Changing our way of changing things

Twice in my career I have acted as a change agent in my organizations — to almost disastrous results the first time, and successfully the second time. The first time was in the family business I had worked in for a decade. These people knew me, knew my good intentions and great ideas, and they knew I shared their same complaints. Now that I was in a position to do something about it, wouldn’t everyone be thrilled? No way. But the good news of those painful few years (yes, years) was that I learned some valuable lessons and developed some tools for leading future changes.

One of the biggest lessons I learned is that regardless of how people feel about change generally, most people interpret change not as refinement or improvement, but as an attempt to address something wrong. Changing an old way, especially one people liked or were comfortable with, is essentially telling them they were wrong, and worse, that their investment in it was meaningless. A very natural reaction to that is to resist and defend, and the result can be a stalled effort.

If the company needs to pivot, you need to understand how your changes are being interpreted and what these folks need to make your change work.

  1. Investigate and listen. When you change a way or series of processes — how the people within an organization behave or react — you are changing their work. Get the facts, make sure you are solving the right problem and don’t do it in secret. Being openly curious and gathering data build credibility in whatever gets proposed.
  2. Understand the stakes for those impacted. Consider how the change you want to implement affects not just the people with direct involvement but those secondary to the process. If creating an efficiency means removing a step or an individual from a workflow, one result could be a loss of awareness that allowed your team to anticipate versus react. If a change creates more work for someone else, identifying it and including that as part of the rollout is important.
  3. Frame the change properly. Whether change is a good thing or bad thing depends on the individual. And because you likely don’t have the ability or desire to craft a specific message for everyone in your company, you need to reframe the concept into something neutral and impersonal. Communicate that, as a growing and dynamic company, change is a necessity that exists on a continuum.
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Typically, the lack of communication isn’t around the “what.” The void is always around the “why” — why we are doing this, and why it’s important. The more frequently you can communicate the better, not just as a reminder of what and why, but to drown out dissenting voices that may exist. Communication voids always get filled, and if the void is filled by someone other than you, don’t expect it to be favorable.
  5. Get feedback. You need to know if the change is meeting the objective. While you should provide a consistent opportunity for your team to give you that feedback, you will probably have to pull it out of people by asking what is working and what isn’t.

It’s worth remembering and communicating (and recommunicating) that change isn’t easy. You are asking people to step out of their comfort zone, sometimes with the potential to fail. That doesn’t feel good. But change is something you can get done right if your culture is safe enough for people to be honest about what doesn’t work, even if it just doesn’t work for them. ●

Jennifer Ake-Marriott is President & CEO of Redmond Waltz

Jennifer Ake-Marriott

President & CEO


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