Supporting the agents of change

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Written by Lyndon Wingrove on 11 November 2015

Change is scary, at least for a lot of people it is. It creates uncertainty and a sense of unease, especially when it’s sudden or not handled correctly. Yet change is necessary for progress; without it we’d still be living in caves, and in business you risk becoming obsolete if you don’t change with the times. Year on year we need to do more, better.  So how can organisations balance these two paradoxical aspects of change?  What steps can be taken to ensure that when change does inevitably happen, it doesn’t cause chaos and dissention within the workforce?

See the smaller picture

Often when organisations decide to implement a change of any kind, their focus tends to be on the bigger picture i.e. looking at how it will impact profits and the company’s progress. But while this is of course vital to consider, it sometimes means that the impact it will have on the smaller picture (i.e. the day to day working of the organisation) is overlooked.  When you are in a senior management position, dealing with intense pressure and an immense workload on a daily basis, it can be exceptionally difficult to find time to understand the daily workings of the rest of the workforce. 

But without this information you leave yourself vulnerable to trouble arising further down the ranks. By taking the time to understand how a change will impact workers at all levels, you can foresee and address any potential problems, and increase your chances of getting the workforce on board sooner, helping to minimise disruption. 

This approach benefits all parties as employees will feel more involved and supported, and you can feel more confident that your change will be implemented more smoothly. One important question to ask yourself should be, am I capable of looking bottom up as well as top down. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you can’t (there is no expectation that leaders know everything!), but if you are aware of this then involving people who can (i.e. those who are in that position) will be the best action.

Train, train and train again

Aside from working to understand how change will affect the wider workforce, the most important thing an organisation can do is to provide adequate training. One of the most common change programmes that a business will implement on a wide scale is the introduction of a new IT system or software and, in this instance, organisations often focus their training efforts on making sure their employees are able to use the new system. While this is obviously an important issue to address, it shouldn’t be the only focus as often there are process and cultural impacts that could be more damaging if not taken into account. The system itself will generally be a subset of a wider approach. 

Many system implementations will be completed, swiftly followed by the question “why are people not using it properly”, most of the time it’s not that they don’t know how, it’s that the culture of change and the process around the system haven’t been looked at. 

This may be something the organisation is able to manage independently, or it may require the input of experts in organisational change to help facilitate the process. But in either case, it is vital that there is an understanding of the potential impact the change will have, and the appreciation that when any big change occurs, whether it’s a new IT system, new processes or an organisational restructure, people will need wider support and training in how to adapt to the new environment.  

One key issue to bear in mind with regards to training opportunities during a change roll out is to be aware of the potential role adjustments that will likely occur within teams.  Any changes in the organisation will naturally lead to adjustments in people’s roles and responsibilities, and this needs to be anticipated and suitably managed to ensure that staff are fully supported to embrace this change and continue to perform their work to a high standard, with minimal disruption to them or the wider business. 

An important aspect of this will be ensuring staff receive the necessary training to be able to fulfil their new role, and are given the opportunity to explore any additional training needs they may foresee as necessary for their future development. 

Another important area of focus during a period of change should be to ensure that management (at all levels) are able to oversee the change and support their employees during it. This will mean not only training them on any new specific skills resulting from the change (e.g. how to use a new system or process), but may also require development in areas such as communication, team building, and motivational strategies. 

Ideally these are qualities and skills your management team already possess, but when going through a period of adjustment, these will be put to the test. Therefore, rather than allowing your managers to find out the hard way that they need some development in these areas, it is advisable to take proactive steps beforehand to ensure your leaders are ready to drive the change and support their staff during this potentially uneasy time.  Identifying those who will manage the change and those who lead the change are important as different skills and competencies are required.

However, while leadership development should undoubtedly be a key area of focus, it’s also important to remember that employees don’t interact exclusively with their managers, and thus managers may not always be the most appropriate people to provide the support employees are seeking. 

The implementation of peer support is therefore also an important area to consider.  This may take many forms, for example specific individuals may be delegated as ‘team experts’, where they are formally trained in the new ways of working, and can be on hand to support colleagues who have questions.  Alternatively teams may benefit from having a representative who can bring issues to more senior managers during the transitional period; again this will likely require some degree of training for the individual to be able to manage this responsibility confidently. 

Embrace the opportunities change brings 

Change programmes have the potential to be an extremely anxiety provoking time, but with the right approach, there is no need for this to be the case.  The principle behind change is, hopefully, change for the better.  In actual fact, with the right strategies in place, a big change can have the power to reinvigorate and re-energise an organisation, but in order for this to be the case it has to be approached positively and managed proactively. 

If this can be achieved then a period of change can an excellent starting point to address long standing issues and empower a more streamlined and cohesive organisation.  For example when a change is being planned it will ideally spur on the high level management to take a step back and understand how it will impact the rest of the workforce. 

This also allows them the opportunity to reconnect with the wider business, hopefully helping to create more cohesion and open a dialogue with all staff that will ultimately help the business grow and develop. 

Furthermore, the potential need for training throughout the workforce can also be seen as an excellent springboard to reassess and evaluate current training needs, skills shortages, and how these impact the visions and goals of the business. Therefore with the right approach, it could lead to a more skilled and streamlined workforce who are consequently much more productive and engaged; again helping to evolve and progress the business as a whole.

With the right approach change programmes can truly be a force for good, and a powerful driver of growth and development in a business, but no matter what is being altered, the vital thing to remember is to always support your staff; after all they will be the ultimate agents of successful change.


About the author

Lyndon Wingrove, Director, Capabilities and Consulting, Thales Learning & Development.