Change Agents: Leading Through Change
A great idea backed by a fantastic solution is not always enough to get users bought in to adopting it. It is vital that any Change Agent acknowledges this to be true: an idea alone is not going to win over hearts and minds. The examples are numerous, of solutions introduced to save time, or better capture or share information, and yet despite training, system user-friendliness or managerial nudges, users still fell back to old habits and processes, even when it meant taking the long way, or silo-ing information.
That being said, the burden of getting team buy-in does not sit solely on the shoulders of a Change Agent. By involving the wider team in thinking about the change, and creating opportunities for input, more people can experience that ‘wow-factor’ – that light bulb moment when they understand the benefits that the changes or new system will bring. Logic encourages people to think about a problem or concept, but it is emotion that makes us act. To get full buy-in, you and your teams need to be emotionally connected to the transformation, and ready for change. So, where do you start when trying to get your team on board and fully behind the change?
TELL, SHOW, COMPEL
When engaging the wider team in any kind of change project, it can help to take a range of approaches, to appeal to different learning and thinking styles. These approaches are not all necessarily appropriate for your project, and you may only need to take one tack:
- TELL THEM
Explaining the upcoming change in detail, with the reasons and proposed benefits.
- SELL THEM
Incentivise the team by pushing the benefits of the change and make these clear for each individual. You might even consider giving your team something in exchange for changing.
- PRESSURE THEM
Create a desire to ‘join in the fun’. This can be particularly effective when there is only one or two people who have not bought in, creating a peer pressure to get everyone on board.
- SHOW THEM
Some people prefer to take in information in a visual way. An education session, or training, for example, can help show in practice how the change will work, and the benefits.
- ATTRACT THEM
Understanding a person’s individual motivation can allow you to appeal to their own sense of self interest. Consider how the change will help the individual impacted, and why it might be in their interest no just to comply, but to make a full commitment to the change.
Not all change requires full buy-in, and some transformations are simpler than others. If a change is large-scale and requires the acceptance and compliance of the whole team, the best route is usually to focus on attracting your team, and appealing to each person on an individual basis.
PAIN VS PLEASURE
Sigmund Freud identified pain and pleasure as key drivers for humans, and people are generally more motivated to avoid pain than to seek pleasure – or in this case they would rather stick with the status quo than motivate themselves to change. We’ve all had that annoying mobile notification of a new system update, and the temptation is to ignore this, in spite of the promise of new or better features. Usually, the main motivation to update or upgrade is the fear or pain of our favourite or most-used apps stopping working. The pain of losing functionality was more powerful than the lure of the shiny new update.
Both pain and pleasure can have their uses when applied to change and transformation projects. Focusing on the pain points (e.g. a clunky old system, or time-consuming process) can help to get initial buy-in, as the negative emotions motivate people to tackle immediate challenges that require clear, forceful action. Emphasising the pleasure aspect (e.g. the simplified process, and integrated systems) can help get a project off the ground, and a vision for a better future can guide teams as they progress on the change journey.
But, it is not just the reality of pains or pleasures that drive us. Anticipated pleasure and anticipated pain are almost as powerful a motivator, so it is vital that people have a clear grasp of the process of change, not just the outcome and proposed benefits. Understanding how change will work, and how they will be impacted (or not) throughout can help alleviate concerns, and get people on board.
THE CHANGE VISION
A key element of the Change Agent role is driving the change vision throughout a project. As a Change Agent, there are two types of change you are responsible for:
- Change you initiate
- Changes that you have to support from other areas in the organisation
Regardless of where the change comes from, it always needs a vision; that is, clarifying the change that needs to be achieved, explaining why it is happening and providing clear and realistic targets to measure success.
So, how does a Change Agent communicate this vision, even when it has been devised by somebody else?
- MAKE IT YOUR OWN
You can’t pick a new deadline for landing a man on the moon, but you can personalise how you achieve your team goals within the timeframe.
- REPEAT IT
Vision leaks, so remind your team why the changes are happening, what needs to be achieved, and the targets for measuring success.
- TELL A STORY
Help your team understand how they will be a hero in the change story. Set the context, create curiosity and always connect team roles to the story characters and their inputs and outcomes.
DEALING WITH RESISTANCE
There are often four key reasons why people might resist change:
- They don’t have enough information, and don’t understand the change.
- They are fearful of how the change impacts them and their job.
- There is a long history of change not going as planned, and they assume this will be history repeated.
- They don’t see real commitment from Change Agents and stakeholders.
Resistance is usual during any kind of change, and it is easy to dismiss any resistance you encounter, by assuming you know the reasons behind it, or ascribing it to a general stubbornness of your employees. Dismissing it out of hand can be dangerous, as resistance can provide important information about something that might not be working well during or after the change. This also applies to assuming you know the reason behind any resistance: staff could be finding ways around new systems for a range of reasons, e.g. they have little confidence in the new process, or have had several instances of it failing. Rather than dismissing resistance, use it as a sign to be curious and investigate what’s really going on.
So, how do you best address resistance, and help your teams overcome it? The first step is always to understand the root cause. Ask lots of questions and listen closely; if you have any assumptions, have them validated. Once you have a clear understanding of what is holding your people back, you can select the best course of action to address this, whether it is sharing more information to combat a lack of clarity, reassuring them of any impacts, or showing how this change is different to past failures. Most importantly, lead by example, and show your team that you are committed to the change.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING
Proper listening can help you understand a problem and get feedback from all angles, as well as solving any issues early, before they escalate.
It is hard to overstate the importance of listening throughout a change project: to your teams, your stakeholders, and your users.
Humans process information through conversation and repetition, and listening facilitates this information processing. As a Change Agent, it is essential not just to listen, but also to hear exactly what people mean.
- BE CURIOUS
Ask follow-up questions and probe for more details.
- BE PATIENT
Wait until a person has finished speaking before interrupting. Interruptions can stem the flow of conversation, and discourage people from opening up.
- BE CERTAIN
Summarise what you think the person is saying and repeat it back as a question to give them time to correct any misinterpretations.
Leading a change project is as much about the people you are working with, as the processes and systems you are implementing. Ensuring team cooperation can drive change and, lack of buy-in or collaboration is often the biggest factor in the success or failure of a project.