Leading Change Management with Certainty in Uncertain Times

​While change used to be slow and incremental, organizations today face a whole new breed of change— one that’s ...

​While change used to be slow and incremental, organizations today face a whole new breed of change— one that’s fast, disruptive, and unpredictable. The COVID-19 pandemic is just the latest disruption to how businesses operate and highlights the need for ongoing business transformation. Yet, in this “new normal,” business transformation requires a whole new set of guidelines and best practices to ensure its success, especially in an increasingly virtual world.

Effective change management is at the heart of any business-transformation initiative. Without it, businesses risk having a transformation that isn’t fully embraced and supported by their teams. To ensure that you achieve success, you need people with the right mindset and an understanding of why change is needed. Because in the end, organizations don’t change—people do.

Creating a Shared Sense of Purpose

To create alignment among all levels of the organization, transformational leaders must demonstrate the opportunity that change will offer and stay focused on the future. They need to ignite the commitment of others by creating an answer to the “what’s in it for me” question. The ability to help people leave the safety and confines of their current situation and stay focused on an exciting future is critical.

Establishing trust is also critical to preventing lack of collaboration or even intentional sabotage of a change initiative. Leaders will need to build bridges to create a shared sense of purpose among individuals and teams. For example, in an enterprise-wide technology transformation initiative, leaders can cross-train technologists who work with mainframe technologies to learn cloud technologies as a way of building trust across the organization. Leaders can align the purpose of the IT transformation with the overall mission of the company, rather than simply focusing on specific IT projects/changes, so employees can see and buy-in to the bigger picture.

Changing Mindsets

The reality is, any change initiative will fall short of its potential if it doesn’t address the underlying mindsets and capabilities of the people who will execute it. Leaders will need to secure sponsors, influencers, and supporters for the people who will do the work over a sustained, often multi-year, transformation. In fact, researchfrom McKinsey indicates that if companies can identify and address pervasive mindsets at the outset, they’re four times more likely to succeed in organizational-change efforts than companies that overlook this step.

Executives will need to ask: What are the mindsets we need to keep and what are those we need to change? One of the most effective ways to uncover employee mindsets is through focus groups that involve all levels of the organization. These focus groups can help leaders better understand the current mindsets of workers and discover what obstacles they may face in gaining buy-in, which can be used to further educate stakeholders about the long-term vision and opportunities derived from the change. Executives can also use behavioral assessments to identify who in the organization has the right skills, competencies, and behavioral traits to drive real change and excel in their role.

Communicating the Change

The change process typically requires normal communication channels to be enlarged and more frequent, particularly now in a more virtual workplace. Communication must be honest and ongoing to build commitment and keep up momentum. Remember that employees and other stakeholders need information and answers more than ever during a time of transformation. It will be important to share information on a regular basis to avoid any misinformation. 

Consider that in a virtual environment, there tends to be high use of email communication. However, emails can often be misread or misinterpreted. There is a risk of conveying something in the wrong way because you can’t see visual clues or the body language of people. Leaders may want to consider leveraging visual communication technologies to achieve that visual communication and interaction.

Define, Measure, and Celebrate Success

Identify important milestones and your estimated timeline for each. Build frequent formal reviews of the transformation project into the plan. For most initiatives, a formal review at least every eight weeks is prudent. However, certain more-complex projects may require a more frequent review schedule. Scheduling milestones and assessing their impact are the best ways for executives to review the execution of projects, identify challenges, and spot new risks. This view of events will help the leaders make an informed decision about a general timeline for the transformation.

Decide what you’ll measure, such as timeliness, goal achievement, responsiveness, etc. Choose the standards of measurement you’ll use, including frequency, speed, improvements, cost savings, and more. Also, determine what methods of measurement will be used, such as interviews, surveys, input, data analytics, etc. Create a baseline of what success will look like and regularly benchmark progress against it.

Celebrating milestones and achievements, both big and small, will go a long way in maintaining engagement, excitement, and incentives for desired mindsets and behavior. Consider creating a transformation incentive plan tied to milestones and use the resulting revenue generation to reward employees. Celebrations allow people to enjoy the fruits of their labor and provide an opportunity to reinforce the organization’s new culture. During times of transition or change, it’s critical to reward your employees for their extra efforts.

Crisis Can Lead to Opportunity

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the global pandemic, it’s that organizations and people are able to implement change rapidly and learn to adapt. Companies will reflect on change management efforts during this time and use those learnings for future transformations—identifying best practices as well as shortfalls. Leaders will need to embrace this moment as an opportunity to create change now and in the future.

Exceptional transformational leaders will embrace complexity and become more energized when the requirements of a situation change. They’ll manage pressure well and cope with setbacks effectively, rather than flee from challenges. Arguably, the ability to be an effective change agent is the new requirement for leadership success.