How Your Best Laid Plans Succeed
Updated: Feb 21
The Problem: The topic here is Change Management, or the ability to meaningfully disrupt the way you do business. Change Management uses a process that readies the psychology of a company for significant change. Importantly, Change Management is *not* about coming up with a new idea in a IDEO inspired offsite or some kind of innovation lab. To make an analogy, Change Management is like transplanting a new organ into the organizational body and making sure the transplant takes and is not rejected. So how do you know if you have a project that needs a Change Management approach? If you’re nervous about changing your workflow or culture or if you expect organizational resistance to your changes, you likely need a Change Management approach. Like it or not, significant change in an organization requires organizational consensus and that is something that you must build!
Why This Happens: There are all sorts of aspects to organizational life which are emotional. These include cultural values, agreements, behavioral norms, ingrained processes, assigned roles, established authority, data rights (i.e. who gets to know what), budgets, and employee incentives. Tinkering with any of these factors will no doubt stir up emotion and potential organizational resistance. In fact, what’s surprising is that, given how emotional organizations are, how *little* consideration is given to exceedingly simple Change Management checklists and processes.
The Solution: Scores of Change Management paradigms exist. The two that I will recommend are from Kotter and Nudge. What I will note is that these checklists are *deceptively simple*. I once presented them to a hedge fund CEO who told me in the first five minutes that they were super obvious and, therefore, useless. Over the next hour, we worked on his strategy in detail. Unbeknownst to him, I was simply walking through the same Change Management checklist I just presented to him, but customized for his strategy. He was floored with the results and couldn’t believe how many blindspots we were able to discover. So as much as you may want to gloss over this list and say “that’s just so obvious!” and blow the whole thing off, I suggest that you actually try and insert your change strategy into these checklists to see if they are useful.
Actual Steps: Here is a summary of two Change Management strategies - Kotter and Nudge. Of course, there are entire books written on the topic, but my experience has been that simply spending 30 minutes comparing your strategy against these checklists uncovers about 60-70% of the blindspots in your approach and is simple to do. I will present them as questions to make them easier to process. If you really want to convince yourself of how useful these paradigms are, consider an organizational change that has already failed and see if these questions don’t catch the reasons why!
Questions based on the Nudge Model of Change Management
Did you clearly define your changes? Do you have it in a bullet point list where the entire scope of change is easy to see / grasp?
Did you consider changes from employee points of view? Did you spend at least 30 minutes anticipating all their feedback as if you were them?
Did you use evidence to show why your change is the best option? Do you have any data to support your change? Did you make any effort to “sell” your concept or make it convincing?
Did you present the change as a choice? Or better yet, did you get volunteers who want to try this change on a pilot scale? Or did you just force it on people or surprise them?
Did you listen to feedback on any experiments so far? Did you collect feedback from your initial trial with volunteers? What collaborative process between users did you use?
Did you limit organizational obstacles to change? Are there still organizational frictions that you can reduce to make this change easier? Were there obvious roadblocks that you did not remove?
Did you keep momentum up by prioritizing short term wins? Or did you aim too high? Did you try to build enthusiasm by starting small and proving the concept with wins?
Questions based on Kotter’s Model of Change Management
Did you create a sense of urgency? Did you collect the data to show why this is important? Did you use storytelling techniques to help communicate your vision (more on that here)?
Did you build a core coalition of volunteers and supporters? Do you have enthusiastic guinea pigs? Or did you start with people who were resistant to the idea or unaware of how important it was to your corporate mission?
Did you form a full, strategic vision of the results of the change and show how it adds to your corporate purpose? Did you use language to vision the future?
Did you get everyone on board, or did you include naysayers in your pilot trials? Did you allow resentment to fester or did you use persuasive arguments early on to convince people (more on that here)?
Did you remove organizational barriers & reduce company frictions to change? Are some of these barriers sabotaging your change?
Did you drive momentum by focusing on small short-term wins? Or are all your incentives far into the future or uncertain? Can you change the focus to measuring the small wins?
Did you sustain acceleration? In other words, did you “rinse and repeat” the changes at pilot scale, iterating and innovating until you have the new changes down cold?
Did you set the changes in stone and clearly outline the changes in new roles? Did you create new processes for your changes? Did you create new budgets and sufficiently invest in your changes?
Regardless of which approach you use, I would strongly suggest you run your changes on a pilot scale with a small group of enthusiastic guinea pigs until you have your new process down cold. You need collaborative, enthusiastic volunteers to help you model cultural change. Then you can try it with bigger and bigger groups until you have implemented it in the entire department or organization.
Why This Works: Cultural and psychological change are not easy. If you’ll notice, there are multiple steps above to help build consensus around the change you want to make. In my experience, any radically new proposal or process needs to be worked through group psychology, which can be unpredictable. Don’t try to bring in your biggest critics from the start and don’t try to jam it down people’s throats, even if you think it’s clear what the right outcome is. Every Change Management approach I’ve seen emphasizes that cultural change is a sensitive, delicate process. This is what Change Management seeks to nurture by winning psychological consensus.
Where You May Get Stuck: If you are having a hard time pinpointing the change you want, consider looking at your Attention Debt (hints here) or plunging directly into your worst fears and Organizational Shadow (process here). If you don’t have a way to make a compelling story, consider Persuasive Arguments (see here). If you can’t get enough budget for a trial, consider a Risk Budget approach (more on this forthcoming). If you can’t build a good coalition of guinea pigs, it may be that you are attracting or including too many Micro-Creatives and need to engage more Macro-Creative thinkers (hints forthcoming). Finally, if barriers to experimentation are high, consider first focusing on your Cost of Creativity (see here) in order to set up the organizational structure for experimentation!