Managing Through Change: Effective Change Management Strategies for Optimal Results

Managing Through Change: Effective Change Management Strategies for Optimal Results

I’m often asked how to effectively manage through change in this fast-paced world where indeed the only constant is change. I’ve dealt with some major changes throughout my career, so I understand firsthand how challenging change management can be. So this week, I’ve put together a guide to effective change management, and the principles apply to changes whether incremental or revolutionary.

Driving Change: My Personal Experience

Whether proactively driving an innovation or transformation agenda, or reacting to an evolving environment, leaders need to be thoughtful about communicating. They need to be empathetic to the unease that change creates in the environment, at all levels of the organization.  

I learned these lessons while working for Hewlett Packard, where one of my most challenging assignments was to be a part of the HP acquisition of Compaq. This was a huge change.  Two separate companies, each leaders in many product areas, and each with vastly different approaches and strategies were going to become one.

The Clean Room

Several months before the acquisition was be approved, employees from both companies were selected to participate in what was called the Clean Room. This team was tasked with designing every aspect of the newly merged company, including:

  • What would a combined sales team look like?

  • What HR system would be used?

  • How should we phase in new supply chain processes?

And so many more.

The Clean Room was more of a concept of confidentiality as opposed to a physical room, however, space was set aside at the headquarters locations in both Houston and Palo Alto for members of the companies to meet.  

There were several considerations in being a part of the clean room. On the positive side, it was an honor to be nominated to be the representative for our business division. I would be part of small team forming the basis of an entirely new company. I also expected a crash course in human dynamics and I figured that I would earn the equivalent of an MBA on mergers and acquisitions and change management.  

The downsides were equally compelling. If the merger was not approved by the shareholders and government, all of the Clean Room members would have to find an innocuous job for the next few years since they would now possess too much competitive information. More immediately, I would be commuting for the six months traveling weekly between Maryland to Texas and California.

Getting a Head Start on the Change

I went all-in, and immediately started working with my counterpart from Compaq to restructure processes, teams, products, and partners. The two of us worked daily for six months on our part of the business which was just one piece of the complex puzzle. Due to regulations, we were not to share any information outside of the members of the clean room.   

This meant that we had a six-month head start over the rest of our teams in terms of the What, Why, When, and How of the changes coming to the new organization. Not only that, we were the team that was making the decisions.

While the change was still not easy, we were responsible for transforming the organization. The rest of the organization had yet to move through the point where they could accept the new company and their role in it, and productively move forward.  

How to Help Your Employees Accept Major Change

Having gone through many changes in my career, I know that accepting change takes time.  The closer you are to being a part of defining and designing the change, the earlier and faster you can move through the stages of change. The farther removed you are, the longer it takes, both in terms of how soon you can start the process and in terms of how long it takes to get to a level of acceptance.  

The Phases of Change

I liken the change management process to the stages of grief authored by  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I do not mean to imply that change is related to grief, rather I want to raise awareness that there are phases that people need to work through to successfully manage  major change either in one’s personal or work life:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining

  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance

It is important for leaders responsible for change management to understand that these stages are very real, and it takes time to process through the cycle. They don’t necessarily occur sequentially, and every person does not go through each step.  

As Clean Room members, we had to progress through these stages in a matter of days in order to deliver constructive output and create our portion of the new company.

Since the rest of the organization was not able to be informed of all of the changes happening at HP, they were stuck in the “negative” stages until the merger was official, and people spoke out regularly about their concerns, creating a tense work environment.

Because of this, a key to change management is not only accepting the change yourself and moving forward, but helping your employees arrive at the acceptance stage, too.

Stage One: Denial

In this stage, Kubler-Ross uses words like confusion, shock, and fear. Some of the phrases I heard from peers were, “This cannot be true.” “This is such a crazy idea - It will never work.” “These two companies couldn’t be more different.”  “Maybe the justice department will decline the merger.”

When such concerns are raised, a leader should remain calm and focus the team on the end state. Remind them of the rationale and benefits of the change as well as implications of not changing. Stop gossip and speculation, which are neither productive nor helpful. Keep your organization focused on doing their job well.  

Stage Two: Anger

A few of the descriptors in this stage are frustration and anxiety. This played out as concerns about their futures: “My career was on track, now I need to compete with someone from another company to save my job.” “This is supposed to be an acquisition but it feels like a merger.” “Isn’t anyone going to ask me for my opinion?”   

Again, when employees express anxiety, remind them of the end state and the criticality of making the change work. Encourage them to ask questions, and answer as openly as you can. Remind them of the need to keep any internal business away from customers, and to continue to deliver outstanding service to customers and partners.

Stage Three: Bargaining

This is the if/then stage. Comments I heard included, “If only I would have taken a different job, then this wouldn’t be happening to me.”  “If the company was run differently we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Responding to hypotheticals is not typically productive, so help your team consider instead what could be done to make the change successful.

Stage Four: Depression

This stage can trigger the fight or flight reflex and also comes with a feeling of helplessness.  As relates to the Clean Room, some of the comments I heard were, “If this is the new way it will be, maybe I should look for another job.” “I gave my whole career to this company and now this merger puts my job in jeopardy.”  

Keeping the team positive and prepared is your best reply. Help each person determine what they can they do to stay productive and be ready to thrive in the new order.  

Stage Five: Acceptance

At this stage, the outcome is inevitable, so it’s time to put a strategy in place to move forward in the new world order. You know you are at this stage when people start talking about things they can do, new ideas to present, new strategies to put in place, and new ways to generate revenue.  

What Steps Can You Take to Accelerate the Time to Acceptance?

You can’t rush people through the phases, but you can help your team get to acceptance quicker by identifying where the failure and resistance points will be, and through over-communicating.

First, identify common failure points.

  • Which groups of employees are at most risk? We have seen middle management who are not invited to form the strategy, yet who need to get on board quickly and lead their teams fall into this category. This group may feel frightened or vulnerable, and a special communications forum for them should be established.

  • Who are the critical employees to get on board early? Identifying key stakeholders and influencers to help drive the change can be beneficial.

  • Which of your customers or partners are you at risk of impacting or losing? Understand how these changes will impact your customer base and proactively put a plan in place to give them “white glove” treatment.

  • Where are your weakest links? Meaning, which processes can fail or be compromised, or which people can be disenfranchised? Be tuned into the entire process lifecycle to track through impacts of the change. Here are some tips for identifying your weakest links from Brian Moran.

Next, create a solid communication plan for both internal and external audiences.

  • Customer Communications: Which of your company executives will call which customers? Which customers will receive an email?  What messages will be delivered?

  • Partner Communications: Which company executives will call which partner execs? What will you communicate via email or webcast? What message will they deliver?

  • Digital Messaging: What will your company communicate via Twitter, LinkedIn, on your website, etc.?

  • Internal Communications: Who are the various audiences that need a series of phone calls? What is the messaging you want each person to walk away with? How will you test that they understand this? How will you establish two-way communication so that your team has a forum to ask questions and get them answered?

When communicating the change agenda, start by ensuring your team understands the rationale – both the end state vision you are aiming for, and the risks of not taking action. Let them know you are completely committed to the change, and that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

Practice empathy by welcoming an open dialog where any question is on the table, and be transparent in your answers to get buy-in. Share the strategy and tactics as well as the roadmap to the end state.

Communicate regularly – here is what we have recently done, here is what we will do next, here is our long term goal. Finally, it is important to celebrate both big and small successes along the way.

All of the advice to driving change can be summed up by one thought: you cannot over-communicate. You know you have successfully completed your change management agenda when your audience says, “We know, you’ve told us that ten times already.”   

Keep in mind that change is uncomfortable for most people, and that moving through to a new end-state will take time. In today’s competitive market where change is the only constant, knowing how to successfully manage through change will give you a competitive advantage.  

What change management tips have worked for you? Share them in the comments, or let us know on Twitter.

This article was originally published in May 2018 and has been updated.

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