Strategic change projects that have been commissioned from the top of the organisation can have wide-ranging effects on the employees that are impacted by them.
Imagine, for example, a decision to roll out a new CRM system across the company, or the decision to move the company’s headquarters to a cheaper location further away from the city centre. Whereas some employees may welcome the change, others will oppose it.
The Human Impact of Projects
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for managers who lead projects to focus on the technical aspects of getting the job done, rather than the human impact of the change. As a result, the projects may deliver a successful output (i.e. a new system or a new office) but fail to deliver a successful outcome and benefit because the efficiency gain is limited when people aren’t fully bought into the change.
If the users don’t like a new IT system, or don’t see the point of it, they will work with lower levels of productivity and be a drain on the team supporting the system. The same is true for the office move. If people perceive that they are going to be worse off in the new offices, their work ethic and productivity will drop. They may even find a job elsewhere.
You may feel that the above examples are exaggerated, but overlooking the human impact of strategic change happens over and over again.
I remember a time from my own corporate career when the emotional side of an IT project was very poorly handled. The company I worked for had two different order-handling systems for different product lines and decided that they wanted to consolidate everything into one system.
The decision, which wasn’t officially communicated to staff, began to circulate as a rumour. The news was upsetting because the two order-handling systems were supported by two different teams with different skill sets.
No one understood the reason or the consequences of the consolidation, and there were many open questions about the impact and what would happen to the redundant team. Would they be retrained and offered other jobs, or would they be made redundant and lose their job?
The uncertainty carried on for over a year.
The affected team members began to leave the organisation because they felt unsafe and because they were being left out of the decision-making process. No one likes to have a change imposed on them that they think will negatively affect them.
As it happened, this strategic change could have been turned into a positive event had it been handled properly. The two teams could have been involved in the change process and been given a chance to understand the benefits right from the start.
So how can organisational leaders – and project managers – involve people in the process and deliver a long-term success where the stakeholders support the change?
Share an Inspiring Vision
The first step in bringing people on-board has to be communicating the vision of the initiative.
People crave certainty, clarity and information and they want to understand why the change is happening. Too many leaders are uncomfortable stepping up and leading with vision and don’t recognise the importance of it. But it’s vital that the employees understand what the project is trying to achieve and that their managers are open and honest about it.
If senior management doesn’t yet have all the answers, it’s better to say that than to say nothing.
Ideally, the managers should share a vision that’s inspiring and that makes people feel ignited and motivated. What are all the good reasons for the office move? How will the new offices look? What facilities will they have and what new opportunities will arise as a result? Telling a coherent and appealing story – without making people feel that they are being sold to – is an art rather than a science.
When it’s done well it engages the audience emotionally and shows people how they fit in.
Make the Status Quo Less Appealing
It would also be wise for the Change Manager to highlight all the reasons why the change is required and why the status quo is not an option.
Many people don’t like change because it makes them feel uncertain, and so they would rather stick with what they know.
From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are wired to keep us safe and to respond to potential danger. When we are faced with an organisational change our instinctive reaction kicks in because it makes us feel unsafe. We know what we have, but we don’t know what we will get.
One of the easiest and fastest ways to shift humans away from the way they’ve always done something and into a new place is to make the status quo unappealing. This means that managers have to point out the challenges, risks, and downsides of staying in the existing offices or continuing to use an existing IT system and thereby making the status quo less appealing.
The message must be delivered in an honest and authentic way and the employees must not feel that they are being sold to or manipulated.
Address People’s Emotional Upset
Sharing an inspiring vision, communicating more and making the status quo less appealing may not be sufficient to win the employee’s support for a strategic change.
In addition, managers need to focus on building trust and removing people’s doubt and fear at an emotional level.
If people aren’t bought into a change it’s because they are uncertain about how it will affect them – consciously or unconsciously. They may believe they will lose something of value (such as status, belonging or competence) or because they fear they will not be able to adapt to the new ways. These concerns won’t disappear until the Change Managers address people’s emotional worries and make them feel safe.
How can organisational leaders do that? By entering into a dialogue with people and listening to each person’s concerns.
In addition to one-2-one meetings, managers can facilitate workshops where ideas can surface and be debated in a wider group. They can also send out surveys to elicit views and opinions from staff and set up discussion forums. It’s important, however, that these forums don’t become mechanical processes. There needs to be a real recognition of how people are feeling.
Not surprisingly there seems to be a direct correlation between a manager’s ability to work at a deeper psychological level and bringing about successful change. When embarking on this journey, leaders should consider the human needs of a project team, which I wrote about in a previous post. We have to consider how people’s needs are affected in the short, medium and long-term as a result of the change.