Organizational Change Doesn’t Have to Hurt

Originally published on CMSwire.

Organizational change can be difficult, even at the best of times. With so many moving parts and likely resistance from employees, knowing where to start is a challenge. Take the introduction of a new workplace technology. Depending on your vantage point, it can cause outright fear or inspire a begrudging, “it’s about time.”

The technology itself can’t always be blamed for such widely varying perceptions. They can be a result of whether or not you, as an employee, are fully in control of the situation unfolding around you.

Like standing at the edge of a platform when a train rushes by at close proximity, change can be unsettling, its shock-wave pushing you back as it zooms past. However, when you stand further back, its velocity appears much slower, with less unexpected effects from its movement. Depending on your vantage point, your perceptions of change can be quite different.

As such, knowing about and preparing for change in advance is much preferable over having something new unexpectedly foisted upon you without any notice.

‘Transformation’ Is a Weighty Word

Let’s take the current irritant of many organizations as an example: digital transformation programs. People leading these programs struggle in part because their supposed value is perceived very differently by employees, leaving many people confused or with little to feel positive about. 

As McKinsey’s research has pointed out, some 70 percent of these programs will never “reach their stated goals.” Steven ZoBell, chief product and technology officer for Workfront argued in Forbes earlier this year the reason is partly because “[T]he whole company, not just a few people on the same team, must unite to drive success.”

Any activity that includes “transformation” carries a huge burden of expectation. Either because the claims being made are too ambitious, or the opposite: being transformational is used as a catch-all phrase to rebrand changes that should have happened years ago.

For example, IT — a department trying to figure out its purpose — gets to seize upon the opportunity to rebuild its reputation, by placing itself at the heart of an organization’s transformation. Yet, unknowingly that strategy can backfire. If the transformation ends up becoming too closely guarded by IT without being embraced by the rest of the business, it’s very likely it will fail.

How Do You Introduce Change?

As we’ve seen numerous times, taking a “launch it and leave it” approach to any new technology is flawed. As Gartner’s research revealed earlier this year, so much new technology can be lost on us, with employees preferring to cling to what they know: for example, email and common apps like Word or Excel instead of more innovative stuff. 

Part of the answer is about timing. Getting that right is your first step in the right direction. Employees will use something new for selfish reasons — and why not? If it improves their productivity, reputation or just because culturally it makes sense, you’ll improve your chances for success.

Communication here is essential. Have a conversation to help everyone on the receiving end make sense of it all. This conversation should include exploring new ideas that may not be immediately obvious. Being open to this is important. 

However, there is an even deeper issue to contend with. What makes change easier to deal with (or acceptable) is largely defined by whether a person feels in control of what they are being asked to accept, or adapt to. If the person perceives the change as something happening to them — maybe without their sanction or consent — they’re more likely to reject it.

A common response is to think up what are colloquially known as “change management programs” — all about working these issues through, meticulously planning the communications and employee engagement, often at large scale. Take care here. These programs can make matters worse by exacerbating the sense of powerless even further. Why? 

If they are being explained or imposed from the outside — perhaps by bringing in external change management consultants — the end result can widen the feeling of loss of control and ownership, causing more alienation and dislocation among employees. 

What’s the Solution?

Involvement, communication and clarity on the long view are essential. But just as vital is the change is a deliberately internally-driven idea. 

That means being prepared to galvanize support — often through debate — which is a vital ingredient. If leadership fails to make clear the entire point of why change is necessary, it will likely fail. As one ex-CIO argued in CIO magazine, “There needs to be a collective agreement of [whether] your role is to transform the very foundations of your business.”

Clarification of the goal must begin at the very top of the organization. Without reaching this agreement, how can anyone on the shop floor be expected to understand it?

Easier said than done. But do that right and the rest will follow.