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  • Writer's pictureGraham Atkinson

Leading Change

If change is the only certainty then certainly we’ll all have to deal with change. Change can bring exciting new possibilities and radically improve how an organisation works and what it is able to achieve. Even the best outcome can leave disruption and frustrated people in its wake though; so helping staff through periods of change is essential to minimise fallout and maximise the benefits.

At Atkinson HR Consulting we work with organisations to help them take a focused and values-driven approach to managing change. We support organisations to ensure there is clarity about what they’re trying to achieve and what success looks like. We also help them to design a process and comms that brings people on the journey.

For the last couple of years we’ve been working with Durham Students’ Union who use our Virtual HR Director service. They’d undergone a turbulent period of change over the last decade which had left staff engagement and morale at a low point. We have worked with the Union to understand where people management practices operated well and where they needed to be improved.

In 2019 they saw staff engagement improve to 90% from 46% with 90% also agreeing the organisation cares about its employees - up from just 28%. The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) were so impressed we received their award for Best HR/Learning & Development Consultancy.

Common mistakes when dealing with change

We’ve worked with a number of small and medium-sized charities and social enterprises and often see similar consequences of mismanaged change.

Some of these stem from a lack of planning; others from unintended consequences and behaviours. From our experience, it’s important to scenario plan, but don’t overthink how people will react - they’ll inevitably surprise you.

Other organisations get so focused on their concerns about confidentiality and sharing information at the right time that they lose sight of the ‘people element’. Whilst clearly it has to be done appropriately, our view is that it’s generally best to be honest and open as early as possible and to trust people to treat information in the right way. If you demonstrate trust and be clear about your expectations most people will react well.

Simple solutions

There is no fix to great change management but here are some thoughts and ideas from our work with clients:

(1) Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and tell people - outline the vision, purpose, success measures - what will the organisation look and feel like when things are different? If people can understand the ‘why’, you’re already halfway there.

(2) Where you can, actively engage people in the change process. This may not always be possible, but for example, when we’re developing a new people strategy with an organisation, we’ll always take the time to find out a range of views on what works and what doesn’t. We’ll sense check that we’ve understood the feedback and ensure colleagues buy into the overall process. This often takes time and is an iterative process but is nearly always worth the effort.

(3) Don’t assume that people will be negative about the change. If you have a clear vision, even when they may be personally affected, people can often respond constructively. People in the main are able to both be positive and understand that change is needed, whilst being concerned about their own personal circumstances. If you take the time to understand people’s motivations you may be able to provide reassurance. When you’re leading change it’s your role to sell the vision. If you start every communication with “I know it’s a really difficult time”, then everyone will believe that - even those who might be excited and energised by the change.

(4) Communicate effectively and relentlessly. Have a clear plan about what you’re going to tell people and when, be very visible and make lots of time available to talk to people and regularly check-in. In the midst of a change programme is not the time to go missing and on balance it’s better to over-communicate during change than under-communicate. However, you do need to think carefully about the flow of information. As Vic Langer (former Strategy Director at Save the Children) says in this excellent piece on managing people through change: “People are thirsty for information but if you give them too much they will drown in it all”. Therefore it is important to focus on the key messages.

(5) Set clear expectations. Right at the outset be clear about what colleagues should expect from you (in terms of communication, transparency etc) and what you expect from them (raising concerns through the proper structure, getting on with the job etc). Being explicit and honest about mutual expectations will give you a solid framework to refer back to if behaviours veer off course during the process.

Taking a strategic approach

In our view, taking a strategic approach to change is about all of the above and thinking about the culture within your organisation. Fundamentally, there has to be clarity around what you’re trying to achieve and why and you have to plan the process carefully. But you also have to take people with you and be honest with them that we live in a world where change is the norm rather than a one off event.

When supporting change processes, like reorganisations, we’re often asked “how can you ensure we don’t have to go through this again?” Our honest answer is “we can’t”. But we do explain the values and principles that will underpin change and how people will be supported and treated in the future.

So that leads us to the conclusion that one of the biggest strategic challenges when it comes to change management is: how do we create a culture that enables change. As Peter Drucker said “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. You can have the best change management plan on paper, but without the right approach, values and culture to underpin and embed your change, there will always be a risk of failure.

Change can be complex and hard. If you need support, expertise and/or capacity to manage change projects, you can always bring in outside assistance on a temporary or longer term basis. We know an award-winning HR consultancy…

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