8 ways to master change management

With change becoming a near-constant in business and in IT, CIOs need to become much better at managing the process. It's as much an art as a science, but it can be mastered, IT leaders say.

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Tech Data CIO John Tonnison doesn't mince words about change management. "The CIO's job is change management," he says. "To do it poorly is fatal."

If Tonnison is right, then IT is going to have to brace itself for a whole lot of autopsies. According to a 2013 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers' Katzenbach Center, which specializes in organizational culture, leadership and motivation, only 54% of respondents (C-level executives, directors, managers and staffers in a variety of vertical markets) said they were able to sustain change management initiatives at their companies.

No surprise there. Change management is hard, part science and part art.

Everyone in IT is familiar with the micro definition of change management, which involves updating systems using version control, fallback and other methods. But it's the macro definition that's becoming more important: a structured approach to change that not only updates systems but prepares and retrains employees with the goal of reaching a higher level of efficiency and success.

Nowhere is this larger definition more important than in 21st century IT, where the move toward digital business and the disruption caused by the SMAC stack (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) requires a high level of focus on change outcomes.

"There's no single approach for doing it change well," says Capgemini consultant Christina D'Onofrio. Even though the ITIL guidelines adopted by many IT organizations have a specific, step-by-step process for change management, she says, "some people think [change] is soft and fuzzy because there are political and emotional components to it. But there is also a rigor, a process, a methodology that you must execute."

There is at least good news: As with so many things in technology, change management itself is changing. After decades of project failures caused by inadequate or wholly lacking change management, enterprises are finally grasping its importance. And on a more granular level, change is becoming more frequent in the enterprise: With both internal and external-facing applications being updated more frequently, IT can't help but gain experience in managing change. What's more, the employees coming into the workforce belong to the generation that's most accustomed to the world changing around them.

Given all that, how do you keep from your organization from being in the half that fails at change management? Computerworld talked to five experts in IT and consulting, who offered up eight simple rules to help you become a change management master.

1 -- Update your change-management philosophy

To stay abreast of developments on the Web, in the cloud or on mobile devices, IT needs to quickly become accustomed to making fewer simultaneous changes but at a higher frequency, says Tech Data's Tonnison. "When I first started in IT, the change windows were much more limited. You packaged up a major revision [with potentially hundreds of changes] and spent a lot of time planning all of the change controls and disciplines leading up to it," says Tonnison, who cites a 2012 major upgrade to SAP at the Clearwater, Fla.-based technology products distributor as the biggest notch on his change management belt.

Tech Data CIO John Tonnison Courtsey photo

CIO John Tonnison says Tech Data has switched from architecting monolithic revisions to rolling out changes on a frequent, even daily, basis.

Now, he says, Tech Data might make 50 to 60 changes a night to improve internal applications, with updates to external-facing applications coming every few weeks. "We are much better at doing frequent changes than ever before."

It turns out that frequent change is actually a sounder strategy, argues D'Onofrio. "With change management, small change can adds up to big outcomes. Even when staffers view change comfortably, it can still lead to resistance and paralysis. If you can break it up into small chunks, and they're successful, people have a higher comfort level, and they can handle big changes better."

Beyond that, Gartner analyst Elise Olding contends that the philosophy of change management itself is changing, affected by new shifts in management to embrace collaboration rather than command-and-control. The days are gone, she says, when executives hashed out change in a backroom, sprang it on the organization, and then, when it failed, accused employees of being change-averse.

"Some enterprises have moved away from a top-down waterfall view of change to one that is participatory and iterative," Olding says, describing a world in which there is a two-way dialogue about change, with as much listening as there is talking (more about that below). "Hierarchy falls by the wayside, which may make some managers uncomfortable. But enterprises have to teach employees the skills they will need to help their organizations become more change-friendly."

2 -- Pay attention to downstream communication

While we're on the subject of communication, don't stint on it. Olding is passionate about this. "Change resistance is a myth. Employees are only afraid of the unknown, so you have to decrease uncertainty." The best way to do this is through communication. "If they say they don't understand what's happening, it's not because they're stupid. It's because you haven't communicated it clearly," she says.

It also means that you haven't communicated it enough. "Change is a 5K race, but we tend to yell the message at the 2K marker [and then stop]," Olding observes. "Employees need to hear something seven times to understand it, and it has to be communicated so they understand what's in it for them."

D'Onofrio concurs: "There is an art to communicating in a way that inspires, motivates and helps [employees] be enthusiastic about the changes to come. If you communicate well, it's easy to motivate people. Paint a picture of the future and why you're heading in that direction."

Even more than that, though, is the idea of connecting the change to the enterprise's business goals. "Then they're not just entering debits and credits," says Olding. "They're contributing to the financial predictability of the organization."

What kind of communication are we talking about? Every kind. Newsletters. Email. Meetings. Conference calls. At Tech Data, a group within IT set up information booths to start a change management conversation. "It's a visual speed bump, something that gets in your way as you go about your work," says Tonnison, who says that his company has even employed logos and mascots to perpetuate the change message.

3 -- Pay attention to upstream communication

In the PwC survey, 57% of respondents were concerned that managers tend "to exclude lower-level employees in developing and executing the change plan." Big mistake. Sometimes the workers with the best insight into what needs to be changed -- and the best way to change it -- are the low-paid workers on the front lines.

Gartner's Olding is a fan of gamification in this regard. If you're rolling out a new HR system and want to ensure all employees can use it comfortably in their various work environments, try developing a game to gather feedback. "When you're playing a game, you get immediate feedback. Set up a system where employees can do that." Later, distribute surveys to get feedback after the system has been in place for a while.

4 -- Focus on the individual

One of the reasons change management initiatives have been so unsuccessful, says Elspet Garvey, manager of the business process management office at the University of Auckland, is because of a fantasy in which a new system is installed, and "magically, everyone will understand their new jobs and the organization will organically rearrange itself around what it needs to do, and people will get on." That's just delusional, she insists, noting that employees tend to grasp tightly to areas where they are both experienced and successful. "They will find clever ways to customize a system, or do workarounds."

Even worse, Tonnison notes, is that "resistance is contagious. If someone is frustrated by something and they vocalize it, you'll find others following." Understanding this mindset, then, is part of the art of change management. "Change strikes at the self-worth of an individual," he adds. "When you change something, you put at risk the confidence an individual has in their ability to get things done."

elspet garvey university of auckland Courtsey photo

Elspet Garvey, manager of the business process management office at the University of Auckland, reminds IT leaders that employees "will find clever ways to customize a system, or do workarounds."

The problem, Garvey maintains, is that executives and employees look at change in two radically different ways: Executives see it as something happening to the enterprise, and employees think of it as something happening to them. "People will have different reactions to seemingly simple things for many different reasons," she adds. "It may seem illogical to you, but it's logical to them, and you have to adjust your tactics to deal with that."

For instance, the replacement of a manual process with a digitized process involves a distinct shift in the comfort level of an employee; they know what they're doing because they're familiar with the task. Turning it into a computer process makes it less tangible, and harder to visualize.

The most successful enterprises, Garvey believes, have moved from system-centric to people-centric change management. "When we change systems or processes or organizational structures, we have to understand the difference between now and the future result, and what that means for different people."

5 -- Commit the funds

You know how QA is frequently the first thing to get cut from an application development budget or schedule? There's a similar issue in change management. "One of the reasons change management initiatives fail," according to Toni Cusumano, a principal in PwC's global human capital practice, "is a lack of investment. While the executive sponsor says the 'people part' is important, the first thing that gets cut from the budget are the funds for stakeholder engagement, culture work and training." (The other two reasons are related: lack of executive sponsorship and lack of staff engaged in the effort who have experience going through major change.)

The good news, in Cusumano's view, is that executives at leading companies have finally tired of expensive technology projects that fail, and many are now creating internal change management capabilities or making the financial investment. "They've recognized that having experienced leaders engaged in and investing in the work of change management will pay off with stronger employee engagement, adoption, and greater likelihood of achieving results."

6 -- Understand the art of change management

Leading the soft side of change management should be a person with arguably unique skills. It doesn't have to be the CIO and, in fact, is more likely to be a lower-level person in IT whose skills hew more toward the art of communication. "You need to be able to listen genuinely, not just anticipate what you think people will say," adds Garvey. "Don't assume you know everything."

"You need someone who's demonstrated the ability to empathize with people, predict their reactions, and navigate toward win-win situations," says Tonnison, adding that it's best if it's a peer with strong leadership skills rather than someone in a command-and-control role.

According to sources, the ideal change manager should have the enthusiasm of the Energizer bunny, the patience of a toddler's parent, the humility of a Buddhist monk, and the thick skin of an armadillo. Tonnison says, "You need someone who isn't uncomfortable with the slightly cheesy side of change management, which involves the overcommunication of messages and their constant repetition."

7 -- Understand the science of change management

Opposite the soft side is the process side of change management. Many of the sources for this story have engineering backgrounds underpinning their work in the field. Understanding both sides is important. For instance, under no circumstances can you ignore or undercut process.

Sally Scripps, a manager in Jackson, Mich.-based Consumers Energy's customer operations division focusing on business readiness and regulatory interaction, frequently deals with change management -- especially as her industry makes the shift to an advanced metering infrastructure. When the utility in 2012 first started installing smart meters that can be checked remotely, Scripps headed up the internal team charged with preparing personnel to support the new meters. She learned a crucial lesson in the importance of process.

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