Articles | September 23, 2021

Effective change management strategies

In every organization, at some point, there is a need for change. This may relate to new processes, roles, the implementation of a new system, or strategy. How can we make sure that we are making a change not just for the sake of it, but actually for the better? The key is an effective change management strategy.

   

The only thing that lasts is change

Probably we have all heard the expression that the only constant in life is change. Heraclitus of Ephesus, who explored the concept of change in ancient times, wrote about it. In the 21st century, in the era of constant change, wise change management is more important than ever before. The world is trying to keep up with the need to do more and faster, the digital transformation is moving at breakneck speed, and long-term planning looms large in almost every industry. This is why an effective change management strategy is key nowadays, not only in life, but also in business.

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Possible changes in the organization

Regardless of the sector and area of activity, almost every company is faced with the need to change at some stage. Here we mean the whole range of possible transformations – from changes at the organizational and process level to changes related to the software used.

Some examples of changes that organizations are facing nowadays:

  • A merger with another company – taking over another company, or being taken over, involves a number of activities at the management, administrative, PR and branding levels (such as familiarizing employees with the elements of visual identification, adjusting the appearance and equipping the office according to the standards of the new organization).
  • Implementation of new processes – for example, establishing new rules of cooperation between departments, new workflow, including new departments in a given process, etc.
  • Changes to the project management model – e.g. switching to an agile project management model, implementing Agile methodologies, which is associated with training, gaining knowledge and respecting good practices, having the right tools (e.g. Jira) and roles (for example Agile Coach, Scrum Master, Product Owner).
  • Change of location – this may be associated with relocating a selected department or the entire company as well as closing an office and moving services to another city or country.
  • Changes in the company’s strategy – the time when it was sufficient to have one strategy that would last for years has come to an end. Changing strategic goals can be a turning point in any organization and trigger a variety of other actions.
  • New goals, new directions and areas of activity – opening up to new markets or cooperation with new industries often require setting up new departments (e.g. development of the customer service department for international cooperation, etc.).
  • Changes at the managerial level – if the company is in a process of transition, such as merging with another organization, there may be significant changes at the managerial level and a new division of responsibilities.
  • Implementation of a new system – for example, switching to a new Business Intelligence class reporting and analytical tool, or a CRM or ERP system. The implementation of a new system often involves the need to conduct a business analysis, carry out a project, and at the  organization or department level it includes acceptance tests (UATs), as well as planning and organizing training.
  • Cooperation with an outsourcing partner – delegating some tasks to an external company (e.g. outsourcing software development services) also translates into a number of new processes, the need for risk management, managing access to infrastructure, a new division of responsibilities, working out the best communication methods, and is sometimes associated with business travel. In the case of cooperation with many IT providers, it is also important to have an appropriate vendor management strategy in place.

Change – why do we need it? What to start with

As we can see, there can be different kinds of transformations. Likewise, there are many approaches which can help us navigate this difficult process (for example, the popular 7R in change management). For our purposes, let’s consider change management to mean the ability to answer particular questions. We can use the questions suggested by the SMART concept (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound), which are helpful in setting goals and project management.

  • What? What will change (will it be a process, methodology, company name or software?). This is how we will define the scope of the change.
  • Why? Why do we want to change something? What do we want to achieve through this change? Awareness of the ‘Why’ behind the change helps to define and understand its purpose and effect.
  • When? When would we like to introduce a change and when could the process of change actually begin? When will the change be implemented and how long will the entire process take? Answering these questions at an early stage will help to outline and then refine the plan for change implementation.
  • Who? Who has made the request to change, who will carry it out and who should be notified and involved in it (and how)? Who will be impacted by the effects of this change? Thanks to this knowledge, it will be easier to divide responsibilities related to implementation, communication strategy, as well as identifying potential risks.
  • How? How will the change be carried out?How will it affect employees, processes and other ongoing changes in the company? How to divide responsibilities and minimize the potential risk? How will we check if the change has brought the desired effect and how can we measure the effectiveness of our actions?

Effective change management strategies

How to translate the answers to the above questions into specific actions, and how can we be sure that the key areas will be addressed? Here are 7 effective change management strategies:

  • Define the goal – teams that develop software in an agile manner use so-called user stories. For example: “As a user, I want to have a new button in the application so that I can send data easier without having to copy it from Excel”. Can you define your change in a similar way? Understanding the goal and who the changes are intended to serve helps to clear up any doubts and overcome resistance from people who are reluctant to try new things.
  • Plan the stages – in agile methodologies, teams plan their work in such a way that functional parts of the developed software are created in 2-3-week Sprints (iterations), and dedicated meetings (Daily, Review, Retrospectives) allow them to monitor progress. A similar strategy can also be used when implementing changes, e.g.  by planning check-ins. Consider change a continuous improvement process, and allow room for employee feedback. At the same time, communicate quick wins, the first effects of changes (even the smallest ones). Thanks to this, it will be easier for others to see the earliest results and understand the meaning of the changes.
  • Define the impact – risk management is a broad issue, but when aiming for change, you also need to spend time analyzing and assessing its effects and potential risks. For example: does the new process mean the need for additional roles in the team? Can the system update results pertaining to the loss of data or inaccessibility of data? Ultimately, this will help you to determine whom you will need to involve.
  • Engage others – it is about engaging (as early as possible) people at managerial (after all, changes include costs, time and investments), organizational and communication levels (change management, change leaders or change owners as well as those responsible for communicating changes). Remember to include your company’s employees – they can also help to identify areas for improvement or, from their perspective, those which are impossible to change. This way, you will stimulate creativity and initiate discussion and willingness to change. It is worth noting that commitment is also very important in Agile development teams – each team member is committed to and responsible for success. Maybe this Agile strategy could also be used in the process of change?
  • Have a resistance plan – you may expect that change won’t come easy to everyone. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, who researches the psychology of change, distinguished two approaches: the challenge mindset and the fixed mindset. People who are characterized by the former will see change as an opportunity for development. In the case of a fixed mindset, people will rather try to defend the status quo. Have you considered the objections your employees may have when it comes to the proposed changes? Try to put yourself in their shoes: which of the current solutions will they defend and why? Maybe they will be afraid of managerial changes, moving to a new team or group layoffs? When it comes to implementing a new system, they could have doubts related to its functioning or they may simply be used to the old solution. It is worth considering all this beforehand prior to talking with them, so as not to leave any doubts or uncertainty. As you can see, similarly to the Agile methodology, a flexible approach to changes can bring more benefits than the fixed mindset.
  • Base changes on best practices – when it comes to managing change in the context of IT services, there are sets of good practices, such as ITIL Change Management (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), which help to set priorities and make you aware of the benefits and risks of change management, but also requires testing of all changes and having a fallback plan.
  • Ensure transparency – transparency and open communication are important throughout the change process, and so is a well-thought-out communication strategy (who communicates, what is communicated, when and how)? Also, in Scrum projects, good communication is more valuable than comprehensive documentation. So how to communicate? This is where the strategy of “honesty is the best policy” will work. Drawing a full picture, including the possible risks and obstacles, will not only allow employees to comprehend the matter at hand, but also help strengthen the image of the leader/owner of the change.

Change management strategies and organizational culture

According to research by the analytical company Gartner, 80% of employees experience cultural tensions related to changes in the workplace. Change may give rise to all kinds of doubts – most often related to such aspects as velocity vs. quality or financial results vs. employee satisfaction, for example:

  • “Maybe we will work faster but what about the quality?”
  • “How does this relate to the organizational culture and company values?”
  • “The change will improve the company’s financial performance, but will employees be satisfied with the way they do this particular work?”
  • “Will these innovative solutions and technologies really improve our performance? Or maybe the opposite – maybe there will be some problems with these new systems?”

Eliminating cultural tensions is an important element of change management. It is worth bearing it in mind while setting priorities in such a way so that the change is harmonized with the organizational culture. Openness, transparency, a willingness to listen to employees and a properly planned and implemented communication strategy will help to reduce these tensions.

Change management strategies – summary

In change management, effective strategies have a lot in common with Agile software development. In the end, there is one thing to remember: change is to serve people, not the other way around. Going back to Heraclitus: “everything flows” (pantha rhei). Having a change management strategy allows us to understand that everything flows, but also what the source of the change is and where it is heading. In today’s world, characterized by a stream of changes, it is an extremely important skill.