Some thoughts on change

First published on in Feb 2019

Change in any organisation is sometimes exciting, sometimes scary, but mostly unavoidable. It’s going to happen and avoiding some of the pitfalls can make things easier. Here are a couple of thoughts from my experience of change in organisations.

  1. Tell a story.
    As John Kotter says in his book, having a burning platform is the first crucial step when positioning change. Create this burning platform in the form of a story. Tell it with enthusiasm and make it interesting. People will remember a story for far longer than they will remember a well-crafted vision.
    When we needed to change the Employer Value Proposition in our organisation a couple of years ago, the Chief People Officer told a story about an employee who joined the organisation as a security guard. He worked hard, looked for opportunities to develop and showed his potential through his performance. Within 10 years he had taken up an executive role and was running an operation worth a couple of million Rand in revenue – a true “rags to riches” story.
    “This is what this company offers people. This is our EVP,” I still remember the executive saying. And I’ve never forgotten that story.
  2. Involve your people in the design.
    Change is pretty scary for most employees because it can make us feel like victims. Once, during a particularly tricky restructure, the VP of People had to combine two teams who did very similar tasks. We knew that the overlap meant job losses. Instead of arbitrarily allocating roles to people, or requesting that people re-apply for their jobs, she played open cards. “We have to save R5 million and cut 4 jobs,” she told the team. “Together we must find that solution.” Both teams worked for 2 days on a proposal. It was hard, it was difficult – but we were engaged because we were the masters of our own fate. In the end we achieved the target by cutting projects and 4 employees offered to leave the team. But they felt empowered because they were part of the design.
  3. Acknowledge the emotion.
    When the organisation was taken over by a competitor it was a hard knock for a lot of employees, especially in a highly engaged culture. I remember people crying the day that we heard the take-over was going ahead. A colleague told me that it felt like his wife cheated on him. People felt like they lost the war, like they were the victims – and that brought a lot of negative emotions.
    A Change Leader should never ignore the emotions. Create a space for people to talk about it. We ran workshops that allowed people to share their hurt and sadness. It was a safe space to recognize and face the emotions. And it helped teams to get it out in the open instead of burying it and risk it turning into toxic compliance.
  4. Empower line management.
    A lot of conversations about the change happens between the employee and the line manager. Ensure that line management knows how to have conversations about the change and about emotions. In a heroic leadership culture where “boys don’t cry” the inability to talk about emotions could derail any acceptance of a change. During a difficult change, HR provided “talking sheets” for line managers about how to ask questions about the change and the impact it was having on people, and how to facilitate conversations where heavy emotion is present.
  5. Support the supporters.
    Human Resources are usually the first in line when employees need to vent. They bear the brunt of negative emotions from employees and often feel abused. During a productivity-driven restructure, where many people lost jobs, we ran a couple of interventions for the HR teams giving them the opportunity to share and talk about their experiences. It was hard going, a lot of crying and despair, but the feedback indicated that it provided the opportunity to share their difficulties and build resilience.

So, not an exhaustive list, but practical tips on how to get it right. I’d like to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment below.