Leading organisational change is not easy

Change is the only constant in our universe. The seasons perpetually change to indicate the passing years. A flower blooms beautifully only to wilt and die, and the caterpillar turns into the most beautiful butterfly. Change is a part of life. With each change, something more extraordinary and more beautiful emerges. Here we look at the complexity of leading organisational change.

Change is not easy. We would rather hold on to what is familiar than risk the unknown. This is especially true when leading organisational change in a complex and integrated world. More often than not, we ignore the changes around us. We are not willing to let go of what we worked so hard to achieve to make way for something or someone new. Better to know the devil you do than the devil you don’t, right?

Not quite, as in today’s fast-paced world, not being able to adapt to the changing currents around you, you risk losing everything. Change, now more than ever before, is an element of life that can’t be ignored. It is no longer optional, and yet it feels as if we haven’t been prepared well enough for the changes that we go through.  So how can you as a leader make a change in your organisation easier for your employees?

Transitions and Travel

Travelling has made me a master at change. No matter how well you plan, there will always be some unexpected turn of events that you will have to deal with. Usually in a country where you don’t speak the language or are unfamiliar with the customs. Travelling in developing countries is even harder. What you consider standard is usually not so standard, and language makes the barrier even bigger.

From my various change experiences at work, including downsizing, restructuring, and relocations, as well as my extensive travel around the world, here are my top 5 tips for anyone having to lead change in an organisation.

1. Be extra kind

When an organisational change is announced, mostly it is met with anxiety and fear and more employees than is impacted by the change start looking for a more stable job elsewhere, increasing the impact of the change even more.

Understand that change of any kind is traumatic, and be extra kind and flexible with your employees. It is not a time to be strict and hard; rather, it is a time to let the rules slide a bit while the employees adapt to the change. The harder you push them to be ready, the longer they will take. Let people take longer lunch breaks and allow them to be late with deliverables.

Notice where the change left open seats. Pull the team closer together by changing the seating arrangements to a more supportive structure where everyone is included. Be patient and kind. Ask continuously whether they have questions or need anything. Make it clear that you understand that this is a stressful situation. Emphasise you are there for them, not only during the first few days of the new announcement.

2. Over-communicate

My worst trip was a delayed flight in Shanghai, leaving me at an airport without anyone (or so it seemed) that spoke English and without a clue of what was going on, only directed to a waiting area with many other travellers. Eventually, about 3 hours later, there was an announcement in Chinese and everyone around me got up. I followed the crowd outdoors where the next round of waiting occurred, still unaware of what is happening or where I’m going. This time, we were running back and forth, trying to fit into overloaded busses.

Change is stressful at the best of times. Not know what is going on makes it exponentially worse. Make sure that you as a leader over-communicate for at least a month after the change was announced.

Just because you said it doesn’t mean you were heard.

When people are stressed, they will only hear what they can handle according to their own personal filters, which is almost guaranteed not to be the entire message. Repeat your message patiently and be approachable at all times.

Don’t ever rely on written communication unless it is a follow-up as that sends a message that is usually interpreted either as you are avoiding confrontation, which means you have something that you are not willing to share, or that the people are not important enough to know what is going on. Make sure you have regular face-to-face sessions, either in person or with a big screen where you can clearly be seen.

3. Kill gossip at its root

Gossip is the poison that slowly kills the culture. If left to run indefinitely, you risk turning even the happiest workplace into a negative workspace.

Ensure that it is clearly demonstrated that gossip is not acceptable, and make double sure that you serve as a role model. Whenever you become aware of gossip, call a face-to-face session with the entire team and address the issue openly, clearing out any misunderstandings and allowing questions around the concern.

Physically move your desk to sit between the teams rather than separating yourself. Your presence will not only be comforting, but it will ensure that unwanted gossip parties get killed before it gets out of hand.

4. Have a clear purpose for the change

When you travel, you always have a destination. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t know what direction to go, and even if you only plan a few days, you don’t just randomly go to the airport and see where the next flight is going. Not me or anyone I know in any case.

The same is true when leading organisational change. It is critical to have a clear destination for the change. Where do you want to go? Why are you changing? What do you hope will change, and what is the problem you are trying to resolve by making the change?

If you merely change because you spoke to someone or read an article about gamification or agile implementations, and it sounded good, you are setting yourself up for failure. No methodology can be rolled out the same in two different teams. You need first to know the problem you are trying to solve before you start implementing the change.  It would help if you had clear success criteria defined before you embark on the change to know whether it had the desired impact or not.

Change without a clear purpose is like playing the lotto hoping to win the jackpot.

5. Visualize the roadmap

When you travel to a new destination, the first thing I do is to orient myself by asking the hotel to show me on a map where I am and where the important landmarks, such as the closest public transport or supermarket, is. I always make sure that my phone battery is charged in case I need to look at my GPS for directions.

Similarly, it makes sense to visualize the roadmap for the change for everyone to see. It should include your history, where you are currently and where you plan to end up. You should make a rough estimate of how long the transition will take. It is important to look at past mistakes and what drove you to where you are now. It is even more critical to be absolutely honest about where you are now, even though you would like to be further ahead than what you really are.

In his book called Visual Leaders, David Sibbet from The Grove Consulting provides tools and a case study for visualizing the change strategy. Use this roadmap as a reference whenever important decisions need to be made. Use it to reinforce not simply falling back into your old habits. Keep the change in mind as you move forward. Only once you reach your destination is it safe to remove the map.

Conclusion

Leading organisational change is much like travelling, requiring to know where you are and where you want to go, with a clear map of the road you choose to take. During transition times, it is essential to over-communicate and be extra kind to your people while being transparent at all times.

With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.