“Change management is about managing the chaos of changing humans from one habit to another,” says Kim Perkins, an organizational psychologist who has a doctorate in positive organizational technology.
If there’s one word that describes the process of making big changes to big-deal processes, systems, or workflows, that word might be “chaos.” But here’s the good news: making a plan to organize that chaos can yield lasting, positive results.
Whether you’re planning a migration to the cloud or reorganizing your corporate structure, Perkins says that creating a human-centered plan for change management will help you increase buy-in and head off potential problems before they arise.
We asked Perkins to share some of her best insights on how companies can manage change.
what is change management?
Change management involves a structured process for moving from the old to the new. It takes into account all the people, processes, and systems that will be impacted by a change. Whenever an organization plans to make a switch – to a different system, type of software, vendor, or even culture – they can enter into a process of change management.
For example, a cloud migration might impact legal, security teams, and end-users. Working with stakeholders in advance of and during the change can minimize disruption throughout the organization.
What is the process of change management?
Perkins has worked with many organizations that thought they could just tell everyone to stop using one tool and start using a different one. “It sounds really easy,” says Perkins. “All everybody has to do is click a button. And it’s actually one of the hardest things to get people to do.”
That’s why, when Perkins consults with an organization trying to make a change, she uses a human-centered approach that can be broken down into five parts.
Step 1: Figure out who needs to do what
Sometimes you know exactly what you need to do – move your software system to the cloud or use a more secure chat platform. But Perkins often sees clients that want a particular but non-specific result and haven’t figured out what that actually looks like.
For instance, a client might say they want “everyone to be more innovative.” In that case, Perkins would push them to dive deeper. “Does it really need to be everybody? And when you say ‘be more innovative,’ what is it that you want them to do? How would you know if you walked in one day and saw people being more innovative? Who would be doing what?”
Step 2: Identify your champions and saboteurs
Once you’ve identified your end goal, it’s time to find your champions. These are the people that will be cheerleaders for the change and encourage others to get on board.
“When you find them,” says Perkins, “you want to load them up with resources and empower them to go off and carry the banner.”
You also need to identify the people who will oppose or sabotage your change plan. Your level of engagement with these folks depends on their power within the organization. For instance, if the head of IT opposes your big IT change, you could be in for a difficult road.
But Perkins warns that leaders often spend too much time thinking about the people that will oppose a plan. There will always be opposition, but the skeptics can be more than offset by effective champions.
Step 3: Acknowledge the loss
Moving to something new always involves the loss of something old. That means letting go of emotional and financial investments to a previous system. For example, when shifting to the Atlassian Cloud, organizations may have initial concerns about the perceived sunk costs of their server investment, even though moving to the Cloud is very likely to have a better return on investment.
But the emotional costs can be powerful drivers as well. Perkins worked with a film studio that had made several unsuccessful attempts to transition their team from AOL to a more secure messaging service. “When we’re stressed … we do the thing that we know works,” says Perkins. “So if AOL has worked for me for the last 10 years, I’m going to go there when I need a quick answer from a colleague.”
To ease the transition, Perkins encouraged the company to take the loss of AOL seriously. They put a big poster of the AOL running man in the lobby and asked everyone to write their screen name on it, along with a little goodbye.
“Everybody had a great time with it, with the screen name they’d made up when they were 12. People took pictures with it,” says Perkins. It became a cultural moment.
Of course, it doesn’t always need to be a huge process, says Perkins. “It can be taking a moment in a meeting to give some applause to Fred, who wrote our old software system in 1997.”
Step 4: Explain and imagine
Once team members have processed the loss, they’re ready to think about the future.
Leaders need to be open and honest. “Part of what’s necessary,” says Perkins, “is to be realistic with your team that it sucks to have to make a change.” Then explain the external forces that are requiring it.
Perkins cautions that a lack of explanation often leads employees to believe the worst possible thing – that the change is based on ego or one person’s whim.
Making the simple shift to describe the market forces acting on team members will help them identify the possibilities for the future. “When you can see and feel it for yourself, that’s when the real change happens. And that’s when people get on board,” says Perkins.
Step 5: Implement the change
By the time you’ve gotten buy-in, implementation can be relatively straightforward. Some companies hire a change management consultant who specializes in specific technology – such as transferring a software system to the cloud – to help with the actual implementation.
“The most important thing you can do as a leader walks your talk,” says Perkins. Implementation is about you and your champions engaging fully and visibly in the change.
“So if somebody messages you on [an old tool], respond on the new tool you want everyone to use. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many people don’t do this,” says Perkins. “Your example will go a long way.”
See how Redfin partnered with Atlassian to undergo a cloud migration that saved them $60,000.
4 principles of change management
When you’re beginning a change management process, keep these four principles in mind.
- You can’t please everyone. “Not everybody is going to like this, and that’s okay,” says Perkins. “People get really, really focused on the people who are going to oppose this or that. Spend your time instead on who’s going to be in favor of it and why you’re doing it.”
- Change takes time. “When leaders talk about change, they need to talk about it over and over and over,” says Perkins. “If you’re so sick of talking about this, that’s probably the right amount.” Making change takes cognitive effort, and we’re more likely to engage in that effort if we’ve had the time to wrap our minds around it and learn its benefits.
- Visibility is critical. Most people will do what they see everyone else doing. “People often approach change as if you have to go in and convince everyone, and it’s not like that at all. Research says most people – 80% – are going to be fence-sitters. They don’t really care one way or the other. But they won’t do it if they don’t feel like everybody’s doing it.”
- Leadership comes from the top. “If the leaders at the top aren’t doing it, it’s not going to get done,” says Perkins. If employees think it’s a rule they have to follow but management doesn’t, they’ll resist every time.
What can prevent change?
This can come as a shock to leaders – especially new ones – but it’s not a given that people will get on board with a requested (or even a mandated) change. Employees resist changes that they see as based on a leader’s ego, a whim, or the latest fad. And resistance to a particular change isn’t always immediately obvious.
Heard of slow walking?
“It’s a way that people combat initiatives they don’t agree with but don’t feel they have the political power to actively oppose,” says Perkins. It’s a common problem among organizations that have a history of making lots of changes that didn’t work, were ego-driven, or were prompted by short-lived fads.
Then, employees may see new change plans as short-term problems that will blow over if they wait long enough. They verbally cooperate with a change initiative but never quite get around to making the change.
If you’re dealing with a history of unsuccessful changes, you need to acknowledge the past and approach the new change with a change-management process that addresses employees’ resistance.
A leader’s own resistance can stall change as well.
Particularly in situations where organizations are trying to make cultural changes, the path is long and not everyone will get on board. A leader has to be prepared to say goodbye to people who won’t adapt to change. “If you let high-profile saboteurs linger, then everybody’s going to decide you’re not interested in this after all. And they won’t do it,” says Perkins. “That’s a hard choice for a lot of people. But if you’re not willing to make that choice, you’re not ready for a cultural change.”
Which leadership style is best for change management?
You’re probably already aware that a command and control leadership style isn’t the most effective for change management. People embarking on a change need to feel some ownership over the process.
That’s why transformational leaders are the most effective at change management.
“People often think of transformational leaders as these charismatic personalities,” says Perkins. But that’s not what’s important during a change. “It’s really about the ability to develop the people around you. For successful change management, you need to empower the champions. You need an army to make a change.”
How to support change in your organization
The most effective way to support change in your organization is to develop processes that help achieve buy-in.
“Any change is going to have a wide variety of people involved in it because no change can happen from just one person making a decision,” says Perkins. “Other people have to care, to have input, to carry it out and convert people. Even if you’re doing something as simple as changing from one piece of software to another, it’s gonna have to be a team approach. Legislating it doesn’t work.”