Throughout my career -- as a chief financial officer in companies large and small, as a corporate and nonprofit board member, and now as CEO of a fast-growing privately held startup -- I’ve learned to become a change agent. It’s a badge I wear proudly, and one that has taught me about what works and what doesn’t when managing change.
Every change initiative is unique, but the truths about making change succeed are, by and large, the same. Here I’ve collected 10 truths about change management. Think of them like tools in a toolbox -- you need to have them close at hand, you need to know how to use them and you need to determine the right time to pull them out and put them to work. That’s the change agent’s primary job.
1. Change is about people.
I lead a software company that provides a game-changing connected planning platform. And while I believe that technology can help our organizations grow, evolve and improve, change management is ultimately about people. As leaders, we have to set the example of the change we want from the people around us. As the great NBA coach Phil Jackson said, “You can't force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.” Only when you help individuals change can you hope to change an organization.
2. Take the time.
Some changes are quick, but real, transformational change can -- and often must -- take years. We’re all amazed with how quickly things change in Silicon Valley, and the ability to react fast can be vital to survival. But, changing hearts, minds and ultimately culture (see No. 1) often can’t be done with the snap of your fingers.
3. Create a vision.
Stake out where you want a transformation to take you early in the change process. Understand what success looks like. That doesn’t mean everything has to be fully baked from Day One. In fact, beware of doing that -- because it means you haven’t engaged the people who you need to get on board with you. And don’t be rigid, because that can get in the way of success. (More on that in a bit.)
4. Engage your stakeholders.
This is central to selling the vision you established. Identify the people who will be affected by the change, and get them involved and invested in the project and its success.
5. Acknowledge tradeoffs.
When people are asked to change, be aware of the effects. Think of it like pulling the loose thread on a shirt -- sometimes it can cause a button to fall off. If you add resources -- dollars, people, space or anything else -- to one project, try to understand what might take a back seat. And time is the ultimate finite resource, so if you ask a superstar who’s already working at capacity to do something extra, realize that her productivity in her “day job” may need to be shifted.
6. Work with the willing.
Not everybody in your organization is going to get on board the change train. That’s natural; some people will have ways of thinking and working that are incompatible with what you need to accomplish. So, while it’s perhaps the least fun part of change management, sometimes you need to bring in new people who share your vision, and let go people who don’t. I don’t have to tell you that staff changes are expensive, but the costs of misalignment and wasted time on resisters are so much greater.
7. Overcommunicate -- and then communicate some more.
I’ve used every medium you can imagine to communicate about change. Town halls, emails, newsletters, intranet sites, videoconferencing, collaboration tools -- they all have a place. In some cases, it’s appropriate to talk about internal change with people outside of your organization, maybe even the general public. For example, while we were transforming Cisco’s finance department from a number-crunching machine into a strategic business partner, we published a Q&A in the Wall Street Journal on the project. People involved in the effort shared the piece around, and took greater pride in the work -- and some people we hadn’t been able to reach by other methods finally understood what we were trying to do.
The communication I just described can’t be a one-way street. You need to listen to the people who are making the change, and listen to the people affected by the change. That doesn’t mean you value all feedback equally, or give the people who are complaining more time. But look hard for the useful nuggets in what people tell you, and plow them back into your plans. In a way, this is the extended version of engaging your stakeholders (No. 4).
9. Empower the silent majority to speak up.
When you listen (No. 8), you’re likely to hear a few voices the loudest. Be aware that they’re not always speaking for the majority of people. So, give the silent majority a few ways to make their voices heard: Anonymous polls and surveys can help, but sometimes you need to train and encourage people to speak up. I remember one situation in which someone posted a very negative, scathing comment about a project in a very public forum. Rather than engage within this public platform, a quiet but valued member of my team emailed him directly and very respectfully invited him to talk -- one on one, in person -- about his concerns and helped work on a solution. This person immediately backed down, and my team member then asked him to take back his comment on the same public forum. He did.
10. Learn as you go.
Challenges will arise as organizations change; the success or failure of your change management effort hinges on how you respond to those challenges. For example, as the finance team at Cisco became strategic business advisors (rather than simply back office human calculators -- see No. 7), some people found themselves in unfamiliar territory. They were brilliant accountants, but had gaps in their business knowledge. We addressed this by creating new learning opportunities and career development paths for people in finance. The same can be done in any area of your company.
As I noted earlier, not all of these truths apply to every situation. And admittedly, none of these things is particularly novel, but that doesn’t mean they’re not easy to overlook. The business landscape is littered with change management projects that failed for reasons that are, in retrospect, painfully obvious.
But, every one of these truths is nuanced, and success lies in their application. The wisdom of change management is to know which tool to use, and when to use it. And that’s where leadership comes in.