Preparing for Change Readiness
An organisation starting well-prepared on any kind of change is the ideal scenario for most of us. But it’s hardly ever the reality that greets us at the door. No comms, no plan, no staff, no time and/or no sponsor. We’ve all been there. And we’ve all tried to make it work. And I know I failed more than I succeeded.
We use active language like: ready, deliverables, resolution and sprints that create a (false) sense of urgency that is often reflected in nervous outbursts of laughter, a flurry of planning activities and a zealous focus on training. And then there’s resilience, engagement, empowerment and agility. Because, you know, change is constant and we have to stay ahead of it all!
Really? Do we? All of us, all the time, for every change? Sounds exhausting, right?! And a bit silly. First, we say that change takes time, is a constant, happens one person at a time and requires continuous correction. Oh, and people need to be brought along on the journey at their own pace. And then we slam them with Gantt charts, assessments, heat maps, stakeholder impact analyses and other terrible things that tell them next to nothing, but sound like a world of hurt. No wonder people tune out. It makes no sense. How do you even make that work?!
The traditional way of regarding change readiness (planned, phased, structured and rolled out) feeds the illusion of control that will continue to sink many change projects before reaching their destination. It comes down to applying generic approaches and information to unique situations, expecting the outcome to work for the general majority. And then we act all surprised and #offended when people don’t just go along and do what they’re told. “Well yes, this is the first time they hear about it, but we’ve been working on it for six months! Why don’t they just trust us to have their best interest at heart and do as they are told?!” Why not indeed.
Just last month I spoke with four different organisations across the (Western) world about getting teams ready for some kind of change. They were all 3-5 months away from implementation of either a system, new way of working or a new building. 500 to 5,000 employees impacted. All of them were change professionals and (very) late additions to the project. Some projects had been going for 2-3 years already. No comms support, no real timeframe aside from a delivery date and not a single one had initiated meaningful end-user engagement. Staff had not been told anything aside from some generic messaging in last quarter’s newsletter. This is June 2019 we’re talking, not 1999…
I told them that to experience even a modest degree of readiness in three months from now, they better abandon everything the model, theory or plan told them to do and communicate as if their (professional) life depended on it. That’s all they would have time for. They said they’d think about it.
Okay, so what is the better option to get teams ready? It’s a really short list. 1) start early and 2) be transparent about outcomes
I’ve done one change too many where I get brought in (very/too) late to try and fix or ‘rescue’ matters that could have been easily avoided if they just shared information in the first place. On the few occasions that I succeeded (and I use that term very loosely), the organisation resolved to do better next time. Only to hire me back later for the exact same thing in a different setting. Textbook definition of insanity, anyone?
Over the past 5 years I’ve come up with a list of things to avoid when preparing for change. It might actually be a terrible list, going by my success rate. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Things to avoid when preparing for change readiness:
Thinking in absolutes
Change is a lot of grey and little black and white. Depending on the area, team and phase you are in, the levels of required readiness will differ. That’s okay, as long as you take the time to appreciate the differences and align your activities with what is needed instead of what you/the plan/the CEO wants for them. You’ll be mostly wrong.
Insisting everyone needs to be on board for success
Not every change affects every team or person equally. And not everyone will care. Most people will be okay with the change, some will never be. This is true about everything in life, so stop wasting your (and everybody’s) time trying to drag people onto the train. Maybe point them towards the bus stop instead.
Ignoring EXISTING expertise, capability and capacity
Most teams know their own shortcomings and where they need help to make a change work for them. If you take the time to listen and make it clear you are there to help them, not the other way around, you’ll be surprised how many supporters you will find for the change.
Complicating things with ‘big picture’ plans, schedules and analyses
Like any profession we love to create important sounding tools with big words and 5+ syllables. These often just intimidate the people in our care (execs and staff alike) and make them feel overwhelmed, unprepared and inadequate. Probably not what we’re aiming for…So keep it as simple as possible and understand that our priority is often just a side-event on a busy day for them.
Assuming everyone sees the change with equal clarity
Chances are that if you’ve been working on a plan for three months in the background, you know all the ins and outs of the change. That’s you and a very small group of (executive) people. You are the minority. If it took you three months with little distraction and one focus, what is reasonable to expect for the vast majority to work it through in their heads? Three months? Six months? Probably not the one info session scheduled four weeks ahead of go-live. Share the process, involve them in it, be transparent and let them co-create the change to inspire feelings of ownership. This is the only thing that has never failed to work for me.
Expecting teams to make up time wasted in board rooms and executive meets
You’ve all been on the receiving end of this, so no need to belabour the point. This practice of ‘making up time in operations’ is the number one cause of change failing in my view, even before finding a good change sponsor.
Big Bang Chaaaange!
I hate big-bang change and try to avoid it at all cost. It displays a lack of preparation, maturity, insight, creativity and accountability. It has an air of lazy disregard for people’s well-being about it that never fails to upset me. Also, it hardly ever (never) works as expected, but never fails to create chaos, confusion and anxiety. And all that because we couldn’t be bothered to start in time? Wow. The only times big-bang change could possibly be justified is if the business is truly at risk of expiring or if struck by an unforeseen disaster not of your own making.
We can help our clients do much better when it comes to change readiness. It has little to do with all kinds of assessments, mitigation plans and engagement sessions and everything with early involvement, using existing capabilities and being transparent.
How ready are you for that?