CHANGE MANAGEMENT: THE 5 QUESTIONS YOU NEED TO ANSWER – EPISODE 076
On this episode of The Digital Broker, Ryan Deeds talks about change management. By listening to this episode, you will learn:
- Why change management is essential to operational excellence
- Why so many change initiatives fall apart, holding insurance agencies back
- How to fortify your change management strategy by repeatedly asking yourself five questions
Longtime listeners of The Digital Broker know that this has been a podcast about operational excellence. In the course of almost one hundred episodes, we have looked at operational excellence from many angles. We have talked about culture, innovation, strategic planning—heck, we’ve even gone so far as to talk about what your desk ought to look like. But we’re overdue to dedicate an episode to the single, most essential component of operational excellence—and that’s change.
Excellence means constant improvement and improvement means change. Do you want to be excellent? Get good at change. Even if you simply want to be above the competition, you are likely to have to improve at some point and improving means changing. It is not enough, however, to want or desire change—endless stories about change initiatives gone nowhere attest to the incredible difficulty of making change stick. You must have a change management strategy in place.
Different agencies can have different strategies, and, of course, every change will be unique and tweak the strategy accordingly. But that doesn’t mean that your change management strategy cannot be guided by consistent principles. We have distilled some of those principles into this 5-question checklist that you can put to yourself to get a read on your change initiatives’ likelihood of success. No matter where you’re at on the change management process, always have an answer to each of the following questions.
What is the expectation?
Many change initiatives fall apart because managers aren’t able to answer a simple question: what do you expect to get out of this change?
It is not enough to say that “we want everybody to switch from one software to another one.” What are they going to gain by doing so? How will the agency be better off, and which metric are you going to measure to be sure? Many times, employees aren’t able to follow through with a particular change because they aren’t sure what it’s supposed to achieve, making it impossible to track cause-and-effect. You don’t have to be so specific that the goal becomes overly rigid, but the more effort you can put into articulating the expectation, the easier a time your employees will have complying with your vision—as long as you are also communicating the expectation effectively, which brings us to the next question.
How well are you communicating the expectation to your team?
Articulating expectations isn’t without its challenges, but a single person could theoretically do it. Carrying out the change, on the other hand, is almost never the job of a single person. You need trust, participation, and engagement from the entire team, meaning that the team will have to work together and that the team will have to communicate. If your communication is poor, your change initiative will go nowhere.
Here’s a commonplace scenario: a manager swears to have sent at least 15 emails directing the team toward a particular change, but the team is flagrantly refusing to comply. When you follow up with the team, they tell you that they’ve never even heard of this change. Who’s being dishonest? Actually, nobody. It is possible that the manager has sent out every one of those emails and the employees simply never read them, or never read them in full. People are bad at email: they filter out certain messages, or they promise to read them later, or they assume that someone else is on top of it. If this is holding your change initiatives back, you’ve got a communication crisis.
Communication isn’t sending out 15 emails; that’s just emailing. Communication is saying something that the other person understands. Are you sure that you’re communicating expectations clearly? Are you sure that email is the best way to do it? Would it be better to do in-person meetings, or a combination of, say, Slack and email?
Are you in it for the long haul?
Notice that, so far, we have resisted saying “change is hard.” But everybody knows that. What people have a harder time accepting is how long change takes.
Usually, you don’t think about changing until a problem starts asking you to. By then, you’re very eager to get rid of the problem now, and you’re hoping that the change process will be just as fast. But change and now aren’t friends. Change operates at its own speed, which is dependent on a multitude of factors that are out of your control. If you’re serious about seeing change through, you have to become comfortable with big numbers. Get it out of your head that anything of importance is going to be completed in a matter of “weeks.” The kinds of change we’re talking about take months or even years—and, at the end of it, there is no guarantee that you’ll be successful. Scary, huh? But what is your alternative? To ignore reality and keep chasing quick fixes that achieve nothing? You are only going to bind yourself to the problem forever that way.
You’re better off committing to the long haul and installing some internal controls to monitor progress and keep your team from forgetting or giving up on what they are supposed to do. Make it a point to meet with your team periodically to review the ongoing change initiative. The frequency of these meetings—every week, every month, every quarter—will be up to you. The important thing is that you have them and stick to them until the change is complete—and even for a little while afterward, to keep the change from falling apart.
When working with your team toward a change, a forgiving culture is helpful. Change is scary because it is uncertain: even with the best planning, there are still going to be blind spots along the way. Employees need to be given the latitude to try out different things without being terrified of the consequences. If you’re the type who dresses people down any time there is a surprise, good luck weathering the tempestuous change process. It is better to be tolerant—which doesn’t mean forsaking accountability. Try to tell the difference between plainly boneheaded mistakes and mistakes that were made as a result of trying to do something novel for the benefit of the organization.
Are you so serious about this change that you are ready to put off everything else?
Change isn’t simply going to take more time than you’d like; it will also require more energy and focus, invariably subtracting both resources from other endeavors, especially other changes. Again, people are naturally inclined to resist this. When the ongoing change initiative is slow to deliver the results we want, we get restless and begin to look for satisfaction elsewhere—perhaps by kicking off another change initiative. Or, the opposite happens, with equally disastrous results: the change initiative is showing promise, we get excitedly overconfident, and we get started right away on the next big change!
Here’s what happens when you throw in even one more change initiative on top of an ongoing, incomplete one. Do you remember those periodic meetings that you hold to determine progress? Now you’re doubling the amount of work your team has to do in those, or you’re cutting in half the time and attention you were dedicated to the previous goal, severely affecting its chances. You are splitting your team’s focus, enthusiasm, and creativity between two changes that might not have anything to do with each other—or, worse, are so awkwardly intertwined that no progress can be made in one change without upsetting the flow of the other. You are pressuring your team to change not one but two separate sets of behaviors, which is obviously very difficult, and it famously backfires: confused, tired, and worn out, employees fall back onto old habits and familiar routines, perhaps the very ones that you were trying to change—defeating the whole point, undermining all the work you’ve done, and putting you on a collision course with the next, dreadful question.
What do you do if a change doesn’t work?
The change management process is exhausting, so it comforts us to think that there can only be a triumph at the end of it. We will get the change we want, we will fulfill our expectations, and everybody will be happy. Otherwise, what was the point of all that work?
The reality is quite different. Change management is like one of those “choose your own adventure” books—it can end in any number of ways, not all of them good. Sometimes, you do everything right—you articulate your expectation, you communicate it to the team, you give them all the time and space that they need—and you still don’t achieve the result you were after. Maybe your expectations were misguided at the start. Maybe that new software is a dud after all. Either way, you’re neither where you thought you’d be nor where you promised your team they’d be. What now?
Pretend nothing ever happened. Move on to the next change initiative as fast as possible, without ever speaking of the previous failure again, giving everybody enough time to forget about it. Actually, that is the worst advice we could give you. It is also what happens very often.
Remember: the whole point of a change management strategy is to guide you through continuous change. If you bomb a change initiative and walk back on it without so much as an explanation, what do you think is going to happen next time? That’s right: your employees, the ones who did all the work, are not going to be very happy. They will wonder what the point of the change was in the first place. They will lose trust in your ability as a leader. They might lose trust in the organization in general, making for dismal office morale. They will certainly be less enthusiastic than you need them to be. None of this is to say that you should hang on to an unsuccessful change initiative just to save face. The thing to do is to acknowledge the outcome, review what led to it, and vow to keep it in mind for next time, so that your change management process is now all the better off because of it.
But won’t the team still be jaded? Not if you followed our advice and gave your team a break when they made a mistake. Guess what? They will return the favor.
All right—we will say it. Change is hard. But you knew that already. Try to think of a time when you tried to change something, in your personal or professional life, and it didn’t work out. Why not? Did it have anything to do with the items on this list?
That’s unfortunate. But now you have this list. Bookmark it so you can readily return to it the next time you are up against a change—and there will be the next time. Stop wasting your team’s time and your own by rifling through one unsuccessful change initiative after the other. You’ve got to show your team that you can commit to change and manage it responsibly. This requires patience, discipline, and focus. But if you can pull it off, and your team sees that the organization can overcome the enormous challenge of change, there is no telling how far you can go.
So—how far do you plan on going? What are some of the goals and the change initiatives that are going to help you get there? Is this list going to be helpful? Would you add or subtract anything to it? Tell us about it in the Digital Broker LinkedIn group. If there’s one thing we take seriously, it is operational excellence and the many ways to get there. Join us and tell us about your journey.