Keys to Successful Change

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I recently read an editorial  in Information Management about how effective project execution can save an MDM or BI project. It was all good, sage advice, but there was one element missing for me.

It’s true that many MDM projects fail due to bad project management, but many others have good project managers and good methodologies and still fail. Why is that? More importantly, how do you avoid the same fate?

My answer is change management.

Not every project needs to address change management, but if your project has any aspect of changing people’s behaviors, attitudes or roles, or has elements that might create resistance, then look into change management.

Most project management methodologies have grown from managing IT projects and reflect the nature of technical implementations and the introspective character of most IT professionals. They are heavy on activities and outcomes and almost devoid of consideration for the human elements and the effect that our change has on them.

Here’s the statement that drives my philosophy: Change happens. Helping make it happen is a choice.

Those impacted by your project have a choice, and you need to do all you can to ensure that they choose to help you. If you don’t manage the change effectively then these people may choose to resist – either actively or passively – and resistance is often the reason projects fail.

Sometimes it may even look as if a project succeeded – we hit the deadlines and made the changes that were planned. However, if we fail to address resistance, the negative impacts will last far longer than the life of the project. Hidden resistance starts when people look for workarounds to avoid changed processes. Many times we are also reliant on the local managers reinforcing our change after we have left. If they harbor resistance, then the change will not be supported and will eventually fail.

How Do I Improve my Chance of Success?

There are no guarantees of success, but there are some techniques that we can employ to improve our chances. This editorial can only cover a few approaches, so I’ll try to make them big ones.

The first step is to think about how you will empower those being changed. People and teams need to be empowered to find their own solutions and responses. In this way they feel ownership of the change and some level of control over what will happen. Otherwise, imposing changes will create problems of resistance, even if the change is beneficial.

Our usual approach as project managers is a controlling one. We decide what happens, when it happens and who will do it. Sadly, while this is great for control, it’s also good at generating resistance. Try to take a different approach to organizational and personnel changes – instead of going in with a list of activities, let’s go in with a set of aims and a timescale, and we can generate the roadmap of activities in partnership with those being changed.

Change management is a structured approach to transitioning individuals, teams or organizations from a current state to a desired future state. Try sharing with them the vision of the future state. Tell them honestly what the benefits are that drive the change and the impact it might have on them. Many changes are beneficial to the organization as a whole but may have negative impacts in specific areas. The people who are negatively impacted are soon going to learn the truth and will have no trust in you if you have “sold” the change to them in a less than open way. Their resistance will be much greater and more hidden if you were not open at this stage.

Once they understand the envisioned future, have the local team explain to you how they currently do things and then have an open discussion on how to move from the current state to the future vision. Get them to think about the risks and issues that might be faced and then plan suitable responses to them. Together you should plan activities for all aspects of the change:

  • Personnel changes (roles, capabilities, attitudes);
  • Process changes (activities, workflows, systems, value change);
  • Resource changes (headcount, workspace, equipment);
  • Risks/issues;
  • Post-implementation reinforcement;
  • Resistance; and
  • Communication.

One of the key considerations during execution of your change is the resistance that you will meet. It may be obvious or it may be concealed, but it will be there. This resistance is a natural reaction and will vary from mild caution to all out aggression. You need to accept it as a normal product of change and be prepared to deal with it.
When planning change, you should create a resistance management plan to address these considerations. This plan should incorporate activities to discover resistance, approaches to overcoming  it and, ultimately, an approach for dealing with those who continue to resist. Such a plan will be unique to the change you are making, how it impacts those involved and the level of power and influence of those who might resist.

Always remain aware of the possibility that a person may be resisting the change because it genuinely is the wrong thing to do.

Communication is the Weapon of Choice to Overcome Resistance

If you are communicating effectively, you will be sending messages that decrease resistance and encourage moving through the change more effectively and positively. Your communications should:

  • Give information that will reduce uncertainty and ambiguity about the change.
  • Pre-empt the hidden information system of the grapevine. Where no message is given, people will create their own mental scenarios, which are usually “worst case.” These will spread very quickly through the grapevine with no opportunity for discussion or response.
  • Provide forums for employees to communicate their reactions and concerns.

Remember that communication is a two-way street. You can uncover a lot of hidden resistance simply by asking a lot of questions about how people feel about things. We usually avoid these questions because we don’t want to face negative feelings. However, the first step in overcoming their anxiety is to understand it. This two-way dialogue is also the only way to ensure that the listener has heard and understood what you have said. Get your audience to reflect back what they have heard and what they feel about it. This is easy to achieve in face-to-face meetings, but you need to plan how this dialogue can be achieved with written communications, too.
There are no guarantees of success; all we can do is try to improve our chances. Good project management helps, but good change management is equally important.

"Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine." - Robert C. Gallagher

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