“The only constant in life is change” – Heraclitus

For some, this is a foreboding statement and for others it is exciting and full of possibilities. Maybe it’s because of one’s general attitude towards life, the “glass half empty” type person may be more likely to view it as a negative. However, I personally think that often it’s more to do with each individual’s experience of change in their lives. It’s easy to write off people reluctant to embrace change as pessimistic or, even worse, cowardly, but this is not an empathetic stance to take. For some people, change is associated with massive upheaval, distress, and even grief. No wonder it can cause anxious feelings! But it does present a unique challenge to team leaders. How do we guide our team through inevitable changes—whether that be in a project, operational work or at an organisational level—when we have no idea of each individual’s relationship to change? How do we ensure that change does not lead to a drop in morale and productivity, or even complete chaos in our teams? Change management is an often-overlooked aspect of being a project or team leader, which is precisely why it’s the topic of today’s blog. It’s also especially relevant today as many of us face an unprecedented level of change in both our work and personal lives due to the pandemic, and many organisations are scrambling to manage this change and their teams in these extraordinary times.

Managing change is essential to any successful organisation. According to the Project Management Institute’s 2014 report “Enabling Organizational Change Through Strategic Initiatives”, organisations that are good at change are twice as successful at achieving their strategic initiatives, but the reality is only 18 per cent of companies are effective change enablers. Why do organisations struggle so much with this? Much of the difficulty we have with change is rooted in our psychology.

Hilary Scarlett, a consultant on change management and neuroscience, summarises our relationship to change in this short video. She explains that we are fundamentally hardwired as humans to avoid threat, and that the unpredictability of change is interpreted by our brains as a threat. This activates the part of our brain responsible for the flight or fight response, which causes us to react more intensely and emotionally than we usually would. In fact, research indicates that an adult brain experiencing change is actually very similar to a teenage brain, i.e. volatile and difficult to reason with. So, remember that next time you’re introducing change to your team. You’re not dealing with a group of logical, reasonable adults in that moment, you’re effectively managing a gang of teens!

So, what can we as team leaders do to help our teams navigate change as successfully as possible? Below is a change management strategy that can be adapted to different change situations. A change situation can be anything, from introducing new file management software to the office, to adapting the whole organisation’s work processes in the face of a global pandemic! (Sound familiar?) Try it out next time you need to introduce a change in your project team and make sure to let us know how you get on by email or on our LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.

Step 1: Analyse

In this step, we thoroughly analyse the change that is being proposed. What is absolutely essential is that you, as the team lead, but also your team members who are instrumental to the change, thoroughly understand the change you are taking on. A big risk in change management is that each person has a different understanding of what the change will look like, but this does not reveal itself until well into the change management process. This can cause confusion, frustration and ultimately wastes time and money. Before presenting the change to the wider team or organisation, you must be clear about what this change is by creating a change objective: A written summary of exactly the change being proposed. Your change objective document should include:

  • What is the proposed change?
  • Why is it needed?
  • Who will it affect?
  • What affect will it have on budget, timeline, and stakeholders
  • What are the risks of this change?
  • What are the opportunities of this change?

Once you have this, present it to your wider team and, remember, be patient! Many of them will revert to their teenage brain and will react against your proposal or try to pick holes in it. You need to give them the chance to do that, take all their suggestions on board, and ensure that they feel listened to. As a team leader, you must ensure that you are very clear on whose work this change will affect and ensure they understand what is expected of them. In doing so, we reduce the threat of the change by helping everyone feel that they have had the opportunity to shape it in some way and that they know what it will mean for them and their work. Remember, people don’t mind change. They mind being changed. Leadership in this step is about balancing presenting a thorough change objective to your team, while also giving them an opportunity to feed into it. If necessary, get sign off on the final change objective from your management or board.

Step 2: Strategize

Now that the change being introduced is clear, create your change strategy. This provides a summary of the agreed change and appoints the change management team. This team should include a person who has overall responsibility for the change. They oversee monitoring the change and should be consulted on all things related to the change. The rest of the team comprises others who will have a role to play in implementing the change. Finally, your strategy should break down each step involved in realising the change with a deadline and a responsible person. It is important to delegate here. The project manager is often the one given overall responsibility for the change but his or her job should largely be to oversee the work of others.

Step in change implementation: When? Who?

Step 3: Monitor

As the change is being introduced, monitor it closely. How often depends on the scale of the change. For larger changes, you may need to check in daily until it is well underway. Understand that this is a high-risk time. Refer back to your change strategy regularly to ensure you are sticking strictly to the plan. There is potential for structure to break down during times of change so, as team lead, you have to be mindful of this and keep your team on track. Monitor change using the table from your change strategy with an additional column to track the status of each step.

Step in change implementation: When? Who? Status?

Be conscious of self-care and the wellbeing of your team during this step. We may not even perceive it, but our brains interpret any change to our normal routine as stress. Even good changes cause stress, as my colleague Kasia explains excellently in her blog, Test your Stress. This change, in addition to all of the other everyday sources of stress in life, can have an accumulative affect for both you and your team so be extra understanding during this time, check in with your team regularly, and be as supportive as you can until you have all adjusted to “the new normal”.

Step 4: Mainstream

Once the change has been fully implemented, people have adjusted, and there are no more steps to monitor, you can consider your change “mainstreamed”. At this point, people no longer need support to deal with the change and may not even remember how things were before it! An important task at this stage is to write a final review of the change. This can be useful for your own learning and reflection but, in the case of funded projects, it can also be vital if you must later justify the change to a funder.  Most funders are understanding of the need for change and will be happy to see change management being so carefully implemented in the project, but make sure that you keep all your change objective, strategy and monitoring documents and meeting minutes so you can demonstrate that.

Finally, make sure you reward yourself and your team! Being a leader is as much about recognising and rewarding the work of your team as it is about managing it. Change is difficult for everyone, but celebrating successful change may well make it easier for your team to have a positive attitude towards the next change when it inevitably arises.

We hope that this strategy helps you and your organisation to become effective change enablers and reach your goals! Let us know if you want to learn more about managing change and we can write more about it in our future blogs. Until then, take care and embrace change.

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