Want people to like your project? Follow these 6 rules of change management


Posted by
Thomas BOUDIER

April 29, 2016

Make your project outcome a successful human experience

Some projects succeed outstandingly. Others, not so much. Some projects reach their end with fireworks exploding but with people reluctant to adopt the results, whereas other projects land on their tiptoes, but with long-lasting success.

So what are the main obstacles to project success? Overspend? Insufficient risk analysis? Poor initial definition of needs and project parameters? Results of several studies point in the same direction, whether they are academic or coming from consulting companies: around half the main obstacles to project success are human-related.

A common issue is that end users don’t get enough focus, even though they are the final target – the ultimate customer of the project being set. It is, after all, these people that need to adopt the new solution, and adapt to it. And there is an approach for this: change management (sometimes called Management of Change within ITIL).

When you’re making change happen, those impacted can become rigid and suspicious. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. These human reactions are perfectly normal and definitely to be expected, but things can go downhill if you don’t ease peoples’ minds. And there’s a recipe for this! A change management programme can can mitigate much of this opposition to change.

Here are six tips to help ensure a smooth transition during periods of change:

1.     The human aspect, systematically central

It’s a truth absolute that all change leads to problems and rejection. There. Happy now?

Is your new solution a definite improvement? Was the previous system cranky and constantly creating issue upon issue? Was it unanimously hated? There is still going to be opposition. This is because change always has an effect on user experience: daily tasks will change; responsibilities will evolve and can overlap each other, decrease or grow; everyone needs to get used to new habits, get trained up and develop new skills, new managers and leaders may be appointed… uncertainty and dispute will be there.

And if no-one takes this into account, a bitter aftertaste will remain. This, in turn, can compromise project success, or put the brakes on your company’s smooth running. If you don’t foresee these problems appearing, there’s no doubt they will have a negative effect on work speed, atmosphere and results.

2.     Change management? As early as possible, please

Organising mass training sessions in the last phases of delivery and deployment, or as the project outcomes launch, will be necessary, but not always enough. The last thing the project team wants at this stage is to realise it has been aiming next to the target, or has set a system up that’s more complicated than the previous one. And users don’t particularly want to be presented with a fait accompli.

Disputes can be mitigated drastically by using change management guidelines from the earliest stages of the project. We’re not talking about a quick-fix patch to deal with a mutiny that is steadily becoming a problem. Change management works at its best in one case only: when it’s used to on-board and motivate employees to embrace the novelty of the new. You want them to actively push change forward, and not be victims of change. If you get the right incentives and leverage positive thinking around novelty, then in some cases, there may be no questioning from employees at all.

Why not try these commonly-used change management tactics?

  • Analyse human behaviour within groups and at the individual level, and take a cohesive strategic approach right from the start
  • Implicate not only managers, but also leaders, and make active and visible sponsors of change out of them
  • Communicate the need for change, the effect it will have on employees and on the benefits everyone will get from it

Each of these points is a part of a holistic and structured approach to change management, tackling the root causes of resistance to change. All employees will understand why change is happening, why the project is set and what’s in it for them, and will see that their leaders are enthusiastic about this change. Most often, these  steps will nip the feeling of discontent in the bud, avoiding issues later in the project.

3.     Get sources of discontent in your line of sight

Project teams are able retrospectively to declare “Ah! We knew that group wasn’t gonna like what we were cooking.” Then why didn’t they do anything before issues arose?

Asking ‘Who is likely to dislike the changes I’m bringing with my project?’  is one of the first steps of change management when you’re drawing up your strategy. Even before the project launches properly, take some time to identify potential causes of contestation. Here are some of the groups most likely to be unhappy with change:

  • People who were involved in setting the current work method – the one that’s about to be changed
  • People who advocated another solution than the one eventually chosen
  • People most involved in the current working process
  • People who, rightly or wrongly, expect a change in their workload, either positively (no-one wants more work) or negatively (no one wants to feel useless, because it means they feel threatened)

These groups can be troublesome, and it is important to pay attention to them directly, using different tactics with each.

4.     Identifying the causes of resistance to change

Some people complain, some don’t adopt the new process or others may criticise it out in the open. People may be abnormally slow to perform tasks, while others are reluctant to partake in change by hiding information or attempting to slow things down.

The key here is to not focus solely on symptoms. These are often clearly identifiable, and have an immediate negative impact that can lead to tensions. But if you seek to eliminate only the symptoms, you’ll get limited results – you need to understand why someone is becoming rigid in the face of change. The most common causes can be:

  • Failing to understand why the change is happening
  • Lack of involvement and support from leaders, which leads to lack of faith in the change
  • Previous negative experience of change in the company
  • Lack of motivation and incentives to adapt to change
  • Worrying that your job role will be changed

The causes of resistance are unique, and should be addressed with a case-by-case approach. And the best way to understand the causes of discontent is via a conversation between the resistant employee and their manager.

5.     Tangible actions from leaders

Those in the best place to ease employee worries and preoccupations are leading, longstanding managers – regardless of their actual position in the hierarchy – and direct managers of employees.

Leads of  change management teams aren’t necessarily in the best position to deal directly with resistance, and neither are human resources. In order to ease tensions and mitigate resistance in a company, what works is involving chiefs, leaders, directors, managers and other people of responsibility.

  • Support from the highest levels is of utmost importance: if senior leaders don’t explicitly display their support, employees won’t deem the change important and won’t feel involved.
  • Intermediate managers are just as important: if they’re neutral or express dissent to change, employees will follow. On the contrary, if they show enthusiasm towards the new process being deployed, their teams will follow too.

The role of the change management team is to act in the background. Someone needs to do the job of analysis, of planning, and of choosing the angle to tackle resistance. But when you talk about change management and managing disputes, visible actions can only come from one place: leaders and managers. They specifically must act, and bring all employees on board in the change process.

6.     Say what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it!

Quite often, project managers bulldoze ahead, assuming that everybody has an innate understanding of problems. They often presume everyone expects these problems to be solved and that things will change, that everyone has the same hopes and expectations and that opening the box once everything is ready will be a great surprise for everyone.

Good change management is all about communicating regularly and progressively. Without overkill, messages must be inspiring, make the audience as enthusiastic as possible and offer practical, concrete information.

Communicating excessively in the early stages should be avoided – you don’t want target users to feel they’re being spammed, or for them to have a lukewarm reaction when the project is delivered because they feel that things were long to bake.

The important thing is that communication reaches all levels, and doesn’t only come from the project team, but the company hierarchy. The idea is to give employees the right information at the right time and to involve them, for example by asking them for their feedback. Each time, it can be necessary to communicate more than you’d do intuitively, via several channels.

Most executive leaders know the human component remains the most important one. And project managers will seldom pretend the contrary. However, if they don’t know what work is needed for things to go smoothly, it’s easy to push this human component to the background.

Have you ever had to deal with a situation which could have been better handled with a change management strategy? Do you wish your company would resort to it more regularly? Or have you ever used a different approach which delivered exceptional results?