How to make crisis-led change stick

11 June 2020 -

Two people presenting wearing face masksHow do you bring your employees along with you during turbulent times? Here are some critical tools for effective change management - from experts who’ve gone through it themselves

Mark Rowland

A period of disruption – positive or negative – affords managers and leaders the space to experiment. You can try things that may or may not be successful, and your staff and customers will be much more forgiving. They will instinctively understand that you’re trying to respond to the change catalyst - and right now, everyone is in the same boat.

For some, turbulent times themselves have been the catalyst for change, but that’s not always the case. In CMI’s recent webinar, Leading in Turbulent Times: Managing Change, Professor Denise Skinner CCMI, chair of CMI’s East Midlands and Eastern regional board, outlined some of the reasons that business-wide change is occurring. The list includes finance, business improvements, crime, innovation, competition, technology, social changes, and legal or regulatory factors. “If you’re leading change,” Denise says, “it’s crucial that you know why the change is necessary – and you can explain it convincingly to your people.”

She goes on to explain that there are three things we need to understand and accept:

  • Change will always be difficult
  • Change is ongoing and inevitable, no matter how big your organisation or the sector that you operate in
  • In order for real change to take place and stick, it’s essential to get your people on board

The process of seizing and implementing change needs careful management. In turbulent times your people – who will, like you, have experienced all sorts of reactions to change – are more important than ever in making change stick. Whether it’s radical or incremental, emergent or planned, your people are core to the success or failure of change.

Here are some of the most important change management techniques that you’ll need...

Manage change with empathy

Denise and Euan Blair, guest speaker in the webinar and CEO of apprenticeships startup WhiteHat, agree that empathy must be an integral part of your change management programme. You need to understand how change might affect your staff on an individual basis; think about who will be more adaptive to change and who will find it more challenging.

Denise explains that people will either accept change willingly, be persuaded to accept it, leave the organisation or stay put and resist the change. It’s extremely important that you do not dismiss the resisters and traditionalists in your organisation out of hand: “These people might have very valid points of view that you need to hear,” Denise says. “Resistance, viewed through the right lens, can be an important resource for a leader. If you can listen and actively engage with their concerns, it may actually make the change more likely to happen.”

Indeed, Euan says that as WhiteHat scaled, it went from having a close-knit team of generalist staff with responsibility for a lot within the organisation to departments full of specialists. This was hard on some of the original team members, as it felt like they were losing responsibility. Euan and his managers needed to make sure that staff had a real understanding of why things were changing, and give them the right support when needed. “We spend a lot of time encouraging people to feel comfortable giving away their Legos,” he says.

Keep lines of communication open

Just as communication is essential for managing the status quo, it’s vital if you’re ever going to be able to bed in change. Take the current situation caused by Covid-19, for example: communication has been a key element of the change, as we adapt to video meetings and remote working. Translating as many working practices online as possible wouldn’t have been feasible if there was a communication break down.

“You’ve got to be able to articulate your vision clearly and ensure that everyone has a well-defined sense of where you’re going and what you’re trying to achieve,” says Euan. “If you can break that down into a series of staging posts, that’s incredibly helpful.”

Denise used the ADKAR model to illustrate key steps for successfully leading people through change. ADKAR breaks down as:

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to support the change
  • Knowledge of how to change
  • Ability to demonstrate skills and behaviours
  • Reinforcement to make the change stick

By following these steps of communication and support, you should be able to keep the majority of staff onside as you implement changes.

Use multiple change models

In addition to ADKAR, Denise discussed several common change management models, including Lewin’s Force Field Analysis and Kotter’s eight-step model for change which can be useful when creating a strategy to suit your organisation’s needs.

Mapping out the drivers for change and resistance on a force-field analysis can make your situation clearer and encourages discussion around the changes needed and how to implement them. However, the drivers and resistors at the top level of the organisation might not be the same as those on the ground. If using this method, it’s best to create more than one, and encourage input from across the organisation.

Kotter’s model is more focused on people management and maps out useful stages for how to communicate change and engage your people throughout the change process. However, it does simplify things down and doesn’t take into account how your employees might react at each stage.

“In reality, change can feel far more messy...perhaps like the board game Snakes and Ladders, it sometimes feels like we make progress up the ladder, only to slide back down the snake later on,” Denise says. “While this can be disheartening, it’s normal. Change processes are more like a series of linked circles; you can progress from one circle of activity to the next. But equally, you may need to revisit a previous circle more than once.”

As Denise mentions, there’s not a one-size-fits-all model in regards to change management, and there are many resources out there that can inform the route you take when implementing change. For example, you may wish to combine different change models in a way that best suits your business and the people within it. On CMI’s ManagementDirect, you’ll find more useful models and checklists by searching for ‘change management’. For change to stick, getting your people on board - and keeping them there - is absolutely vital.

“It’s consistently easier to bring people with you when things are changing if you’re up front and are prepared to rationalise the actions you’re taking,” says Euan. “What you won’t be forgiven for is inaction and complaining that the things you want to do are too hard. You’ve got to be excited at the prospect of innovation.” This excitement is a great way of motivating your colleagues at the prospect of change instead of fearing it - it also opens up conversations about the anxieties people are experiencing, which you can allay with direct, clear communication.

Anxiety is a natural response to change, and as a manager it’s in your duty of care to use your empathy and communication skills to bring them onto your side.

“It may challenge their norms and push them into thinking differently and acting differently,” finishes Denise. “Change isn’t comfortable for most people, and contrary to what some models imply, there will be those who are reluctant to change and will resist. This is a natural and normal human response to change, but handled constructively it can lead to a better end result.”

You can watch this webinar in full here. Why not check out CMI’s new series of online events, featuring excellent speakers and top presentations - at a time to suit you.