Making Change Stick: How to Get Change Management Right
It is well known that a high proportion of projects, from IT projects to large business transformations, end in failure. According to a Harvard Business Review article, “studies consistently report that about three-quarters of change efforts flop,” while Edwin Petersen’s article elsewhere on Toptal canvases additional sources.
But why do these efforts fail?
There are fewer available statistics but, as far back as 2007, the Project Management Institute (PMI) published a survey revealing that “43% of project managers [said] that project communications were a key factor in the failure of projects.” And a 2015 PMI Conference Paper says, “poor communications is the main reason that projects fail.”
Both of these statements chime with my own experience—namely, that good change management is critical to project success and that good communications are a key component.
What Is Change Management?
Change management is a collective term for all approaches to prepare, support, and help individuals, teams, and organizations in making organizational change. It is a relatively recent business discipline, though one with academic roots going back 100 years.
In 1909, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep wrote a book on societal “rites of passage,” identifying a three-step process for the change involved: separation, transition, and incorporation. This framework was later developed into the Unfreeze–Change–Refreeze model attributed to Kurt Lewin around 1948, which suggests that successful change requires freedom from current perceptions, implementation of the necessary changes, and then cementing and consolidation of this new reality.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that change management developed as a more formal business discipline, with significant contributions made by Daryl Conner (of “burning platform” fame), John Kotter (Leading Change), and Spencer Johnson (Who Moved My Cheese?), among others.
Today, change management is a profession in its own right, and businesses can draw on a plethora of models, systems, and approaches to change management. So, there is no longer any excuse for not getting change management right.
A Recipe for Change Management
Choosing a Change Management Framework
As change management has matured as a business discipline, its approaches, tools, and techniques have been formalized into various frameworks. Well-known examples are Prosci’s ADKAR®, Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, and the Standard for Change Management© from the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP).
None of these frameworks are “bad” in any way. They all provide a useful skeleton on which to hang the various change management “muscles” that businesses should use to underwrite their projects and programs. For simplicity, I will focus on Prosci’s ADKAR as the framework to shape the discussion.
In summary, ADKAR stands for the following five sequential steps that need to be completed to enable an individual to change successfully:
- Awareness of the need to change
- Desire to participate in the change
- Knowledge of how to change
- Ability to demonstrate the new, or changed, skills or behaviors
- Reinforcement to make the change stick
Each individual who will be impacted by the change first requires Awareness of the need to change. It is not enough for people merely to know that the change is coming. They also have to understand that the change is needed in order for them to start to buy in.
Much of this centers on good communication that is tailored for each individual (or group of individuals with similar characteristics) and that explains the case for change. Ideally, it sets out the benefits that the change will bring to that individual. But, failing that, the case for change needs to point out the adverse consequences for the individual (perhaps even loss of employment) if the change is not made successfully.
In my experience, it is critical that, for major changes, senior leaders are highly visible in explaining the case for change to those affected. This conspicuousness proves to employees that the change is significantly important to the organization. But it is also essential for all the other layers of management and supervision between senior leaders and the employees to reinforce the same key messages.
Some individuals react more positively to certain types of communication than others. For this reason, it is usually necessary to use a series of different communication techniques and channels—such as videos, posters, face-to-face presentations, discussion forums, and written communications (whether on paper, via email, or on the business’s intranet).
Achieving consistency of messaging to these different audiences across a range of different communication channels and media typically requires a high degree of planning and coordination.
Once individuals are Aware of the need to change, they have to be taken further – to the point at which they Desire to support the change. Its importance stems from the fact that it is the first step toward participating in the change, rather than running away from it by resigning or, worse, resisting.
Even though individuals impacted by the change are now Aware of the need to change, they still ask themselves very personal questions such as: “How does this affect me?” and “What’s in it for me?” Therefore, the Desire step needs to answer these questions for each affected individual.
One key requirement is to create, and then publicize, a vision that excites them and that they can personally buy into. This goes beyond merely convincing them that the change is necessary—for it needs to give them something to look forward to on the “other side” of the change. This is the “north star” they can always refer to when things get difficult.
As with the Awareness step, this vision also needs to be communicated using a range of different communication techniques and channels tailored to specific stakeholders down to the individual level. The requirement here is to reach and persuade each impacted individual using the mode to which they are most receptive. Once more, it necessitates a combination of the message and highly visible leadership that excites and motivates concerned employees.
A top-down approach alone, however, is seldom enough. In addition to listening to their leaders, people also look to and are guided by the responses of their peers. So, now is the time to enlist an “army” of individuals, at all levels of the organization, who are supportive of the change and who will use their own enthusiasm to influence peers to embrace the change. This network of change champions is likely to stay in place throughout the implementation of the change. It can provide both a friendly ear and a point of reference as enthusiasm wanes through the inevitable ups and downs of a transition.
By this stage, each individual should be Aware of the need to change and also have the Desire to support the change. It is now time to start equipping them to make the change.
The Knowledge they need varies according to the type of change being implemented. To give a couple of examples:
- If a new business system is being implemented, users need knowledge of how to operate the new software.
- If the new software also requires changes to the business processes carried out by its users, they also need to be taught those new processes.
- If a culture change is being made by the organization, all employees must know how their behaviors need to change in order to create that new culture.
This represents one of the more obvious change management steps, and businesses typically do it well. The approach required is fairly mechanistic.
First, the organization needs to be clear on what knowledge each impacted individual needs in order to effect the change, as well as the gap between that and pre-existing knowledge. This is the training needs analysis.
Second, a training plan is required, one that sets out how each individual will acquire the required knowledge, typically in some sort of classroom or workshop setting, through either computer-based training or a combination of different techniques.
Third, the training plan is executed. This requires the creation of training materials and the associated job aids and checklists, coaching the trainers on how to use the materials and then carrying out the training itself.
To maximize the effectiveness of the training, these three steps should be supported by a network of people ready and willing to help their peers through the learning process. For many projects and programs, these helpers will be the change champions. A software implementation, though, might also need super users with particular expertise in the new systems, who may or may not be the same as the change champions.
Knowledge alone, however, is not enough. The employee making the change also needs the Ability to do so. The distinction between the two can sometimes be unclear, so let me provide a non-business example. Suppose you are taking a course in archery. It won’t take long for you to understand how to plant your feet, align yourself with the target, hold the bow, hold the arrow on the string, draw the string, and release the arrow toward the target. And before you even start the course, you likely already know that the objective is to hit the center of the target with the arrow. That’s all the Knowledge that you need.
However, just because you now have the Knowledge doesn’t mean you are going to hit the bullseye every time. Achieving that also requires the Ability to put your knowledge into practice. Just as in archery, the keys to moving from Knowledge to Ability in business are:
- Plenty of opportunities to practice
- Time to improve
- Access to specialist expertise if needed
This means planning the training to start early enough to allow for the learning curve between then and “going live.” Once the formal training is finished, it further means providing training environments (or sandboxes) that can be used by impacted individuals for practice. Finally, it means consistent coaching from supervisors and managers coupled with access to super users or other experts in the specific changes being implemented.
The final step in ADKAR is Reinforcement. This is required to ensure that the change, once implemented, will stick. If it is neglected, achievements can slip into reverse, and the project or program may fail to deliver the expected return on investment. On the other hand, if it is executed particularly well, performance might be improved further still.
Typical processes, tools, and techniques that you should be using include:
- Maintaining Knowledge and Ability resources (such as training environments, coaches, and the change network) for as long as they are still useful.
- Measuring benefits – keeping track of the financial benefits achieved from the change and comparing them against expectations (which might have been documented in the original business case).
- Recognizing and celebrating success – this could be based on the financial metrics mentioned above, or on less formal measures of success such as all locations achieving implementation of the change, or the 1,000th case being serviced on a new system.
- Building on the initial successes by moving on to projects and programs that take them further, such as continuous improvement programs based on Lean.
Planning for Change Management
Good change management is about much more than just training. It is a series of steps, each building on the one before, all tailored to individuals’ specific needs. For a change of significant scale, it quickly becomes a complex program in its own right, with its own dedicated expert leadership.
The first step, as with any other program, project, or large workstream, is good planning. Five steps underpinning a good plan can be summarized as follows:
- Assess the context: Who is sponsoring the change? How successful have previous change programs been in this particular business? Apart from this change program, what other significant initiatives are underway?
- Understand the impacts: How significant is the change? What type of change is it (software, processes, organizational, culture, etc.)? Who does it affect?
- Analyze the stakeholders: How will specific groups or individuals be affected? How prepared are they for the change? How are they likely to respond?
- Prepare the change charter and change plan: As with any other project or program, it is useful to start with a charter, agreed upon by all the major stakeholders. This responds to the findings in the three steps above. Once the charter is agreed upon, detailed planning can be completed.
- Acquire the necessary change management capabilities: As detailed planning proceeds, it becomes clear what tools, techniques, and specialist change management expertise are required. Where gaps exist, they either need to be plugged immediately, or else the plan needs to reflect how and when they will be acquired.
It is important to underline that many of the change management activities explored need time for the initial seeds to take root and flourish. In almost all of the change programs I have seen fail, a key reason has been that the change management started too late to be effective. A back-ended plan is usually a recipe for failure.
A good plan, though vital, is not enough. As with any other program, project, or workstream, all aspects of the change management process also need managing throughout the life of the initiative.
Most of this ongoing management should be business as usual for any competent company, so let’s explore two testing tools, specific to change management, that are likely to be needed.
The first, stakeholder analysis, begins in the planning stage where it is merely a snapshot of the opening position. Over time, the positions of the various stakeholders change—ideally, in accordance with the original plan but perhaps in ways that weren’t anticipated. The only way to know what is happening is to repeat the stakeholder analysis at regular intervals throughout the change process.
The second is the change readiness assessment. This is another tool that needs to be applied at regular intervals. As the name implies, it assesses the readiness of the organization to implement the change as planned. The document looks in detail at all of the groups and individuals impacted by the change, checking that their Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, and Ability are on track for a successful delivery.
Successful Change Outweighs Potential Savings
As budgets come under pressure, it is easy to save cost by omitting good change management from a program or project’s scope from the beginning, or by “de-scoping” it later. Experience shows that such saving is often a root cause of failure.
Change management is more than just training. Far from being a warm and fuzzy nice-to-have, it should be a well-structured professional discipline that serves as an integral part of program and project management. If you want your initiative to be a success, be sure to include proper change management.
Further Reading on the Toptal Projects Blog:
- Adapting for Success – A Guide to Change Management
- How to Facilitate Change Through Agile Servant-leadership
- Principles of Organizational Design and Optimization: Lessons From The Great Recession
- What Is Agile? A Philosophy That Develops Through Practice
- How to Build an Effective Design Framework (Includes a Free Sketch UI Framework)
Understanding the basics
What is the process of change management?
If you are looking to make changes within your organization, first choose the right change management model. The second step is good planning— assess the context, understand the impact, analyze the stakeholders, prepare the change charter, change plan, and acquire the know-how. After implementing the changes, the company has to make sure it sticks to them.
What is the ultimate goal of change management?
Change management should be a well-structured professional discipline that serves as an integral part of program and project management. If you want your initiative to be a success, be sure to include proper change management.
How do you manage change management?
Good communication is critical for successful change management. Senior leaders should be highly visible in explaining the case for change to those affected. This proves to employees that the change is significantly important to the organization. It is also essential for all the other layers of management to reinforce the same key messages while preparing and implementing the change.
What are change management models?
Change management models are concepts that provide an in-depth approach to organizational change. Well-known examples are Prosci’s ADKAR®, Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change, and the Standard for Change Management©.
What does ADKAR stand for?
ADKAR stands for the following five sequential steps that need to be completed to enable an individual to change successfully: Awareness of the need to change, Desire to participate in the change, Knowledge of how to change, Ability to demonstrate the new, or changed, skills or behaviors, Reinforcement to make the change stick.
Located in Naples, FL, United States
Member since November 1, 2019
About the author
Alan is an international digital transformation thought leader, strategist, and implementer.