Whether you run a tech startup that keeps pace with visionaries in Silicon Valley, or a small business, major change at the company level requires an extra managerial touch. This can be especially true if you’re helping your company weather big shifts in direction, like coming under new ownership or undergoing a rebranding effort.
According to a survey conducted by McKinsey and Company, as many as “70% of change efforts fail during the transition period”. And they fail for all sorts of reasons, too - from poor communication to underbaked visions that make employees balk.
While plenty can be said for the importance of leadership and communication during a major transition, research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that change efforts must also be guided with concrete benchmarks - or “hard factors” - in order to be truly successful.
“Some of the hard factors that affect a transformation initiative are the time necessary to complete it, the number of people required to execute it, and the financial results that intended actions are expected to achieve,” explain the study’s authors.
Establishing concrete deadlines and articulating financial goals, in addition to managing employee attitudes and behaviors, is the ultimate recipe for change management success. Using these principles, we’ve outlined 8 steps for an effective process to help take you where you want to go.
1. Identify the scope of change
Some changes seem intuitive. For example, after a bad Q3, it’s essential to take stock and establish better strategies for hitting your sales benchmarks in Q4. It just makes sense, right?
Major transitions in a business demand the same care and strategy on a larger scale - and often come with extra hurdles around employee behavior, company resources, and communication. Buy-in isn’t always easy to generate, especially if you’re making major changes to workflow, restructuring departments, or introducing a new product or mission.
Before you announce a major change initiative to all employees, it’s best to identify the scope of change your organization will tackle. Here are a few questions to prompt you and your leadership board as you outline the new vision for your company or department:
What needs to change? Why? What data do you have to back up your observations? Who will this change affect on your team? What resources will they need in place to deal with the change? How will the change affect your customers? What is the communications timeline for making your customers aware of this change?
2. Strategize for the duration
Once you’ve identified the shift your company needs to make, begin the process of strategizing how the transition will roll out. Before you talk to your employees, you’ll need to know the following:
What does “change” look like? How long will it take? What are the costs? What are your new benchmarks for success and how will you measure them? What are the leadership roles needed for this transition? How and when will employees be informed of the change? When will re-training take place? What forms of employee feedback will be relevant to this process and when will you collect them?
Communicating openly with your team about forthcoming changes from the get-go can help generate buy-in, especially if employees know their feedback will be considered. On the flip side, failing to communicate company-wide challenges with your entire team can stall progress and even prevent change from happening, warns Mark Murphy, founder of LeadershipIQ.
“If challenges create a sense of urgency for change, then [data from Leadership IQ] clearly shows that the majority of leaders are doing a poor job of explaining those challenges,” Murphy writes at Forbes.
“In fact, only 35% of leaders are ‘Always’ or ‘Frequently’ sharing challenges, and that means that nearly two-thirds of leaders are missing this essential ingredient of change management,” he adds.
How will you communicate challenges - and potential changes - internally to harness the know-how of your team?
3. Put your leadership team in place
Change management has to come from the top. Without a CEO driving the company’s new vision of the future, employees are less likely to hop on board.
But, according to management expert Ray Gagnon, no successful leader can manage company-wide changes alone.
“[Your] job as a change agent is to win over a “coalition” to help you move your change program forward,” writes Gagnon at Huffington Post.
“If you are a CEO, your coalition would typically be drawn first from your leadership team. But don’t forget to look more broadly to thought-leaders, key influencers and subject experts elsewhere in the company,” he adds.
Any additional company leadership - department directors, managers, and assistant managers - should all have concrete roles in the transition to help address specific needs across departments, too.
4. Establish new benchmarks
Whether you consult with your leadership team or generate employee feedback on process first, management will need to establish and communicate clear new benchmarks for performance.
According to the authors of “The Hard Side of Change Management,” these new benchmarks should be closely related to day-to-day performance.
“Scheduling milestones and assessing their impact are the best way by which executives can review the execution of projects, identify gaps, and spot new risks,” the study’s authors write. “The most effective milestones are those that describe major actions or achievements rather than day-to-day activities.”
This allows senior management to effectively track performance and readjust strategy on the fly. Since effective change management is as much about behavior as strategy, employees will need to know which of their behaviors or ideas will have to shift, too. Should your employees approach their day-to-day tasks differently to be successful at reaching the new targets?
5. Share change strategy or vision
Once you have a vision for the future in place, it’s important to communicate clearly and often with the entire company about the change.
In addition to the initial announcement of a new company mission, or a memo detailing a new product line, for example, continue communicating frequently with your employees about the change and how it will affect their roles.
Be sure to provide plenty of opportunities for employees to provide feedback during this process. Feedback can be granular - a list of frequent customer questions that arise during sales or support calls, for example - or big picture. Open-door policies for managers, employee town halls, or surveys can help give managers a better picture of how the changes are rolling out.
As you prepare your internal communication strategy, consider that your employees will most likely want to know the following:
What problems have you identified that led to the need for change? What’s your vision of the future? What resources have you put in place to help your employees deal with the change? What are your new expectations?
6. Provide resources
Change doesn’t happen overnight - and your team will most likely need resources to help them through the transition.
More regular check-ins from management, encouragement in meetings or on productivity tools like Slack, and all-staff meetings can be designed to give employees the extra feedback and behavioral reinforcement they need to weather serious change.
Of course, you can also pair these extra touches with concrete resources: an increased budget for training and education that helps employees meet new expectations, for example, or more flexibility for departments to identify and purchase any new tools needed to complete their job.
Managers should also provide employees with clearly-articulated performance metrics that reflect relevant changes to their roles, and address these changes prior to an annual review.
7. Communicate & ask for feedback
As your company transitions, remember that your employees - and your leadership team - will require more frequent communication.
Perry Keenan, the managing director of Boston Consulting Group, suggests using the rule of “three and nine” during transition. Communicate three times more often than seems necessary, says Keenan, and recognize that it may take up to nine repetitions for an employee to understand that a change in procedure affects their work.
While it might seem like a lot of communication, Keenan says this strategy isn’t overkill.
“Leaders tend to shy away from ‘over-communicating,’ but repetition can help make a change initiative ubiquitous and in time a regular and accepted part of the new business as usual,” he explained to Forbes.
You may even consider holding periodic community meetings or surveys to collect employee feedback to address unforeseen issues during the transition.
8. Measure progress
Throughout the transition period, measure the progress your team is making against new benchmarks. Is your team or your company where you wanted it to be at the 6-month mark of the transition? The year mark?
If not, what concrete measures can you put in place to bring everyone up to speed? Take time to reflect with your leadership team on what the transition’s status may tell you about employee morale or other hurdles.
Remember: all of your employees may not actually be on board with whatever changes your company is tackling - even after several months have passed. And while some of them may come around, it’s up to you to nip outsize negativity in the bud before it affects your whole team.
“Don’t be afraid to be direct,” suggests Eric Morgan, the CEO of Workfront, at Inc.
According to Morgan, sitting down with a negative employee and saying, “‘It’s been 3 months now, and you’re not getting there. Are you going to get there? Or do we need to talk about other options for you?’” will signal that change is here to stay - and the employee needs to get on board.
Change management isn’t easy - but weathering the storm isn’t an option. Use these strategies to develop strong workplace communication and boost company morale if you have a big change coming your way in 2018.