Leading and Managing Organization Change and Transition

By Bob Burgess | Leadership, Human Resources | No Comments

As a leader, how often have you experienced resistance to a change when you are attempting to make improvements?   Even in cases where changes seem minimal, resistance oftentimes occurs.  

All companies move through stages of growth and development. Leading and managing the direction, the structure and especially the human side of change is an essential part of your ability to grow and develop.  These same aspects of managing change are just as applicable when there is a reduction of expenses and workforce so that the company can survive in difficult times.  

From a leadership perspective one of your greatest challenges will be to successfully manage both organization change as well as organization transition.  Leaders most often, focus on planning for the change itself (the shift in the external environment), without giving much thought to transitions (the psychological reorientation that people experience in response to the change).  In order for the change to be effective, transition must occur.  Change is the physical move from the old situation to the new situation, whether it is a change of location, reorganization, changes in systems, processes or personnel, or simply a change in the way you do business.  Transition is letting go of the past and focusing on the present and the future.  In our experience, it is the transition, and not the change, that people ordinarily resist.

Letting go of the past is difficult for many employees.  This is saying good-bye to the way things used to be; it is concern about what is being lost; concern about what they have to let go of.  As we work with organizations, it is not uncommon to hear employees complaining about changes that happened months or even years ago.  Holding on to resentments from the past prevents employees from creating the future.   I've seen this happen often when technology improvements are made with the intention of creating more efficiency, speed, and ease of use.  The idea is to make life easier for employees, and yet getting accustomed and comfortable with new technology typically creates tremendous resistance in the workplace.  

When leaders are able to minimize the anxiety, chaos, frustration and resentment that oftentimes occur with change, employees more readily get focused on the present and the future.  Most organizations want people to immediately embrace the change or desired future.  However, there is little chance of that happening when they haven't yet let go of where they are right now.    Therefore, just as you develop a plan for the physical change, it's important to start developing a plan for transition.

Planning for Change

Listed below is an outline of steps we use to help organizations through the change process.  This process takes time and skipping any of these only creates the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result.  Critical mistakes in any of these steps can have a devastating impact, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains.

1.    Establish a Sense of Urgency
     a.    Examine market and competitive realities.  This is often identified in the Strategic Planning Process or when an unexpected event creates an opportunity or a threat to your business.
     b.    Identify and discuss crises, potential crises, or major opportunities
     c.    If the renewal target is the entire company, the CEO and Executive Team are critical in any change or transition.  They are the leaders and have the most effect on the culture of the company.
     d.    The majority of the company's management needs to honestly be convinced that business-as-usual is totally unacceptable.

2.    Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition
     a.    Assemble a diverse group of employees with enough power to lead the change effort.
     b.    Build a High Performance Team that includes representation from executive level, senior management and key line management.  Teamwork and collaboration will be essential so the stronger the team, the more effective they become.  Involving different levels in the organization on the team provides a broader base for influencing change.

3.    Create a Vision
     a.    Create a vision and direction in which the company needs to move toward to help direct the change effort.  
     b.    Develop strategies for achieving that vision

4.    Communicate the Vision
     a.    Use every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies.
     b.    Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible.  
     c.    Identify steps along the way that will get you to the new beginning.  Identify how the employees will benefit with the change.
     d.    Require that the guiding coalition team lead the way of the change you want to create by modeling and demonstrating the change you want to create.  Communication comes in both words and actions, and the latter are often the most powerful form.  

5.    Empower Others to Act on the Vision
     a.    Identify and remove obstacles to change.
     b.    Change systems and structures that seriously undermine the vision.
     c.    Encourage risk taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions.  This develops a culture of accountability, creativity and higher levels of employee motivation.

6.    Plan for and Create Short-term Wins
     a.    Plan for visible performance improvements.
     b.    Create those improvements.
     c.    Recognize and reward employees involved in the improvements.

7.    Consolidate Improvements and Produce Still More Change
     a.    Use successes, lessons learned, and developed skills to continue to search for, identify and change systems, structures, and policies that don't fit the vision.  Your credibility regarding change comes from your experiences and accomplishments.
     b.    Hire, promote, and develop employees who can implement the vision.
     c.    Reinvigorate the process with new projects, themes, and change agents.

8.    Institutionalize New Approaches
    a.    Articulate the connections between the new behaviors and corporate success.

Planning for Transitions

The basic plan for any kind of transition is to get people to let go of the past and focus on the future.  Here are some general guidelines for leading people through transitions. 

1.    Communicate…communicate…communicate.
     a.   Why? What? How? What's in it for them?
     b.   Create feedback loops and forums to promote two-way communication.
     c.   Listen to both positive and negative feedback about the change.

2.    Establish an environment of TRUST
     a.   Walk your talk.
     b.   Provide forums for people to express themselves.

3.    Involve people in the changes.
      a.   If you can't involve them in "what" will change, then consider involving them in "how"                    the change will be implemented in their area of control or responsibility.
      b.   Be sure to involve key people who need to support the changes.
4.    Recognize the impact of change on resources.
     a.    Identify what is ending for whom.
     b.    Consider the impact on money, time, people and workload.  Ask:   Will there be any resistance?  And what can we do to minimize the resistance? 

5.    Honor the past
     a.    Recognize past accomplishments.
     b.    Telling stories about people and events that help grow and develop the company.
     c.    Talk about the company as a story and how "we are finishing a chapter in our history and beginning to write another one."

6.   Recognize and honor how people adapt to change differently. 
     a.    Be patient with those that have a more difficult time with change.  
     b.   Seek to understand the underlying reasons for the resistance.  Be willing to bring it out in                 the open and talk about it.  Create a safe environment for openness and honesty. 

In my thirty years of work as an Organization Development Consultant, I have worked with clients to successfully apply these guidelines, strategies, and actions to implement plans for critical change.  Paying attention to these strategies will help a leader be more effective and efficient when moving an organization, a team or an individual through any kind of change and transition.

Bob Burgess
Burgess Consulting
425 643-7688


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