5 Questions to Avoid False-Start Change Initiatives

by Greg Wallace and Steve Garcia, August 6th 2013  

Managers staring down the barrel of a change initiative face a dilemma: change is often necessary for success but getting employees to change how they work can be very difficult. It's one of the toughest situations managers face, and successfully navigating such situations is one of the truest tests of leadership. Understanding the change and being able to clearly and compellingly communicate it to employees a key first step. So, how should you go about it? How do you lay the foundation for a successful change initiative?

The answer is out there - and it's simpler than you may think.

Answer the Who, What, When, Where, Why & How

Asking these questions comes naturally to most of us when seeking to understand a situation or event. Leaders contemplating major changes must answer all these questions, too. But beware: the order in which we answer matters. When planning for change, the right order is: 1. What, 2. Why, 3. Who, 4. How, 5. Where & When

1. What

"What" represents your organization's new direction - i.e. what you are changing. Examples might include designing a new innovation process, implementing a new HRIS system, or restructuring a division to improve efficiency or collaboration. Whatever it is, the first step in your change journey is to clearly define what's changing and how you'll gauge success. In order to understand why this is the first step, consider what occurs when a change initiative begins before the What is well-understood.

When the What of the change is not adequately defined, employees are left like the old lady in Wendy's TV commercial from 1980s wondering "Where's the beef?!?" Because they don't understand what's changing they aren't able to determine what they should be doing differently. As a result, they tune out and instead focus on something where the expectations are clearer. Getting the organization on board with a clearly-defined and measurable strategy BEFORE you embark on any change effort will reduce the pain and confusion, accelerating progress and significantly increasing the likelihood of success.

2. Why

Next, and tied closely to the What, is Why. Why does this change make sense for us at this time? Is the change in response to a new market or improvement opportunity, a competitive threat, recent regulations, or emerging technologies? In addition, why do we believe the change will benefit the organization, its customers, and its employees?

The Why is important for obvious reasons, such as you need to know all of this in order to feel confident about the change in the first place, and for some less obvious reasons. For example, the details in the Why will motivate employees charged with executing the change. If employees perceive that the change will help them to advance in their careers, for example, they are more likely to change how they work. Moreover, even if the change doesn't benefit them directly, if they're clear on how it will further the goals of the company or its customers, they are more likely to adopt it.

3. Who

Often overlooked, the change's Who identifies the individuals and groups Who must modify how they work for the change to be succeed. It's one thing for a drug company to establish a new clinical development process. If, however, clinical trial leaders don't comply with the new process not much is going to change.

When answering Who, it's important to be explicit not just about the names of the individuals or groups that must change their behaviors but about the specific tasks they must do differently.

Additionally, consider whether these different tasks require that people adopt new skills or knowledge or even an underlying attitude adjustment. For example, at one client that was implementing an Agile design process, it quickly became apparent that the biggest challenge was not about defining the steps involved or roles and responsibilities, it was convincing people that they would not be "beat up" when they shared raw, unfinished content with their peers.

4. How

The How is where your change management rubber really hits the road. It details to employees and other stakeholders what you will do as well as the sequence of steps you will take to implement the change. There are a number of different approaches to choose from, including Philosophy IB's own ADAPT methodology (Figure 1).
Figure 1: ADAPT Methodology

5. Where and When

Two follow up questions to How are Where and When. Where refers to the parts of the organization in which the change will be applied. Often, leaders choose to first pilot the change within a subset of the organization to: see what works and what doesn't, collect data, and develop a success story. Other experts, such as David Beer in his terrific book, The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal, advocate for focusing change on a single business unit or division to make certain the change is tightly linked to a specific business challenge or opportunity.

When, in turn, identifies the timing for the change. The more the change impacts employees' roles, the more important it is to answer the When. When will it begin? When will it end? When it will begin is generally pretty easy to answer. When it will end is often more complicated to determine. The good news is that even if you can't define an end date for the change, employees are typically satisfied if you can let them know When they will expect an answer. Letting them know that you'll communicate the official timeline on April 14th, for example , is usually OK.

The next time you're confronted with the need to champion a change within your organization, think through the What, Why, Who, How, Where and When. Leaders who take the time up front to answer these questions set themselves up for success.

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