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Scott Williams, founder of Throughline, is a pioneer in visual strategy, enterprise transformation and cultural change.
At all levels of an enterprise, the most defining change of the past decade may be the pace of change itself. Rapid technological innovation and evolving information streams have amplified the importance of agile approaches, and nowhere more so than in change management.
Harvard Business School defines change management as the overall approach to guiding organizational change, whether in terms of workflow, organizational culture, technology, strategic planning or other initiatives. For the C-suite looking toward the future, how can change management strategies account for our perpetually changing times?
The key is a change management strategy that is adaptable and personalized but directed toward a unified vision. It is one that strengthens the connections between the C-suite and the enterprise while also empowering the workforce to take ownership of the changes. Craft an agile change management plan and elevate your vision using these five approaches.
1. Dial in to personnel needs.
During any period of change, nothing is more consequential than the people directly impacted. Executives can maximize change management’s effectiveness by centering the workforce and asking: Do they want change? Do they have the capacity to implement it? As Changefirst CEO David Miller points out, “Even the best change management processes will struggle to get traction if people are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of change.”
Keeping your finger on the pulse of the workforce and organizational needs can optimize change implementation, particularly in large-scale or complex transformations. One efficient tool for assessing workforce sentiment is the visual strategy map. While personnel needs vary across an organization, these maps enable leaders to translate disparate perspectives into mutually positive outcomes. By illustrating relationships and impacts graphically, maps can help contextualize personnel experiences within the overall change management strategy.
To create a visual strategy map, I recommend using a template from the online collaboration platform, Miro. Then, add graphic elements to your map that visually tell the story of your transformation.
2. Align your team and your goals.
In a McKinsey study, researchers found that corporate change programs had only a 30% success rate, with the primary barriers being employee resistance and management misalignment with the organizational change goals. Successful change management depends upon everyone in the organization, from the top down, aligning to a shared vision for the enterprise.
It is vital to instill a sense of ownership over outcomes. Consider exercises geared toward building a shared sense of responsibility, such as a graphically facilitated session. By engaging participants with visual narratives and encouraging them to co-create solutions, these sessions help align individuals on the organizational change journey. These techniques can be especially useful in aligning team leads and managers, whose everyday interactions with their teams grant them “an outsized role in implementing change initiatives.”
3. Communicate on a deeper level.
The shift to remote and hybrid work created new challenges for enterprise communications. The potential for lack of communication or self-conscious, ambiguous communication threatens workforce alignment and is a major barrier to successful change management. Nevertheless, the linchpin to open communication and constructive feedback across the enterprise is simple: vulnerability.
Honest communication demands a degree of vulnerability that may feel uncomfortable at first. But it can thrive when the organization establishes a climate of empathy, where difficult conversations coexist with dignity and respect. Author Brené Brown has stated, “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.” Candid, direct conversations are powerful opportunities to get to the heart of a problem and resolve issues before they have time to fester. To carve out space for honest communication on complex problems, consider introducing co-creation exercises to spark discussion and generate fresh ideas.
Personally, I like the co-creation exercise called “I Like, I Wish, I Wonder,” which helps teams to openly discuss a complex problem by exploring the art of the possible. Organizing ideas and preferences into the three categories can help lead you to a solution.
4. Trust the process.
For businesses to remain competitive in today’s economy, they must approach transformation strategically, with careful attention to the process. The first step is crafting a detailed plan that covers strategic goals, as well as the scope and key performance indicators for measuring success. Moreover, a change management plan should go far beyond the C-suite. Consider translating your plan into a visual journey map, which provides you with a tool to help the workforce and other stakeholders quickly and efficiently buy in to and adopt your process.
Leaders can further connect processes to results by fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable learning and questioning without fear of repercussions. As management and entrepreneurship professor Christopher S. Reina notes, “Trustworthy leaders honor the dignity of their people and help them understand the process along the way, rather than just allowing someone’s input to go into a black box where the person has no idea what happened to their work or effort or how it contributed to the final output.” Just a small amount of trust can go on to pay dividends in buy-in.
5. Know when to adapt.
An effective change management plan should be a living document capable of adapting or pivoting as it helps the organization navigate disruptions like a global pandemic or the “Great Resignation.” Building a degree of adaptability also makes it easier to scale the plan appropriately as organizational needs evolve. Create room to iterate and refine by introducing frameworks, which can help visualize abstract ideas and change management models. Frameworks allow groups to explore strategies and alter their course as needed—well before the initiative is past the point of change.
Ultimately, C-suite executives’ engagement in change management plans can make the difference between temporary changes and ingrained cultural shifts at the institutional level. The pace of change shows no signs of slowing. But with an agile mindset and connectedness across the enterprise, your organization has every chance at keeping up.
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