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Organizational change boils down to three ingredients

Author: Kevin Ferguson, BBA'92, BA'93

Posted on Oct 26, 2020

Category: Insights , UNB Fredericton


“Hey gang, before we break, I just wanted to let you know that I’ll miss our afternoon call today. A friend I’ve known for 25 years passed away yesterday from Covid and I have to go see his family. Please keep safe everyone – this is real.” 

Regardless of where we live or what we do, at some point in the past 7-10 months, any one of us could have been hearing or telling this sobering story. This has had universal impact, globally.

I’ve been involved with organizational transformations for most of my career, especially since 2005, when I accidentally became a change management practitioner. One thing that has become more and more clear to me is that virtually every person, regardless of role, has to make change happen. We all do this to an extent… at work and in life.

When Covid landed in North America, I was working in New York for a private equity firm and its newest company, a business unit being carved out of a global tech firm to form a software start-up. Everything was changing – systems and tools, ways of working, and culture. I had been engaged as a consultant to lead the organizational change work stream reporting to the executive team. We were closing in on the April 1st transition when “BOOM!” our #1 priority became one of two #1 priorities. That was March 9th; our launch date didn’t move.

Making change happen takes a lot of effort in normal circumstances because it’s hard to bring new products to life, restructure an organization, deploy new technologies, or reimagine an organization’s purpose. Adapting to the uncertainty of a pandemic accelerating from country to country was difficult for a much different reason – we were worried about health and safety… ours and that of the people we love. That wasn’t typical of the kind of change we see in the workplace. Yes, there was still a natural desire to ask questions and feel uneasy about the unknown. But gone was any sign of digging in heels in resistance. And it’s a good thing because we had a new company to stand up in the next 3 weeks (we did it, by the way).

Why was my client successful in spite of the additional strain of the Covid experience? Much of it comes down to three ingredients, each of which is critical in any organizational change, whether planned or unplanned.

Strong Foundation

I often tell my clients that how they do things ‘before’ change has a direct effect on the degree of difficulty ‘during’ change. For this emerging software company, transparency was part of the playbook before Covid. This was enabled by monthly “state of the business” meetings, newsletters, weekly all-hands Q&A sessions, an Ambassadors program, and plenty of informal interactions via Slack, Confluence, email, 1x1 meetings, and, of course, socializing. When Covid hit, we continued to leverage these practices, most of which were already online, and replaced any face-to-face interactions with virtual venues. These communications and engagement norms were vital to trust and formed the foundation needed to build buy-in and a shared vision for the path forward.

Leaders with Empathy

When Covid forced us to pivot, the leadership team mobilized quickly and, led by the Chief Human Resources Officer, the pandemic response was impressive – decisive and empathetic. The executives wrapped their arms around the team to assure everyone that they were in this together. They doubled down on the engagement methods I noted above, adapting messages and tones to align with how people were feeling and what really mattered. Empathy and a high emotional IQ pervaded the leadership group which was tremendous for stabilizing the company by helping people to feel comfortable and safe while they marched together toward the unknown, amid the uncertainty and fear of getting sick or losing loved ones.

Resilience

We often hear excuses in the workplace about people not being able to adapt. Do I need to say it? Humans are damn resilient. We see it every day in real life. The reason we experience resistance to change in the workplace has less to do with ability to adapt than it does with ability to relate to or understand each other.

With Covid, we instantly had common ground. Everyone was experiencing something similar and could relate. People came together, helping one another to stay connected and feel supported by organizing virtual happy hours, sharing ideas for staying healthy at home, reminding one another of the importance of mental and physical breaks and, generally, being human and caring for one another. This didn’t occur because they were told to but because they knew to.

Common threads inform the strategy we use to implement communications and engagement, learning, and transition support for any change. This past year, although we were all flying a bit by the seat of our pants, the common thread was established and buy-in was instant.

Strong foundation, leadership empathy, resilience. The more you can do to build these into the fabric of your organization on a day-to-day basis, the better prepared you and your teams will be for the changes that are planned as well as whatever may be thrown your way unexpectedly.

I See Your Cape

Although we may not all wear the “change practitioner” title, as I said at the beginning, I suspect many of you do inspire and lead change in your organization. And I feel certain that everyone reading this has to adapt to change. Most don’t see it, but all of you wear a change management cape. It demands you to be brave, bold, creative, empathetic, resilient, and strong. I hope the concepts I’ve shared will help you to appreciate what’s important and give you confidence when the time comes. The people counting on you are your family, friends, co-workers, direct reports and all those impacted by what you do so, yes, the stakes are high. But why would you want it any different?

And with that, I’ll end with these words from Seth Godin… “It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s guaranteed to work. Of course, you can do it. All of that is true except for the part about easy, fun, and guaranteed.”

Of course you can do it.