Disclaimer: This is a topic that brings out the cynic in me. There are so many different approaches to change management and, after 25 years of doing this, I know what good looks like. I’m not talking about “the model.” I’m talking about the underlying philosophy and drivers—the engine that makes it work.
Have you ever heard (or perhaps uttered the words yourself) “that’s the soft stuff” in reference to the people side of change—it’s said in a way that implies that it’s the easy, not so important stuff. You know, the stuff that HR or OD or L&D can just “handle.” The “hard stuff”—the strategy, the plans, the newly designed process, the new organization design, the technology—is done. Now we just need to take care of the “soft stuff”—meaning getting people to use the new whatever.
Check out these real-life situations…
- A major manufacturing company is implementing Lean Sigma. Consultants have come in and leadership is excited. Black and Green Belts have been trained. Some projects have been completed with a lot of potential benefit. Slide decks have been created. Those new process have been communicated, people have been trained, and posters have been made. Still, everyone seems locked into doing it the old way—all that potential isn’t becoming reality.
- A pharmaceutical company announces that it is buying and merging with one of its competitors. Promises have been made about synergies. Press conferences are held. Teams have been formed to combine this group with that one. But the cultures just don’t mix. Resistance rears its head. Productivity slows, some good people jump ship and those synergies promised to The Street just never become reality.
- A large food-service company has implemented an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system that promises real-time information about everything from who has worked what hours to current inventory levels to current accounts payable to shipment locations. If only people would use the system as intended—the system would probably live up to its promises.
In each of these cases, a lot of money and time were invested but the promised returns never materialized (or if they materialized, it took a lot longer than it should have). In all three of these cases, the problem was the same—“the soft side.” However, I’m here to tell you that the “soft side” is really the hard stuff. It is where we have to get down and dirty and roll up our sleeves to help people to do things differently. After all, new results mean new behaviors. And, WITHOUT ANYONE DOING ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY, NOTHING CHANGES.
Now many reading this will say “we had change management as a part of our work.” We all do! In the example above, each organization had a change management process. But, let’s be clear and let’s be real—not all change management is created equal. Like a lot of things, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly and sadly, many do not know the difference (and some do not care to know the difference—after all, it’s just the “soft stuff”).
So how do you know if your change process is effective or not? There are two simple features of any effective change management process. These are the minimum requirements, if you will. Without either of these features, you will not be successful. Period.
Feature 1: The change process must be outcome focused.
Change is messy and it sure isn’t a linear process. People start doing things then stop. People hang on to the old ways. People hear things differently. This is what we do…we’re human after all. Whatever change process you use, ensure that it focuses on the outcomes in terms people’s behavior changing. Contrast this with an activity-focused process where the goal is completing a series of steps with little or no regard to outcome.
For example, many change management processes suggest doing some kind of readiness assessment. The activity-focused approach would have us do the assessment, look at the results and then move on to the next step—really doing very little with the results. (You might not believe that this happens but it does all the time.) The outcome-focused approach would mean pausing and really understanding what the assessment results mean. If the assessment suggests that they organization isn’t ready, then we would pause and figure out what needs to be done to help get it ready…not just plow on to the next activity.
While this seems obvious and straightforward, in reality the activity trap is an easy one to fall into when the meter is running and the clock is ticking. The project plan (which was developed without contingencies for the “soft stuff”) and budget drive the work. However, there needs to be a balance. Does it really do us any good to come in on time and on budget if no one uses the new thing?
Feature 2: The change process must focus on behavior—what people say and do.
Simply put, unless somebody does something differently, there is no change. This can be a bit deceptive and probably sounds way too basic. But there is almost always one critical piece missing—a detailed understanding of who needs to do what differently for the new “thing” to work. And often, there are a lot of different people needing to do a lot of things differently. This is why I said the opening statement is a bit deceptive. It sounds so so simple but to get all of these people to do all of these new things can be very complex and requires time, patience, understanding, and some tools.
I have four things for you to think about when it comes to focusing on behavior.
- Recognize and embrace the concept that nothing changes unless behavior changes—Polish it, put it in lights, admire it—if no one uses it, it just doesn’t matter.
- Know that human behavior is more than a factor in the change, it is the change—A corollary to #1, just park the notion that the soft side is part of the change. Now, accept the knowledge that the soft side—or better said—the behaviors of those using the new whatever IS the change.
- Accept that the people side cannot be planned as a linear set of activities—It’s messy out there. We must factor in that not everyone is going to jump on board when they’re asked to—and for very good reasons. Having time to ensure that people are doing what’s needed and to assess the root causes when they’re not is key to sustainable change.
- Understand the difference between those things that get behavior started and those things that maintain behavior—In my post As Easy as ABC I talk about this in detail. Too much of change management is about getting behaviors started (communication, training, job aids, etc.). This is necessary stuff but it isn’t sufficient for last change. For that we need coaching and feedback, acknowledgement, recognition and, most importantly, a new whatever that is easy to use!!
So, the next time you’re tempted to say the words “the soft stuff” in reference to the people side of the business, STOP! It is the hard stuff and deserves as much and probably more attention than the new whatever.
I have dedicated an entire section of this site to Managing Change. In that section you’ll find tools, stories, examples, and resources to help you design and lead major change in your organization.