In episodes 15 and 16 I talked about one of the most common aspects of work – how to motivate employees. How you get or inspire employees to do things. In episode 16 in particular, I briefly reviewed developmental employee needs.
One of those needs was clear change communication. That employees need to know what’s going on within teams and across the organization. Otherwise, being kept in the dark often causes uncertainty, which can snowball into anxiety and even fear.
In our research, we’ve found that employees consistently don’t understand why changes are made in their organizations. And that’s even among some of the best places to work across the United States, which means change communication is a huge opportunity for most companies. Because if change isn’t communicated well, then it’s difficult to see how you fit into the organization’s future plans. Almost all employees need stability to see their path, their future in an organization. This all wraps up into change management.
I’ll be going over two topics throughout this episode. First is the mystery of the change management process. The second topic is around potential mishaps of change management, using the Knoster model for managing complex change.
Think about the last time you tried to change something at your workplace. It could be a change in yourself, like changing your work routine or how you respond to people who disagree with you. It could be a change in your team members, like you coaching them on how to communicate more effectively with each other. Or it could even be a change across the whole organization, like trying to implement a wellness program or raising awareness about volunteering opportunities in the community.
Maybe those changes were successful, maybe they failed. Either way, chances are pretty good that you learned quite a bit when going through those changes. Mostly around just how complex and difficult the change management process really is.
Again, change brings with it the unknown, which brings uncertainty. And uncertainty is a large part of organizational operations, both big and small. At the highest level you have business risk, which can threaten an entire organization. You also have leadership changes, mergers and acquisitions, large layoffs, company-wide strategies. Relatively speaking these changes are less frequent, but they impact a lot of people when they happen, so those changes bring with them a ton of uncertainty.
That’s why I think change management has been associated with strategic management for so long. Because it’s those bigger, high-impact changes that have more potential for making or breaking entire companies. Like there’s a really popular change management model called Kotter’s eight-step model of change. It’s about creating a sense urgency with change, forming a strategic vision, generating short-term wins, and more. But really, that’s about change in organizational strategy. High-level change.
At a much smaller level, you have team-based and individual changes. These are much, much more common. In fact, these are the changes that you live and breathe every day as a people manager. But the impact of these kinds of changes, and therefore the resulting uncertainty, is more isolated. Isolated to just one team or even one person. These changes are like whether your team is hitting its quarterly goals or whether your team members see a potential for growth and development in the organization.
I’m mentioning all these differences because I want to emphasize what I think is an important point. Change management happens every day because change isn’t a one-and-done thing. It’s not a fixed point in time in which you can say “Wait for it...wait for it...done! Change has happened.” No, it doesn’t work like that. Change is always happening in organizations, both big and small, short-term and long-term.
As a people manager you could certainly use principles that some change management models offer, like Kotter’s eight-step model of change. But realistically, I’d argue that change management is simply people management. Because you constantly manage differences, changes, in yourself and your team.
I’ve mentioned change management a few times, but I haven’t defined it yet. Kinda jumped right into it. So what is change management? Change by itself is making something different or becoming different. So change is difference over time. And change isn’t automatically positive – it’s just a difference. Could be positive, could be negative.
In its broadest and most straightforward sense, change management is how differences over time are managed. Could be managed well, could be managed poorly. In a more positive sense, change management is any approach, tactic, or strategy that helps change be successful within organizations. Could be around awareness, preparation, coping, support, and so on. With those different aspects of change, it becomes even more complex when we consider all the constant changes happening within individuals, within teams, across teams, and within the organization overall.
The main takeaway from this first section is that change is always happening across all levels of an organization, to almost everyone every day. It’s just that change, or some kind of difference, isn’t easily seen or felt until some milestone or breakthrough happens. So from my perspective, change management is just a slightly more specific label for people management.
Named after Timothy Knoster, the Knoster model for managing complex change is a simple yet effective way of viewing organizational change. Knoster and his colleagues explored a variety of change management models, and they identified at least five elements necessary for successful change implementation. These elements are visions, skills, incentives, resources, and plans. Those elements are often the bare minimum necessary for sustainable change.
I like this model because it’s straightforward. It takes the complexity of change management and distills it into a model that’s very easy to follow. It’s actually way better visualized than just hearing about it, so I’d encourage you to look it up to get the full effect.
I also like this model because it builds in mishaps. It’s not just that sustainable change needs vision, skills, incentives, resources, and a plan. Instead, Knoster and colleagues built into their model an outlook of various conditions. Specifically, what happens when each one of those elements is missing from a situation.
That’s why I think it’s the perfect change management model to showcase common mishaps that leaders and managers encounter when trying to make changes. The rest of this section will be about each element, as well as what can happen when each element is missing.
Think about change as walking down a path. When there’s certainty around change, the path is illuminated – you can see where you’re going very clearly. But the more uncertainty you have, the darker it gets. Yet having a vision provides a light at the end of the path, regardless of how dark it currently is around you. Vision provides guidance, answering the question of “Why are we doing this?”
Without vision, you create confusion. It’s like driving through thick fog without your headlights on. Your team won’t know where they’re headed or why, and that can be disorienting. You can have all the skills, resources, and plans to approach change, but none of that really matters if you don’t have a unifying vision. Because if there’s no common purpose, no common path, no vision to keep all those elements aligned, then any attempt at change will lack focus.
When you want to change something at work, whether in yourself or in your team members, have some kind of vision in mind. And then communicate that vision. Why do you want to be a better manager? Why do you want your team to use this new piece of software? Why are you advocating for a wellness program? A vision is all about the why, and you should have a compelling answer to that question before trying to make a change.
For any change you want to see in yourself or others, you need to make sure all involved parties have the necessary skills to carry that change through. Technically, someone doesn’t have to have a skill before an attempt at change is made. I mean, skill development is itself a change – a difference in what you know and what you can do. But with that, there has to be support to develop or strengthen those skills, as well as an underlying skillset like perseverance, open-mindedness, things like that.
If your team members don’t have the skills needed to carry out change, you create anxiety in them. You might have a vision for how you want the change to unfold, but you’ll only create anxiety if you and your team members don’t have the skills to deliver on that vision. As a people manager, this means ensuring that a desired change is realistic, based on the skills, or potential for skills, of all people involved.
This element is all about motivation. There’s that topic again – how to motivate employees. People need a reason to get behind change. Remember that change is at best a little uncomfortable, and absolutely terrifying at worst. Change brings friction, and there’s much less friction if people see some incentive to change.
And having a vision isn’t enough. A vision is one kind of reason, but in some ways it’s a bit more philosophical. People need an incentive that’s more direct and perhaps tangible, some kind of perk or advantage to change. Like being able to spend less time on a task that’s really monotonous, or gaining experience for a potential promotion in the future.
Because without incentives, you create resistance. The friction that change causes in people can be decreased, or made smoother, when they’re given a reason to change. But the flip side is that if they’re not given a reason, and are basically just told to change and that’s it, then that makes the friction worse. In fact, it can make the friction so rough that people simply resist the change. As a manager, if you want change to be as smooth as possible, you have to give people a reason to change, hopefully to the point where they’re motivated, maybe even excited, to change.
The fourth element is about resources. This element is similar to skills in that you need to meet certain requirements before change can be successful. In this case, it’s about having the time, money, staff, and equipment to carry out change.
Without resources, you create frustration. You can have a solid vision with highly skilled people who are motivated for the change, but none of that matters if all of that can’t be supported. Like if you don’t have enough time to make a change by a certain deadline, you’ll either cut corners or not hit your goal, which can be frustrating.
Or you’ll be given half of the money you need or requested, which puts a strain on what your team can do, which can be frustrating. Or maybe you have a stellar team, but you simply don’t have enough people to enact the change that you envision. Again, that can be frustrating.
To reduce frustration, make sure you anticipate and account for any resources you might need to conduct change. Arguably this is more of a constraint for larger changes in your team, but resources should always be considered, even if you’re just talking about changes in one person.
This is basically an action plan. It’s about laying the steps to be taken toward success. Just as the elements of skills and resources are pretty similar, so too are vision and plans. Remember the analogy I used for vision, about walking down a dark path. If a vision is a light at the end of the path, then you can think of a plan as having a map and a flashlight. The vision is the philosophical “why,” whereas the plan includes the step-by-step goals needed to reach that vision. A plan is a roadmap, and the more detailed that map is, the better you can follow the path and know how you’re progressing.
Without an action plan, you create a treadmill effect. It’s also pretty common to see this as creating false starts. Either way, without a plan, without step-by-step goals and tracking, you’ll be running in place or all over the place. You could have a vision to guide your team, incentives to motivate them, and all the skills and resources to carry out change, but you’ll encounter difficulties if you don’t have a plan to follow.
Like think about a road trip. You have a vision, or a rough endpoint and why you want to take the road trip. You’re motivated by the experiences you’ll have and the sights you’ll see. You have the skills to drive, take pictures, and all that. And you even have all the resources needed, like a car, money, and luggage full of clothes.
So imagine you have all that, but you don’t have a map. No physical or digital map, no GPS, nothing. There’s nothing to guide you except knowing which general direction you’re headed, like north or west, and general markers like signs on interstates and highways.
Sure, you could probably get to where you wanted to go eventually, but at the cost of spending much more time, energy, and money to get there than if you had a map and a daily plan. Not having a plan is very inefficient. Long story short – have a plan, set goals, and track progress toward successful change.
The main takeaway from this second section is that you typically need at least five elements to drive successful change. Those elements include a vision, skills, incentives, resources, and a plan. Some of these may show up later in the change process, whereas some are needed earlier, but they all play a part in helping change management be more successful.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed the mystery of the change management process, as well as some mishaps that can occur. Changes are differences over time, and they happen every day across all teams. Change management is largely people management, and because this involves people, it’s easy to carry out change with some mishaps. Using Knoster’s model of managing complex change, those mishaps revolve around not having certain elements, which can create confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration, or a treadmill effect.
Change management is a huge and complex topic, so what I’ve talked about barely scratches the surface of everything that could be considered. With that said, the intent of this episode was to simplify and ground that complexity.
Like I mentioned earlier, I think change management is too often associated with high-level, strategic management, which means a lot of people managers may not take the time to stop and reflect on smaller, team-level change management. I hope what I’ve reviewed gives you some food for thought around change, and some hurdles you’ll need to overcome to make change more successful in your team.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss boundaries.