Change management – more important than ever

Since the beginning of 2020, one serious crisis has followed another. In many areas, we had to and still have to separate from old habits. As things look like in September 2022, there are still some more serious changes ahead of us. These will affect everyone: the whole country, companies and private households. There is the often quoted phrase “We will come out of the crisis much stronger”. It is possible that this will be put to the test during these times. But sitting it out definitely cannot be the solution. There has been a lot of talk for months about the so-called turn of the times. I call it a strategic inflection point. I already dedicated a blog article to this topic at the end of 2019. If you come to a strategic inflection point, you need effective change management.      

Implementing new strategies

The term change management is mostly used in the corporate world, usually whenever a company has to realign itself due to a strategic inflection point. Merging with another company, entering new markets, introducing new products or technologies, cutting costs or fighting against customer dissatisfaction. The same is certainly true for governments. The current situation is possibly the biggest strategic inflection point for Europe and especially for Germany. For companies as well as for the states, it is not enough to plan and announce a new strategy. You need to take all employees or the majority of the population with you. Behavioral patterns must be changed, new tasks have to be performed and old rules must be adapted. All this inevitably leads to extensive changes that are not always successful, but can also fail.

What is change management?

Change management encompasses all projects, activities, measures and tasks that are intended to drive change in an organization. It is mostly about following a new strategy, changing grown structures, renewing technical and organizational systems, improving processes or influencing and changing behaviors. In business environments, change is a core feature. But in many cases, people try to avoid change and only react to change when there are no more alternatives. Ideally, you get prepared early by organizing change proactively forward-looking. This typically affects many or even all employees, which in turn involves great risk. Is the need for change understood and accepted by everyone? Is everyone pulling in the same direction? You need active change management to overcome these challenges.

Change management starts on a small scale

Changes in a company affect the individual and every workplace. Just the transfer of an employee to another department or the change of a very specific work process that only affects a small group can challenge the company as a whole. Even these small changes can lead to disruptions and conflicts that paralyze the entire team. Absolutely crucial here is the corporate culture, i.e. the extent to which it allows such changes. If even the smallest change leads to major distortions, major changes are unlikely to succeed. It is important to mention here that change projects are often initiated without any reason at all. A new manager, for example, likes to distinguish himself by leaving his own “footprint” introducing new concepts and thus initiating changes that are often completely unnecessary. You have to recognize the real need for change and then also evaluate which changes are really necessary.

Take everyone with you

It is very important that management recognizes the pace at which the changes are implemented. This, in turn, is very much dependent on the extent to which those affected are willing to go along with the change and cope with it. Successful change management stands and falls with whether you can really get everyone on board. Depending on the project, this can be easier or more difficult. The group of people affected can be roughly divided into three parties: the enthusiastic, the hesitant and the rejecters. From my own experience, the distribution of these groups is very fluctuating, with the hesitant certainly always having the largest share. The trick now is to get the enthusiasts more involved and also turn many of the hesitant into enthusiasts. Winning the radical rejecters is in most cases a waste of time. But not only the employees, also many managers often do not recognize why changes are necessary. This then leads to important decisions being postponed and change is only initiated when it is almost too late. This often does not leave enough time for effective change management.

Change management in four steps

Effective change management must be well planned. The first step is to identify and understand the reason for change. Why do we need to change and what exactly needs to be changed? The better we define this, the easier the second step will be, namely the initial communication with those affected. Good communication determines success or failure right from the start. Those affected want to be informed, but they also want to be involved. The better you do this, the larger the group of enthusiasts will be. The third step involves concrete planning, implementation and monitoring of the project. It should be clear to everyone where the changes will lead, what is planned in concrete terms, and what it entails for each individual. Successes should be celebrated and the old habits should be cut off. In the last step, the change project should also be properly terminated so that it does not continue to be present somewhere below the surface being fed again with new content. Concrete KPIs will prevent this. They will show exactly: we have successfully completed the project. And it will be clear then for everybody affected that once again there is a stable environment.

Good change management is not a foregone conclusion

Anyone who believes that change can simply be ordered top-down by management will definitely get shipwrecked. Most people react to change with uncertainty and fear. This will be amplified when those affected suddenly need new skills or when the changes happen completely unexpected. When the workload increases or even jobs are lost. When the need for the change is not recognized because everything is working quite well so far. When it is unclear where all this is supposed to lead or simply because people already have bad experience with past change projects. It is very important that management stands credibly behind the desired change and is not obviously driven by other influences. As already mentioned, the corporate culture must ultimately also fit the desired changes – and vice versa. Managers and employees must be convinced of the need for change. Then it will succeed. That is why it is so important to inform and involve all those affected in good time and, above all, to be a role model of willingness to change. Lat but not least, you should remember that in most change projects there are always losers. In the worst case, employees who will lose their jobs. Fair treatment of those people should go without saying.   

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