by Jonathan Hassell

How to Make Change Management a Human Process

Nov 14, 20127 mins
Collaboration SoftwareIT LeadershipProject Management Tools

CIOs often think of change management in terms of workflows, deployment strategies and budgets. It's just as crucial, though, to make sure executives, subordinates and other colleagues are equal partners in the process. That way, when change does happen, employees actually embrace it.

It’s foolish to think you will never encounter change in business. If you hold a position as CIO of a business or other organization, that is especially true. Change seeks you out. The landscape is moving so quickly, and technology matures and advances and achieves new breakthroughs so quickly, that you have no choice but to embrace it on your level.

Doing so on behalf of your entire organization is a much different story. Change management is one of the biggest challenges CIOs face. Grappling with it—and navigating successfully through it—is a basic job requirement.

But it’s rooted far outside of silicon. It’s in carbon.

The Human Part of Change Management

When you think of change management initially, you probably think of workflows, approvals, budgets, transition plans and deployment strategies right off the bat. This is natural; as a CIO, you’re around technology day in and day out. But perhaps the most crucial element of managing any type of change in any organization is the ability to enroll your peers, colleagues, employees and other partners in your efforts. Rule by fiat, by diktat, is rarely ever successful in any but the smallest of projects. Huge, organization-wide changes need to be sold and preached to an audience that has been prepared and is ready to listen and understand.

To understand this more, think of how you might be tempted to set a new policy without adequate time for review. People underneath you in the hierarchical chain follow these policies because of the chain of command, but silently—or, even worse, behind your back to other colleagues and team members—they may begin disparaging policies they see as ineffective or burdensome. Such gossip spreads through the organization rather quickly, creating doubt and resistance to change.

Commentary: Why the “New CIO” Must Be Ready, Willing and Able to Embrace Change

Contrast this with an approach that enrolls your colleagues and achieves an understanding and a commitment to your proposed changes. When team members understand the reasoning for a change, the intended benefits and the path to deployment and success, they make a personal investment in change.

The difference in result can be staggering between the two. What amounted to lemmings trickling down orders while fostering discontent in the former instance turns into a well deployed team in the latter, tackling priorities and overcoming obstacles to implementing new processes and systems because they themselves believe in what they are accomplishing.

Build a Committed, Involved, Invested Team

How can you create an environment that seeks commitment and personal investment to change and to new projects and systems? Here are a few recommendations.

Anticipate the reactions and resistance to change. We are hard-wired to resist change. Inertia can be a powerful force even outside of the world of physics. But as intelligent beings, we can begin to understand why change in certain circumstances is necessary.

Sometimes we all just need a bit of a boost to push us over that initial hump in resistance. Invite your colleagues and team members to air, in an orderly fashion, their concerns over proposed changes. Share your reasoning, acknowledge (and actually note) their feedback and use these discussions as an opportunity to both address any shortcomings of your policy and build a tighter, more personally involved team. Take the discussion that may in some instances seem like the Seinfeld Festivus Annual Airing of Grievances and drive it into a more positive light.

Build a strong advocacy team. This team should consist of you and your executive counterparts as leaders of change, as well as advocates who are subordinate to you and work among the distributed parts of the team to build consensus, develop the actual plan, work out the logistics and so on.

These advocates should be “people” people, in that they should be respected by their peers, able to lead discussions in their own right and carry a currency of influence in your organization. A key part of any level of success in this game is identifying and preparing the right people in these roles. Tread carefully and build your advocacy team—which very well could become a first version of an organization-wide change management committee or advisory build—with care.

Communicate. When in doubt that you’re communicating change too much, communicate a little bit more. It’s not possible to overstate the important of keeping the lines of communication open during a time of change.

It’s hard to imagine many things more frustrating than huge business-wide changes imposed from on high, made with very little notice and with little transparency as to the success, failure or even status of the change. I have sat in many big meetings during which the line, “We’re adopting a new system!” is excitedly trotted out—only six months later, everyone is frustrated and there is absolutely no dialog with anyone in control about how well, or how badly, things are going.

Analysis: 10 Communication Mistakes CIOs Still Make

As a marriage counselor would say, communication is a two-way street. It’s about more than a town hall, a webcast or a vetted question-and-answer document. It is primarily about having conversations and disseminating information—but just as importantly, listening, acknowledging problems and inviting actionable feedback.

Many CIOs and other executive leaders make the mistake of communicating fairly well at the inception of a large change in projects or systems, but then they essentially turn off their microphones. Communication must continue and be a persistent part of any successful change management strategy.

Effective Change Management Means Choosing the Right Battles

Another key part of managing change is knowing what change you should be managing.

Your staff has limited resources, both financial and human, and there are probably some large key business initiatives that are critical to the business—supply chain management, better sourcing, an ERP rollout and so on. These deserve your full attention, of course, and also the majority of your resources.

The real problem can lie in the tens, or hundreds, of small- to medium-sized projects that bubble up to your team from elsewhere in your organization. These are often projects that require significant scoping and investment but will not pay off, is business value terms, as well as deploying the same resources to accelerate the progress on larger initiatives. Essentially, you’re left with a classic management conundrum: How do you reconcile serving all of your customers while keeping your focus on the critical projects that will drive business success? What gets priority attention, what gets serviced, what gets outsources and what gets shoved to the back burner out of necessity?

Case Study: How Southern Company Revamped IT Change Management

Learning to acknowledge needs and respond with the appropriate level of attention and engagement is a crucial skill to managing change. It also helps further smooth the waters within the organization and build confidence that you devote attention where it matters. You don’t suffer from shiny object syndrome, running after all of the latest interesting products, projects and ideas. Your organization manages an evolving IT landscape and helps your business navigate those waters as easily and efficiently as possible. And isn’t that really what a CIO is supposed to do?

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He’s also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him via email and on Twitter. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.