A Context For The Change And Tailor It To Each Audience Group

Up and down the organization, the question will get asked "Why are we doing this?" There needs to be an answer for each level in the organization. Senior management wants to know how the change will improve the bottom line; managers need to know how it will give them better information to manage day-to- day operations; administrative staff desperately wants to be reassured that the change will cause them as little pain and anxiety as possible.

To help you articulate a context for each group, answer the following questions:

a. Who is the audience you're setting the context for and what do they care most about?
b. How will the change benefit this group?
c. In what ways will the change challenge them, and what will be done to minimize this difficulty?

The context articulated around the change becomes the foundation and leads directly to the second approach.

2. Show Them What The Change Looks Like

People need a visual roadmap for what's coming. It's not sufficient to just send out a communication describing what's coming. There needs to be an attempt to capture and share what the new systems or processes will look like when they're in place. The benefit of a demonstration to "show 'em what's coming" is that it makes the change real, and forces management to consider decisions that need to be made in preparation for the change. For example, a new financial system might require developing a new set of roles across the organization. This will reveal itself when management observes what the system looks like and what will be required of its staff. Until they see a preview of the system, it's difficult to make management decisions about resources and structural changes to the organization.

Other demonstration techniques include simulations, web casts, or any other forum to help people get a birds-eye view of what's coming. It could also be a "visual flow" of the new process compared to the existing process. By providing a side-by- side comparison, people can begin to bridge the gap in their understanding of how they'll get from point A to B. Only when people can visualize for themselves how life will be different can they begin to understand what they need to be successful in the new world. Give them a taste of what a typical day will look like around managing new and different kinds of information. Once they have this understanding, the final and most impactful approach is to immerse people in what's coming.

3. Create Environments Or Live Experiences Where People Can Wrestle With The Expected Change

This takes the "show phase" one step further and helps people uncover what behaviors in themselves need to change to make this new way of doing business successful. It's only after personally engaging with new behavior that people uncover where they need additional practice, skills, or conceptual understanding.

Without a doubt, it's challenging to create a learning environment in the design phase of a project that immerses people in the "to-be" system or processes. This experience usually doesn't happen until the system is in place. Unfortunately, waiting for people to have their first direct experience with the system only after it's been rolled out will cause even more disruption.

How can you create an experience of the coming change? One common practice used to bridge this gap in large technical implementations is called a CRM or Conference Room Pilot. The intent of a CRM is as best as possible, immerse people in a new system, both to uncover what additional functionality needs to be built, but also to alleviate stress associated with a new system. CRM's can be successful but often don't go beyond a simple show and tell experience. When people expect an experiential session but it only informs people what's coming, CRM's don't get to the underlying behaviors that people need to wrestle with to make effective changes.

A better technique to create an experiential session is to develop case studies and have staff (both senior and administrative) role-play working in a new environment — uncovering behaviors, attitudes and skills that need to be developed. This type of experience needs to be combined with effective facilitation, helping people to reflect where the behavior gaps lie. For example, a case study might give managers the task of reallocating resources based on the functions and complexity of a new Human Resource tool. How will they make these decisions? What conversations and with whom do they need to have to effectively reassign resources? The goal in an experiential session combined with case studies is to have people engage in a dialogue as if they are currently dealing with the problem.

While debriefing, discuss what was learned and how will they take this understanding back and prepare for when the real thing comes. By personalizing a group session through the use of case studies, experiential exercises and reflection, you can help people learn what new behaviors, attitudes and skills in themselves need to be developed in preparation for the coming change.

Decree-Consensus Chart

On project initiatives, where is your organization on the scale of decree to consensus? Print the chart at and self-assess where you believe your project falls. Plotting your project directly in the center of the matrix assumes a balanced approach. Ask yourself if your leadership style on projects fall more on the side of tighter controls or the need for consensus building.

What needs to happen to move the project more toward the center, where participation and strong leadership are both valued? Use this chart as a framework for a discussion among your project team, executive committee, or colleagues.

Presentation Tip

The number one concern I hear from people around presentations is "I get nervous when I have to speak in front of a group." Being nervous is actually an indication that you are taking your presentation seriously. People who don't get nervous either have nothing at stake or have just been doing that particular presentation too long.

When you focus your attention on something other than getting over nervousness, the mental and physical symptoms will diminish on its own. If you just acknowledge your nerves (versus trying to do something about it) over time, they will just be something you recognize as a natural part of being in front of a group.