What is Change Management?

“Change is something that presses us out of our comfort zone. It is destiny-filtered, heart grown, faith built. Change is inequitable; not a respecter of persons. Change is for the better or for the worst, depending on where you view it.”
- Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineers website

I went looking for a definition of change and found this one in, of all places, an article on the Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineers website. Who would have figured engineers to write a poetic and perfect definition of change?

Change either makes your job easier to do, or it makes the business easier to operate. But it can be scary, stressful and uncomfortable.

During day-to-day operations, you tweak your systems, your business, and the way you operate. Maybe you decide to track a new metric, or you update a personal spreadsheet, or you switch to a new to-do list. These are tiny changes that you make every day, that might not affect anyone else.

But, when you’re making a big change - like switching systems, or hiring a new person, or adding a new product or service - those changes WILL affect your team.

For most people, change = unknown & scary. Our brains evolved to analyze and to predict what’s going to happen next - all day long, we just go around, predicting what the next thing will be, so that we can make decisions about what to do. When change comes along, it’s something new and because we have no experience with it, we can’t predict what will happen, and that stresses us out.  As humans, we’re hardwired to hate uncertainty. Worrying about what will happen causes more stress than knowing something bad will definitely happen.

So, the more “known” you can make the change before it happens, the more comfortable people will be with it.

And the way you make change more comfortable and less scary is through change management.

Defining Change Management

Change management is actually a whole field of study in organizational psychology, and there’s a ton of science devoted to figuring out how to effectively manage change.

John Kotter, a leading expert on change management, even came up with an 8-step process for managing change. Here’s his process:

  1. Create a sense of urgency
  2. Build a guiding coalition
  3. Form a strategic vision & initiatives
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
  5. Enable action by removing barriers
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Sustain acceleration
  8. Institute change

That’s a great process, and very effective. If you’re not planning to become an expert in change management, though, it’s a lot to take in.

But, it’s really not that complicated.

Change management is the process you follow to make change happen in your organization.

Yep… that’s it. (Kinda)

There are two core components of change management

  1. Managing the perception of the change within your business
  2. The project management involved with actually making the change happen

Managing the perception of change

A big part of effectively managing change is managing how your team views the change. If it’s scary and unknown, you’ll end up with a ton of resistance to the change, and employees will disengage (and maybe leave).

In order to “manage” change, you  need  your people to stop seeing change like this:

And start understanding that change will make them feel like this:

To do that, you need to actively sell the change. What’s in it for your people? How will the switch make their lives better?

When you’re looking at a system switch or similar change, often you’re thinking about how it will benefit the company. But… if you want to rock change management, you need to sell the benefits to your employees.

Will it make their jobs easier? Will it help them communicate with clients or teammates better? Will it mean less time spent tracking their hours? Will it mean fewer meetings? Fewer emails?

You need to get your team to buy-in to the change and trust that you’re going to handle it well.

Focus on whatever it takes to get them over the initial “change is scary” hump and into being open to listening and giving feedback on the new system.  

Project Management + Change Management = WIN

The second piece of change management is the nitty gritty details of how the change will actually get done.  

This is essentially project management.

  • What’s your timeline?
  • What are all the tiny tasks that need to happen?
  • Are you going to migrate data from your old system to the new one?
  • Who’s going to migrate the data?
  • What should the new system look like?
  • Are you rethinking your processes or just swapping from one system to another?
  • Who’s responsible for which milestones?

One of the most important details to include when managing any large project (and one that frequently gets missed), is a continuous communication process for your team.

This means giving regular status updates about the project to everyone affected. You can update people in staff meetings, via email, through a dedicated Slack channel, or create karaoke sing-along videos. However your team normally communicates is best, and you don’t have to limit yourself to just one channel.  

Really good project management includes active change management, and regular communication makes for great change management. So build in the time to keep your team informed of what’s happening.

What change management really means...

At its core, change management is communication.

That’s it.

You don’t really need a fancy process or a 15 step system. You just need to communicate what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what’s in it for your team.

If you can effectively do that (over and over throughout the process), you’re golden.

Size and scope of the project don’t matter.

I’ve seen tiny 5-person project management implementations succeed with flying colors...and I’ve seen them fail miserably. I’ve also seen giant 10,000 people institutional enterprise resource management (ERP) implementations succeed with flying colors...and I’ve seen them fail miserably.

The difference, in both cases, was how well the leaders communicated with their teams.

The more you communicate about the coming changes - where you are in the timeline, when training and  demos will be (and who gets trained first), and what the new system will do for them - the more comfortable people are with change.

At the end of the day: Great communication = Great change management.

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