Like it or not, most organizations these days need to be ready for change. A 2014 survey found that 64% of organizations had experienced a disruptive change within the past 24 months1. It’s hard to find a leader in any industry who thinks “change is not relevant to my organization.” In today’s competitive, technology-accelerated world, companies are pursuing change (innovation), and responding to change (market shifts, technology shifts, consumer interest) almost continually.
Despite all the practice leaders, teams, and organizations are getting with change, many businesses still struggle. Successful pivots often don't happen quickly enough or completely enough. It is widely reported that 70% of formal change efforts fail. Size provides no immunity for change failure - large Fortune 500 companies and small family-owned businesses all get stuck.
In our work supporting change and transformation, we see a key missed opportunity. What is that missed opportunity? It’s the chance to build an underlying strength that makes your organization or team ready for change. It’s the chance to proactively become change-capable before you even know the next change you’d like to take on. In the face of a looming change, it’s the chance to prepare people before all of the new strategy and operational details have been worked out.
Ambivalent and scary, right? Not if you're armed with insights about what it takes for people, teams, and organizations to be ready for change.
Change researchers define “readiness for change” as the extent to which people believe a change is necessary, desirable, and feasible. Hang tight for some “researcher-speak” for a moment. Specifically, readiness for change includes:5
When the members of an organization can resoundingly answer “yes” to all of these questions, the organization is ready for change. If not, prepare to encounter resistance to change.
A lot. Research studies tease out being ready for change as one of the biggest factors that determines whether employees will support a change4.
Cultivating collective readiness for change in your organization can make all the difference in successfully implementing (and sustaining) changes that are critical to the success of your business. Remember the power of thinking about your business and your organization?
First, frame what you’re doing in ways that will help you succeed.
Second, do the basics. People who are satisfied with their jobs and committed to their company are more likely to be ready for change6,7. Create meaningful jobs, promote engagement, and inspire commitment.
Third, pull together key people who can impact change readiness, review the specific recommendations below, make a plan, and touch base periodically to ask “How ready for change are we?”
Communication gaps, real or perceived, breed rumors. Build communication trust during times of relative stability to create a solid foundation during times of change. As soon as a need for change looms, start communicating. Be as transparent as possible (follow the what I know, what I don’t know, and what I know about but can’t disclose model). Follow up frequently as more information becomes available.
When people sense that they don’t know what’s going on (and maybe you don’t know what’s going on!), anxiety tends to creep in and resistance forms. Once a change appears on the horizon, it’s OK to admit all of the answers are not yet known. To create change readiness, it’s important to prime people about what to be thinking about and anticipating.
Remember the components of change readiness? During times of stability, make it a habit to talk often about why the organization is operating as it is. Remind people about things that have occurred to set the stage for what you are doing together today and how you are doing it.
Then when change is happening, make the gap driving change clear. State the benefits to the business, customers, and employees of taking on change. Communicate why change is necessary, and why change is desirable. Describe how making a change aligns with your organization’s overall mission and purpose.
Leaders walk the trail first. As the top leader in your business, stick with the four C’s: be Confident, be Consistent, be Congruent, and be Committed. Recognize that during a time of change, you are a salient role model for how people should respond. Anticipate that people will openly or subconsciously observe and interpret your words and actions to decide whether you are truly committed to change. Work hard to be a clear role model and to position and encourage other leaders and team members who are showing an open positive attitude about the change and courage in experimenting with new behaviors and approaches required by change.
Be authentic about your own misgivings and struggles. BUT make sure the key point of your stories is how you conquered the misgivings to arrive at solid conclusions about why the change is necessary and desirable, and how you overcame the struggles to build comfort with the new direction. Be a human change hero to emulate.
Foster participation and basic education about the business and the organization. People with a firmer understanding of the business and the market environment more readily get why change is necessary and desirable. People with a deeper understanding of how parts of the business interconnect to accomplish collective goals more easily see the organization as capable of taking on a new challenge.
Then as a change begins, encourage active participation. Include people in planning, designing, and implementation efforts. When people are able to contribute to a change, feelings of ownership take root and drive engagement and commitment to the change. Tap resources to help facilitate participation to keep these contributions focused.
Research shows that it’s not just individual. How an organization is operating contributes to change readiness. Having flexible policies and procedures supports individual change readiness. Adaptable logistics and systems also influence individual change readiness. When people see that the overall organizational context can support a new approach, people are more likely to experience and demonstrate readiness for change3. Work with leaders to define flexible work policies and systems that adapt easily when necessary. Make sure your policy and system revisions emphasize strategic support for new directions.
Provide job design leadership. An organization structure that includes many “active jobs” supports change readiness. In active jobs, people have high autonomy and high decision-making latitude. People in these roles develop higher self-efficacy, which translates into confidence to handle and participate in change2. Work with managers to promote appropriate autonomy and decision-making at different levels throughout the organization. Integrate autonomy signals into job descriptions, performance aids, and training resources.
Help the organization be mindful about the Why behind its current generation of products or services. Teams and organizations with deeper understanding of their customers are more ready for change. Build awareness about the context your customers are working in and how it’s changing. Help the organization create systems that stay tapped into current problems its customers face. Make sure key insights disseminate across teams.
Many changes organizations undertake respond to customer change experiences. Help leaders identify and articulate these connections. Connect change to your organization’s purpose and core values. Leaders who are anticipating and planning operational and cultural shifts have a lot on their minds and are often working under tremendous uncertainty. Ask great questions and help to hone the message of what they are shaping.
Keeping various programs, policies, practices, and materials aligned and integrated as your organization evolves is important. During times of stability, alignment creates smooth employment experiences for people in your organization.
As you prepare for change, aligned practices make it easier to find gaps the new change introduces. Then you can work with leaders to make sure programs, policies, practices, and materials support new directions.
What is your organization’s unique approach to sharing important information with the entire team? Even a very small business can benefit from establishing a specific channel that employees rely on. Make sure the information flow stays fresh with a regular rhythm of updates.
As a change takes shape, we often see HR professionals providing critical communication leadership. Encourage leaders to provide open and broad communication. Share insights about what employees are curious and concerned about. Suggest specific ways to use a variety of formal and informal communication channels to promote change dialogue.
Similar to our advice for business owners, as leaders and managers in your organization, it is also essential to be communicating openly, consistently, and authentically with your team. Follow-up after communication from top leaders and HR professionals to reinforce change messages. Keep your team up to date on new knowledge, as soon as that information is available. This is a great habit to practice long before a change arises.
As a change effort comes onto the horizon, continue to openly communicate your team, and reinforce key messages from the top leaders. If there is uncertainty about what happens next with the change, be honest with your team about what you do and don’t know. Alleviate change anxiety by demonstrating your personal commitment and support to the change. Model that it is possible to be enthusiastic about a change vision, even if you don’t have complete answers for every detail.
Just as it’s important to intentionally share messages with your team, it’s equally important to provide space for your team to communicate with you. Long before a change occurs, the best managers are in-tune with their team’s thoughts and concerns about the work that’s currently happening.
To promote change readiness, actively seek and listen to the concerns, questions, or ideas your team has. Listen for insights that inform you about how to get your team ready for change. What do team members need to build a collective belief that change is desirable, necessary, and feasible? Prompt the team to plan how to effectively manage concerns, questions, and ideas. Which questions does the team need to put “on hold” while others work out details? Which concerns would be valuable to voice openly? Which ideas could the team contribute to help make the change successful?
Believing that the organization’s leaders fully commit to a change improves change readiness tremendously. Of course, team members look to leaders and managers for information. But more deeply, leaders and managers provide cues about how to interpret organizational events (e.g., as opportunities vs threats). Further, leaders and managers are role models for behavior.
Before a change occurs, leaders and managers can foster pre-readiness. Focus on your commitment to the organization, team, and customers. Live and breathe your organization’s purpose and core values. Be an example to those around you.
As soon as change becomes relevant, demonstrate support. Commit to making the change a success. Act in ways that are congruent with the new change. Demonstrate that the change is possible and desirable. In times of change, remember that to inspire change readiness, you can model: awareness of the surrounding world, positive curiosity about where the change will take the organization, confidence in the team’s and organization’s capabilities to change, courage to try new things, and resilience with early frustrations.
Build your team’s efficacy and confidence long before a change occurs. Provide opportunities for team members to take on fuller responsibility. Give team members autonomy in their projects. Actively engage team members in decision-making. Give team members opportunities to share ideas, thoughts, and strategies. Provide developmental, forward-facing feedback to help team members strengthen skills.
During times of change, think of ways to bolster confidence. Talk with individual team members and as a whole team about what’s easiest and hardest about the change. Where is confidence lowest? Why is that? Is the team missing key knowledge or skills? Does the team need to create ways to practice together behind-the-scene before facing customers? What if the team brainstorms the scariest scenarios and discusses options for handling those?
It’s likely impossible to achieve a perpetual state of “ready for change” in your organization. But the research is clear that being more ready for change will pay off. Be proactive. Then when change happens, you’ll have a head start in creating readiness for the specific change and putting it in motion.
What if you haven’t been able to accomplish much before a change looms? Don’t skip change readiness! Make sure your early change actions include the tips above. Aim to make sure everyone in your organization sees change as necessary, desirable, and possible.