Today we take on the very real problem of people’s resistance to change, even change for the better. In our experience, the single greatest source of failed change efforts is failure to manage the personal transition that all impacted staff go through. Here’s why and what to do about it.
Two plans are needed
Once management commits to make a planned change, they want to get on with it. It simply becomes another project plan or long to do list. They forget two things: how long it took them to convince themselves of the need for the change and that no subordinates have gone through that same process.
In managing change, you not only need to manage the physical changes, but also the process of getting those you are depending upon to execute the change to understand the need for it, support it and execute it well. Thus two plans are needed-one to make the actual change or improvement and one to manage the human side of the change, the transition.
Many books have been written on the difficulties we human beings have with change in our lives. Who Moved My Cheese is among the most popular. But the best theory on why this is so and what to do about it comes from Bill Bridges and his book, Managing Transitions.
Research shows that most of us are more comfortable with the present, even a miserable present, than we are with an unknown future. This results in a resolve to stay in what is known, even if uncomfortable, and a resistance to change. Resistance can also stem from experiencing past changes that went sour and ended badly. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we may have experienced proposed changes that we put our faith in, but then those changes never happened. For all these reasons, we resist change.
So, if resistance is inevitable, why not just force the change down your subordinates’ throats and remove anyone who opposes? Well, that is both risky and expensive.
The cost of badly managed transitions
Bridges cites research that shows conclusively that during what he calls “the neutral zone”, that period when we know that change is going to occur but don’t know how it is going to impact us personally, performance declines dramatically. Sick leave goes up, workers’ comp claims go up, output declines.
In some cases, the resultant turmoil is enough to derail the change project. In others, it means that the cost of the change project goes up dramatically, customers can be lost in the interim, and there is a higher number of employee casualties, i.e. staff who are unable to make the transition. Therefore, ignoring the human side of change and ramming the change through, even if we know it is a strongly positive change, isn’t the answer. There is simply too high a cost and too large a risk of failure.
In planning and managing change for our clients, we train them on “transitions” theory, how to spot those who are having difficulties in this “neutral zone”, and how to aid them in getting through it. We also help the client develop a detailed plan to manage the transition that runs parallel with the plan to execute the physical parts of the change.
Here are the key elements to such a plan:
- Sell the “why” of the project throughout the organization – particularly to impacted staff. This is largely the job of leadership. You cannot simply announce the change and its importance and expect people to get on board. Their tendency is to cling to the past, to not believe that the change is sound or possible and therefore to resist it. Selling the change never ends until the project is complete. See our earlier newsletter on the “big why” for more on this.
- Implement some sort of ceremony to put the past to rest. Burn the old manuals, old software, conduct a funeral for the old way. Send a signal that we are not going back, no matter how rough the road ahead.
- Define what change will mean for individuals as soon as possible. Changes in jobs, changes in space, changes in equipment, changes in co-workers, changes in policy, changes in what customers they work with (i.e. relationships that will change) are all vital to communicate clearly and early. Understanding all the ways staff will be impacted by the change is essential to helping them get through it.
- Understand where each impacted individual and group is in the transitions process and implement specific tactics to help move them along.
- COMMUNICATE. In the end it is all about communication — where we are in the process, necessary revisions, new updates. This can be an exhausting task for leadership, but it is a critical one.
Managing change is tough work, and often frustrating because people don’t get it quickly, etc. Just remember the price of not managing transitions is very high indeed.
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If you would like more information on managing transitions, a tool for assessing your readiness to do so or help putting together a transitions plan, contact us.
The rest of the story
To read the rest of the articles in this series on change click on any of the links below: