Getting Started with Organizational Change Management: A Simple, Practical Model

In-N-Out Burger has established its reputation as a hamburger shop with a limited selection of customer-proven menu items. Instead of expanding its options with complicated menus, choices, and “have it your way” selections, they stick to simple basics that customers resonate with. Customers know what to expect, have an easy time getting what they want, and are willing to pay for the repeatable value they receive.

My experience as a change practitioner has shown me that In-N-Out just might be on to something. While increased options and rigor have their place, I have also seen the value of having a simple change management framework that makes a lot of sense, is easy to swallow, and achieves the end goal of accelerating and improving the quality of change initiatives. When individuals and organizations are hesitant about a highly formalized change management program, I use a framework that seems to resonate with most people, and can embed itself well into existing project management and communication practices.

Focus. Commit. Execute. That’s the framework I follow. Here it is, with specific activities in each step of the process.

FocusCommitExecute

It’s based on an internal model in my organization, with some modifications that account for additional industry best-practices. When I need additional tools for higher-risk, more complex initiatives, or when I need highly specific guidelines, I turn to the change management resources I got as a certified Prosci Change Practitioner, relevant materials from my PhD studies regarding organizational change, and other industry resources, including Kotter, Lewin, McKinsey, and others. But, with most of what I do, the simple “Focus, Commit, Execute” framework provides amazing value that is simple to consume, follow, and execute. Below, I describe the key purpose, activities, and tools associated with each step.

Focus

The purpose of the Focus step is to focus on what the change is, what it is intended to accomplish, and how you plan to make it happen. As simple as this step seems, project team members’ perspectives can vary widely about the change. It makes sense…if I tell you to imagine a tree, an image pops into your mind. Your tree image is likely different from my tree image. You might imagine a palm tree, while I imagine a large maple tree. Similarly, perspectives of what an organizational change will be can vary just as widely among team members who are carrying out the change.

Three main activities happen with the Focus step. The outputs of these activities become the foundation of the change effort’s communications. When finished, the summaries of each of the activities should be the elevator-pitch talking points that are reinforced over and over in executive speeches, on company intranet sites, on corporate posters, in company emails, and in every other communication channel selected for the change initiative. Take time to get it right!

Define the Change

First, team members define clearly why the change is happening. This is the business case. While the concept is simple, getting consensus takes a lot of work. Where possible, objective data that supports the need to change is invaluable. In this step, I spend a lot of time driving team members to state 3-5 clear reasons why this change is happening. If the reasons don’t make sense to me, I continue to question them, re-state what I think I’m hearing them say, and then refine the reasons until they do make sense. And, once defined, it’s always helpful to share the reasons with people not associated with the change to get additional feedback, just in case I’ve become too close to the project to provide objective feedback. (At times when it is appropriate to do so, I will tell my wife about some of the projects I am working on. This gives her a better sense of my work, but also gives me a real-life opportunity to see if how I talk about the change makes sense.)

Define the Vision

The second Focus step is for team members to define a clear vision of what they are trying to accomplish with the change. This is the ideal future state. This state should be clear and simple to articulate, and should be based largely on sensory perceptions, or objective criteria that can be observed. The ideal future state might be something we can see, like teams from across the organization meeting more often in collaboration meetings, or a measurable reduction in operational expenses. Or, it might be something we can hear, like more conversations in the hallways, or fewer complaints about a given policy. Again, I recommend only 3-5 clear, key vision statements.

Define the Strategy

The final Focus step is to describe the strategy for achieving the clear vision that was articulated in the previous step. This should be 3-5 high-level steps you will follow to make the vision real. I’ve found that a good default for the strategy is to follow Prosci’s ADKAR model. The first step is to generate Awareness of the need for the change. Second, work on building Desire, or buy-in to the change. Third, help people gain the Knowledge and Ability they will need to make the change through proper training. And fourth, implement processes and structures that will Reinforce the change.

Commit

The second step in the process is to help people commit and buy in to the change. This is where you consider who is leading the change, who you need to recruit to promote the change, and who the change will affect. These are your stakeholders. I approach this step in three parts. While this step can all be done on a single spreadsheet and seems simple, it takes a lot of time and work! If it is painful, you’re probably doing it right.

Identify Stakeholders

First, I identify who my stakeholders are. I usually start at the top of the organization, trying to understand exactly who is asking for this change. This is not always as clear as it seems. Some organizations may have sponsors of a change who are able to recommend a course of action, but not approve it or make the final decision. (Check out Bain and Company’s RAPID model for more information). These set-ups are at risk of being derailed by the highest level of management who can decide to not approve or further fund a particular change. If I can’t get to the highest-level decision maker to assess his or her commitment to the change, I at least want to account for and acknowledge with the team the tremendous risk it represents to the success of the project.

After I’ve established who the key stakeholders are (that is, the ones who can make or break the success of the initiative), I look at the next lower level of management, down through the impacted end users. When I can, I prefer to identify the upper management levels by individual names to reach out to them directly. Their support is critical because of those who will follow them. If managers or individual contributors lower in the organization are too numerous to reasonably manage, I may identify them as a group by role, and try to identify a few influential people within those groups. Some of these key people embedded within the role groups may be on board with the change. But, I may also purposefully engage some of the strong voices who I know are not in support of the change. If I can engage them early on in creating a successful change, and get them bought-in to the change through their participation in it, I avoid a lot of heartburn down the road.

Evaluate Stakeholders

Once the team and I have listed all the stakeholders out on a spreadsheet, we evaluate each stakeholder separately. The goal is to understand where they currently stand with the proposed change, and why the change might be good or bad for them personally. We evaluate each stakeholder’s current state by using Prosci’s ADKAR model, mentioned earlier. In line with Prosci’s approach, each stakeholder is evaluated on a scale of 1 (None) to 5 (High) on their Awareness of the need for the change, Desire to support the change, Knowledge about how to make the change, Ability to actually make the change, and Reinforcement to maintain the change once implemented. In the order of the ADKAR model, the first letter where the individual is rated at a 3 or lower is where the team needs to focus attention for that individual. For example, if an individual scores a 4 on Awareness, but a 2 on Desire, the team knows they need to help that individual build more Desire to participate in the change, and doesn’t move on to helping the individual gain Knowledge until he or she scores a 4 or 5 on Desire.

Along with ADKAR, I work with the team to evaluate the potential pros and cons of the change for each stakeholder. What’s in it for the stakeholder personally? Why might the stakeholder resist the change? I use these reasons to inform communications. By understanding what matters most to the stakeholders, we can use or address it to promote further commitment to the change.

Action Plan for Stakeholders

After we have evaluated each stakeholder, we then determine what the action plan will be to reach out to each stakeholder. For those who are supportive of the change, we may discuss how we can include them to help others on board. If a group in a certain part of the organization wants to participate, but doesn’t know how, we know we need to plan a training opportunity. If some individuals are aware of why we need to make the change, but don’t want to get on board, we can discuss how we can build their desire to support the initiative (for example, a supportive message from a manager or the executive sponsor, or a personal engagement from a respected peer who supports the change).

Importantly, the Commit step should be a living step, meaning that it is not a one-and-done deal. The spreadsheet should be updated regularly to show the outcomes of the action plans. If an individual is now on board with the change, the ADKAR evaluation and next action plan should be updated to reflect that. And, even though a person was on board with the change at one point, don’t neglect to feed their support! Build the commitment of those not on board, while feeding and strengthening the support of those who are.

Execute

As you are building buy-in and commitment, begin planning how you will execute the change. This is done through a change management plan. Think of the change management plan as a combination between the project plan, the communications plan, and change management best practices. The outcome of this step is to have a single, executable plan with activities, dates, details, and specific names of who is responsible for what.

I include the following columns in my spreadsheet.

  • Related Milestones: Any big project deliverables we need to know about for the change. Also, I may account for other significant dates that might impact the roll-out, like holidays, corporate activities, or other change initiatives that may compete for attention.
  • Title/Description: What is the activity
  • Start and Completion Dates
  • Audience: Who will be receiving the communication?
  • Purpose: What is the intent of the communication? I’ve found that the intent, again, generally falls into one of the ADKAR steps.
  • Content: A quick overview of what will be included in the communication. Generally, these incorporate ADKAR steps. For example, I may be creating an email that will be sent from the executive sponsor (Desire) where I want the audience to understand why we are making the change (Awareness), and to invite them to a training (Knowledge and Ability).
  • Medium: What channel will be used for this communication? Email? A face to face meeting? A team meeting? An intranet article?
  • Who Prepares: Who is the person responsible for creating the content/medium?
  • Who Delivers: Who is the person responsible for delivering the content/medium? This step is critical! I will build activities into the plan that encourage participation by the executive sponsor, as well as immediate managers and supervisors. Their active, public, regular, and effortful participation in the change is not only critical for people to get on board (see Prosci Best Practices in Change Management), but also reinforces their own commitment to the change (See the book “Influence, Science and Practice”, Ch. 3, Commitment and Consistency, by Robert Cialdini).
  • Status/Comments: Any additional notes I might need to add.

Once the Change Management Plan is created, it can be executed, similar to a project management or communication plan. In some cases, I will wear my product/project manager hat, and be the driver for ensuring the team follows the Change Management Plan. However, in general, I recommend that another team member be responsible for carrying out execution of the plan. This not only provides more buy-in and regular accountability from the team, but also ensures that I don’t get wrapped up in tactical matters that reduce my ability to support other change management initiatives.

In Summary

That’s it! Focus. Commit. Execute. It’s the framework I follow. As I stated earlier, when I need additional tools for higher-risk, more complex initiatives, or when I need highly specific guidelines, I turn to the change management resources I got as a certified Prosci Change Practitioner, relevant materials from my PhD studies regarding organizational change, and other industry resources, including Kotter, Lewin, McKinsey, and others. But, with most of what I do, the simple “Focus, Commit, Execute” framework provides amazing value that is simple to consume, follow, and execute.

And now, I’m hungry. I want something simple, predictable, and satisfying. For some reason, In-N-Out seems like the perfect place.

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