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Updated: Feb 8

Setting the Stage As individuals, we’re constantly grappling with change. And it’s hard. Even Barbie can relate. In the recent Greta Gerwig film, Margot Robbie squeaks onto the astro turf in a huff, stripping off her polyester jacket and clip on pearl earrings in blaze of defeat after confronting the patriarchy’s freshest new member Ken, and witnessing an undesired home makeover - from Dreamhouse to Mojo Dojo Casa House. She cries out “I never wanted anything to change”, to which America Ferrera responds, echoing Heraclitus’s mantra the only constant in life is change, “Oh honey, that’s life! It’s all change.” Barbie looks up teary eyed and whispers, “That’s terrifying.” She’s not wrong. In our post-COVID world that demands we stay in an almost constant state of evolution (AI anyone?), reimagination and transformation, we as individuals must stay on our toes. And within our chaotic organizations, research shows that practicing effective change (and transition*) management is the answer to survival and sustained success. I’ll make sure I tell Barbie. Change Management is a Top Priority While attending Gartner’s October 10th Zoom debut of their highly anticipated “Top Priorities for HR Leaders in 2024” report, a reputable resource in which the results of their annual HR leadership survey are presented and overlaid with their expert commentary, Mark Whittle, VP of Advisory, shared that yet again, change management has made it to the top 5. With Leader and Manager Development #1, Organizational Culture #2, HR Tech #3, Change Management #4 and Career Management and Internal Mobility coming in at #5, it’s clear that each of these priorities are complex, meaty, and challenging, as well as inextricably tied to one another. As Mark said, "The middle three are about transformation, and we need leaders who can drive the change (1), and we want employees to stay (5)”. If you ask me, Change Management is the priority that underpins them all (you could also say that about culture, but humor me 😊) and is the burning platform and critical capability on which every organization’s future hinges. We can see these priorities in action in other Gartner research that says a typical organization today has undertaken five major firmwide changes in the past three years — and nearly 75% expect to multiply the types of major change initiatives they will undertake in the next three years - yet half of change initiatives fail, and only 34% are a clear success. So, what gives? Let’s Set Sail When it comes to managing change, it’s hard to picture what good looks like because it’s not straightforward. It’s behavioral in nature, not merely tactical. And it’s personal. Prosci, the global leader in change management and the provider of choice for 80% of Fortune 100 companies (I’m certified 😊), says that organizations don’t change, individuals do. So, change happens at the individual level, one person at a time. In its simplest terms, practicing sound change management to support an organizational initiative aims to bring people from destination A to destination B with the least amount of suffering as possible. Think: a reorganization, a merger or acquisition, or the implementation of a new technology. When an initiative is introduced, there is an immediate splitting of realities – there is the way work is done today, the way work will get done tomorrow, and the voyage it will take to get from today to tomorrow. As an analogy-generating machine, I make sense of the world around me in terms of like for like and stories. So today, let’s use sailing as the analogy of choice and dive into the “Three Key Principles for Navigating the Seas of Change” to help outline what’s most important during that voyage. Before we can begin to imagine what the new world will be like in breezy B, we need people to get on the boat that is docked at destination A with its sails up, ready to disembark. To do that effectively, we need to practice Principle # 1. Principle 1: Unleash Your Inner Salesperson Let go of the used car salesman image in your head and embrace the fact that effective change management requires you to sell. Maybe not a musty 1984 Neon (remember those?), and not in a gaslighty manipulative manner with false promises and pressurized decision making, but sell nonetheless. Defined as “to persuade someone of the merits of”, when we’re driving change in an organization, we must sell the idea. Those we need on board must buy – or buy into­ - what we’re selling for any kind of change to happen. We know from the change curve that everyone goes through the buying decision process at different speeds. Some people might buy the benefits right away only to regress back a few steps when they realize what it will mean for them and how seemingly hard it will be to change, emotionally and practically. It’s like me and GenAI – I bought the benefits but have slid backwards on the curve into sad land because I’ve yet to wrap my head around what I need to change about how I work in order to work better. Don’t get me wrong - not all change initiatives are easy to sell. For example, I worked with a global medical device client who was implementing a new CRM that would elevate the more immature marketing departments around the world but was clearly going to set back the mature US market by years due to the advancements they’d already made on their own. But because a primary goal of the transformation was the standardization of business processes across the globe, this left those US marketing team members at a total loss to see the immediate benefits (because there really weren’t any), and their change leaders the challenge of relying on generating excitement around the very real but intangible longer-term benefits of the change. However, there were some glimmers of light in the otherwise dark tunnel. This was an opportunity for leadership – for the US marketing function to show up as a center of excellence other countries could follow. It was also a superb – albeit painful – opportunity to leverage the disruption as a way to examine existing inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement in every crevice of the department, because as my favorite CrossFit trainer says during a grueling workout when I just want to half ass the squats and take a short cut, you’re doing it anyway so why not get the most out of it. Even when the "what's in it for me" (WIIFM) for a change initiative is mediocre at best and doesn’t inspire goosebumps when explained to an employee, there is always an opportunity to highlight a benefit - either to the organization, a function, a team, a leader, or an individual - that will trigger some dopamine release and engage someone in the process. This of course requires an investment of time - and an open conversation to explore what's in it for stakeholders - time spent that is critical to success. The very act of inviting someone into a conversation to explore the WIIFM for themselves can inspire a sense of belonging, and create the space for them to make a choice to actively join the journey, and perhaps even advocate for it. Principle 2: A Ship Needs a Strong Captain It all starts and crashes and burns at the top. I could write novella about the drama and unfortunate challenges I’ve seen unfold when the leaders at the helm of a change were not set up for success. For any change initiative to be successful, and for behaviors to actually stick long after “go-live”, leaders need to be invested in early. Remember – Leaders are humans too! They are going through the change themselves, rolling up and dipping down the curve in the same way their employees are. However, they must show up as confident in front of their people and instill the kind of authentic trust needed to garner buy-in and commitment from the workforce. They can’t do this well unless they are given a forum to be themselves, to just be human. Give your leaders a safe space where they can air their grievances, ask questions and not worry about how they’re showing up or what they’re saying or not saying. They need a space where they can be raw and unfiltered and work through their own stuff first so they can manage how they show up in front of their people with the grace needed during times of change. However, it’s not enough to simply create the space. I’ve seen these forums set up with the best of intentions that become unproductive gripe fests between unsupportive team members because the right parameters weren’t in place, the ground rules weren’t co-created, and the most senior leader (in this case, the CEO) didn’t lead by example. Leaders need to be held accountable for using the time productively and not holding back. There is no time for a meeting after the meeting or side chats that cause spinning. Cultivate a culture of vulnerability amongst the leadership team and have the most senior person very clearly lead by example by perhaps sharing their fears of failure or areas of weakness. When it comes to creating and fostering open cultures that encourage vulnerability, that also starts at the top. And what better opportunity to lean into that than during times of change that call on leaders to play Captain of the ship in an extremely visible way. A Note About Middle Managers While the engagement of the sponsor-level leadership team is critical, an organization’s superpower really lies within middle management. A 2023 Prosci study showed that the most instrumental communicators for personal messages regarding the change initiative (what does it mean to you, how will your job change), which comprises the most important communications any impacted employee will consume, actually comes from the employee’s supervisor at 58%, with Department Head in second place at 11%. Middle managers are also leaders (and humans) with the same challenges stated above and need their own safe spaces so they can show up for their team members in the best way possible. Principle 3: Let the Boat Float My favorite Brian Andreas art piece shows a figure in a boat with their legs splayed upwards with curved lines of wind gusts etched into the sky The drawing is in his traditional child-like illustration style that is brightly colored and flanked by a hand-written quote. In this piece titled “Illusion of Control”, it reads “If you hold on to the handle, she said, it’s easier to maintain the illusion of control. But it’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you.” I have it stuck to my fridge so I am forced to look at it every day as a reminder that even though I may be helping leaders and their organizations navigate change, any semblance of total control is an illusion that can shift as quickly as the wind. This is a reality I find to be exhilarating (and why I got into this business in the first place 😊) as much as it can be challenging, and I call on the combined wisdom of three of teachers to explain why, sometimes, you just need to let the boat float. What do the Buddha, Mark Manson (author of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”) and the founders of Agile Methodology have in common? They all encourage us to focus on the levers we can control. The Buddha says the root of all suffering is attachment – to a person, a thing, or an outcome. I spent months planning for the rollout of a new technology and reimagined ways of working for an IT department at a utility client. It was exciting! There was so much opportunity! And then we got some disruptive news that the nuclear business would be spun off and that priority project was already underway. This completely deadlocked our plans and left us floating in an unknown ocean with no destination we could see. This kind of stuff – heftier and more miniscule in impact – happens all the time. Such is the nature of things to be in an ever-evolving state of flux, and why it’s so critical to practice agility. To be truly agile, we must practice what Mark Manson’s calls the subtle art of not giving a fuck about what we can’t control. We must be rigorously intentional about what deserves our attention and ruthlessly prioritize. Only then can we make the impact we’re committed to and realize the value we believe in. It is too easy to get swept away in corporate politics and drama, in tensions between project teams, developers, and change managers, local and global cultural misalignments, HQ versus the markets, warring executives on future resourcing – the list can go on forever (in a second novella.. or maybe a novel.. or series?). But our work is to take one step at a time and strategically assess each challenge as it arises - just like in an agile sprint - and say yes, we can do this. That matters. And no, that is not worth our time. That is dragging us down on this floating boat and we won’t have it. I find that practicing mindfulness (I love the Calm app), going to therapy regularly (thank goodness for those people), sharing stories and connecting with my professional community, and reading inspirational authors like Adam Grant and Mark Manson helps me cultivate and sustain the kind of buffer I need between action and reaction, between sinking and floating, and my ability to coach my clients to do the same. In Closing I have two asks for anyone up for the challenge: 1) Build Change Management Muscles in Yourself and Your Leaders Change management and agility should be competencies included in all roles across an organization. Tie them to behavioral anchors so people know what good looks like and leaders can receive coaching and coach their team members on developing these critical skills. Focus leadership development curriculum on these cornerstones of effective change leadership and hold participants accountable to lead by example. Remember - They are the captains of tomorrow’s change initiatives and organizational transformations. But don’t stop there. Extend this to the entire workforce. As organizations take steps towards becoming more skill and project-based with deployable talent at the heart versus defined job architectures and limiting structures, these capabilities should cut across all talent pools because they apply to every single project, every single role, every single day. 2) Invite Yourself to the Party There are specific functions uniquely positioned to stymie the pain and suffering associated with poorly managed change, and perhaps even prevent dumpster fires in the first place. Human Resources/People Services is the obvious frontrunner here, but there can be others as well. For example, one of my healthcare clients had a Transformation Office tasked with supporting change across the hospital system whom I believed had opportunity to expand their impact. To all of these players I ask: Insert yourself in anything that smells like a change initiative. Infiltrate it at the onset and advocate on behalf of the workforce experience at every step of the way. Help build a coalition of project team members who can hold the importance of the people impact as high as their management of the budget, timelines, and all other project managey-things. And most importantly, in the end, you will help the business realize the human ROI** that would be impossible without these efforts and would likely become just another tombstone in the cemetery of failed change. Notes * I’m currently reading “Managing Transitions” by William Bridges, PhD and Susan Bridges, and I’ll be writing a future article about the difference between transition and change, why they get conflated and how to avoid that dangerous trap that can lead to unhealthy disruption and failure. **Prosci defines this as speed of adoption, ultimate utilization, proficiency

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