Change management, as a strategic company asset, only began to be openly valued in the 1990s. Since then the field, which surrounds including employees in company changes, has evolved and its importance has been formalised: bachelor and master degrees in change management emerged not too long ago, and HR departments now employ specialists in this area. It seems unlikely that this field's rise has nothing to do with a general trend in employee psyche: a poll carried out in the US1 supports what's now accepted as a general truth, that younger workers value happiness and inclusion at work, contrasting to older workers who value income and skill acquisition.
The value of change management is twofold. First, when done well, companies can pivot quickly to seize opportunities (a new technology, for example) or to minimise unforeseen threats like a CEO's departure, plummeting share price, or a tough new regulation. For example, Shell, amidst a crisis in 2004, hastily but effectively updated its processes and structure worldwide in order to preserve its market share. And second, keeping employees—especially the millennial generation, some of whom are into their thirties already—abreast of the when, why, and how of change keeps them committed, included, and energised.
As an HR professional, I have seen many mistakes when it comes to change management. My team and I, comparing notes on our various experiences, have put together the following list of three common pitfalls to be wary of.
1. Change for change's sake—or the perception thereof
Business gurus and conference hounds are constantly shouting about change, change, change—transform your technological capacity, slim down for increased competitive edge, plan better for regulatory changes! For the most part, they're right: you need agility to stay on top. However, such talk is mostly aimed at the C-suite. From an HR perspective, I would like to point out how easily talk of change can come across negatively to employees, who have plenty of daily concerns other than the company's exact position in the field. A CEO might be excited over a new robotic process automation solution, but employees will instantly assess its relevance to their own skills and livelihood.
For that reason, it's important to ensure that employees understand that change isn't happening for change's sake—that it isn't pointless—and to keep in mind that they will have a much lower threshold for perceiving it that way. (As they should, not being in the C-suite themselves. And many of them don't ever want to be. Remember that!) So don't overstress the efficiency that will be gained or the money saved at the company level. Frankly, they won't care that much, because these are C-suite concerns. Instead, through project sponsors who are motivated, visible, and effective, communicate honestly: show that this change is vital for the company's success and that you, as the employee, are best-placed to carry it out. Make sure employees know what's in it for them and that their effort is highly prized by the company. Indeed, it is.
2. Whitewashing your workforce
The faulty medium of language makes simplification easy: the people whose varied skills and experience collectively effect a company's success are easily referred to as "the workforce," "employees," "staff," "personnel"—but none of these terms does them justice. An IT specialist won't see herself as having much in common with an HR recruiter, so approaching them in the same way is a mistake. Not only will the messaging perhaps be less relevant to one than the other, but both will sense that they are being spoken to as part of a generalisation, and this is unpleasant.
Thus, when assessing the impact of your change programme, don't neglect the micro level. Will this team of four people become a team of three? Will this employee have to embrace a new role, that one not, and this other one a new method using new tools? Be clear about such changes: don't invite someone a meeting where learning new processes is even mentioned if he won't need to learn them. It will make a difference that each communication is personally tailored, that it's evident that each person's future was specifically brought up in the boardroom.
3. Thinking that the book of change has been closed
When you ask employees to change their ways, they'll never forget it. Especially if it's wholescale, intense, hard—people will still remember it five, ten, thirty years later. And why shouldn't they? Change is an interesting feature of life. This doesn't (necessarily) mean that they will resent the company forever or privately fight the change—but the best-case scenario isn't that the employee does what is asked, but that she owns her new role or methods. And embracing change doesn't happen when the change happens—the go-live is only the starting point.
For that reason, stay in touch with every team. Use pulse surveys, and capitalise on the work you did analysing each team before you communicated the change in the first place. Have people adjusted, or are they overworked? Has each team member embraced his new responsibilities? Reiterate messages, take corrective actions, or in the case of positive feedback share that good news as a company win.
For several years now, my team and I have been helping clients on different transformation projects, from implementing new IT tools to reorganising their activities globally. Our approach has been to customise our 4-step change management methodology, considering the specificities of each change programme and organisation. Turning an ambition into a successful and sustainable reality is our goal every time.
1 Moore, Karl. "Millennials Work For Purpose, Not Paycheck" (Forbes)
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.