Managing Change

This is a guest article by Pete Davey from t2 Management Training.

It’s been well publicised recently that the general state of the global economy has forced many organisations in all industry sectors to review the way they operate; this means having to consider changing working practices, from applying lean thinking to established processes and procedures; to dealing with the impact of having to reduce budgets and costs.

We can no longer drive into the future whilst looking out of the rear view mirror. What worked before may not work now – the business environment has changed.”
Rosabeth Kanter, Management Consultant


The business environment compared with that of 20 years ago is now very different, and the ability of being able to respond to change is now a key function of leadership that requires many different skills. Typically, leadership exists at different levels within an organisation, and the way each level copes with change and directs the transformation, will determine how the whole organisation will change and more crucially, sustain the change.

In 1995 the Industrial Society published a report - Managing Best practice No. 16 (1995) Change Management, which clearly highlighted how leadership skills - or lack of them - were the biggest barrier to implementing and sustaining workplace change. In today’s business environment, many people still view the lack of leadership skills as the biggest barrier to successful implementation.

So what is it that makes managers and leaders alike, so bad at driving through a successful change initiative?

Research suggests that all employees have a psychological reaction to change that follows a typical pattern:

  • Shock
  • Denial
  • Demotivation
  • Letting go
  • Experimenting
  • High performance

A manager / leader who’s aware of this pattern will better understand the emotions employees feel and the behaviours they give rise to. In turn, this will allow them to better adapt their own leadership style and take appropriate actions to help those affected by change move through the typical reactions. This will lead to more effective change implementation, higher morale, more buy-in, more co-operation and will minimise disruption to the business.

The stress that employees feel during times of change is usually caused by feeling they have little or no control. They feel that change is done to them rather than with them. As a manager, you can increase employee control and security through involvement, consultation, effective communication, explaining the need for change, emphasising benefits, implementing change professionally/fairly, acknowledging feelings, etc.

In particular, information and involvement will reduce the length of the dip in performance by helping people come to terms with the change sooner.

So what does this have to do with leadership? The essence of leadership is recognising that change is necessary and making it happen with and through others.

If you are a leader or manager currently contemplating a change of some description, here are some tips (based around John Kotter’s eight stage model) that will allow you to drive the process through with the minimum of disruption to your organisation and the maximum of co-operation from your people.

1.    Create a sense of urgency

The first error in change management is failing to emphasise the gravity of the situation. Failure to create a strong sense of urgency causes a change movement to lose momentum before it gets a chance to start. Establishing a true sense of urgency without creating an emergency is the first objective achieved to overcome the routine of daily business.

2.    Create a coalition

The momentum required to overcome inertia is best generated by a coalition of influential, like-minded people. Unless change is to be implemented by dictate, it’s essential to get the buy-in of key people at an early stage. It is essential for you to have the right people in place with the trust, emotional commitment and teamwork to guide the difficult change process. Members of the coalition would need to be powerful enough to guide and influence others to accept change, and one that works well together.

3.    Develop a vision and strategy

Change is the result of dissatisfaction with present strategies, it is essential therefore to develop a vision for a better alternative. All major change efforts require a vision. Vision refers to a picture of the future with some implicit or explicit commentary on why people should strive to create that future. Why is vision so important?

  • It inspires and motivates people
  • It simplifies decision making because people can ask the question, ‘Is this in line with the vision?’

An effective vision is:

Imaginable: It conveys a compelling picture of what the future will look like and the major actions needed to get there

Desirable: Appeals to the long-term interests of those affected, from employees to customers and shareholders

Feasible: The vision must be grounded in a clear and rational understanding of the organisation, its market environment and competitive trends. This is the basis for pursuing worthwhile, achievable objectives

Focused: It is clear enough to provide guidance in decision making

Flexible: It is general enough to allow individual initiative and alternative responses in light of changing conditions

Communicable: A well written vision makes a complex and far-reaching change process easy to understand. Simplicity is essential. If you are unable to describe the vision, or the reasons for driving a change initiative in less than five minutes, and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.

4.    Communicating the Vision/Objectives

The power of a vision can only be released through effective communication. Communication of the vision and/or objectives enables everyone to have a common understanding of the goals of a change effort. When the same message comes at people from several different directions it has a better chance of being heard and remembered. So use as many different methods of communication as possible e.g. one-to-one conversations, meetings, presentations, memos, reports, newsletters, posters etc.

5.    Empower employees

Change usually involves getting things done through others, especially through project teams and key stakeholders. These teams will need power and responsibility to be effective, otherwise they will be little more than talking shops. Influence and persuasion will be important to encourage employees to buy-in and to overcome resistance. This is the grassroots approach to change management which creates ownership for the proposed change within employees and reduces the barriers to that change (Kotter, 1995). So how can we break down those barriers and create a culture that encourages participation and risk taking? We can create a culture that encourages and rewards knowledge sharing, provide employees with opportunities to impact processes and the meeting of goals and promote the successes of those contributions through training and recognition.

6.    Generate some ‘quick wins’

Most of us expect to see convincing evidence that the effort we are making to implement a change is paying off. Usually we want to see the evidence pretty quickly. Towards the start of the implementation of a change initiative, managers / leaders should focus on achieving quick wins andthen publicise them effectively. This will help to build momentum. The underlying principle is that success breeds success.

Later on, if the change effort starts to slow down dangerously or if motivation to change starts to drop off, the manager / leader should consider creating some more quick wins. To adapt a saying: “when the going gets tough, quick wins get you going!”

7.    Consolidate your gains

Declaring victory too soon can be fatal to a change effort. If change is not deeply embedded before the pressure is removed, things are likely to slip back as they were. Similarly, managers / leaders should think carefully before easing up the pressure during the implementation stage. It can be tempting to do this, particularly when people are fatigued by a sustained change effort. People who resist change have a habit of going to ground and waiting for opportunities like this to undermine the gains – so beware!

8.    Embed the change into your organisational culture

Culture refers to norms of behaviour and shared values amongst a group of people. The new changes have to be embedded in the company culture and this means more communication and education of all to ensure that the changes are shared throughout the organisation.

It’s therefore important to remember; lasting change will only be possible if the culture supports it. For this reason, culture may have to be realigned. Emphasizing the benefits of the change effort, and linking it to organizational success, is one way to help anchor the new approach. The idea is to have new practices replace the old culture. (This final step takes time; it comes last in the transformation process).

Summary - Ten rules for stifling change:

Ultimately; if you want your change effort to fail; then follow these steps... Adapted from Kanter, R (1983) The Change Masters, International Thomson Business Press

  1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion – because it’s new and because it’s from below. If you look bored for long enough and fail to get back to the person, you should be able to turn them into a cynic. Never initiate a good idea yourself, it sets a bad example.
  2. Insist that people who need your approval must first get signatures from other levels of management. Hopefully, the opportunity will be missed by the time the recommendation reaches you.
  3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticise each other’s proposals in an atmosphere of suspicion or aggression. (That saves you the job of deciding – you just pick the survivor.) An alternative approach is to keep people as isolated from one another as possible to avoid the benefits of teamwork or brainstorming. Be particularly careful to ensure that internal customers/suppliers never meet to discuss their needs.
  4. Express your criticisms freely and withhold your praise. (That keeps people on their toes.) The more unapproachable you are the less likely your people will be to speak up.
  5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage people from letting you know when something isn’t working. Always shoot the messenger. Publicly.
  6. Control everything and everyone. Be careful to disempower your people whenever you can. Protect your own turf – encourage functional thinking rather than process thinking. If you do accidentally set up a problem solving team make sure you give it responsibility without the necessary power.
  7. Make decisions to restructure or change procedures in private. Spring decisions on people unexpectedly. (This also keeps people on their toes). Avoid employee involvement because buy-in never did anyone any good. End-users don’t know as much as you, do they?
  8. Make sure that information is withheld about company, departmental, team or individual performance. (You don’t want data to fall into the wrong hands.) Treat feedback from external customers as irrelevant gossip.
  9. Delegate to others the problem of figuring out how to implement your capricious (and ruthless) decisions. Equate change with pain, stress, bad decision making and personal loss.
  10. Above all, never forget that you already know everything important about your organisation. If by some miracle you do decide that something needs changing for the better, remember to try and do it all by yourself. Don’t plan, don’t communicate (or if you do look shifty and mumble) and certainly don’t ask for help. Shouting out a few orders should do the trick, shouldn’t it?

About The Author

Pete Davey is a Senior Trainer for t2 Management Training, a specialist management consultancy that provides strategic leadership training and development for company directors and management training for their teams. Based in Cardiff, t2 also have offices in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Reading.