Change – “An act or a process through which something becomes different.”  This is the standard dictionary definition of what is probably the most constant occurrence in life.  The definition can also apply to business, but how it comes about or is brought about is a subject for abundant consideration.  Considering that so many attempts to bring about change in business, for whatever reason, fail.

When I Googled “change is”, amongst the top 10 results were: “good”, “inevitable” and “the only constant in life.”  But the same Googling of “Change Management is” gave the result: “hard”.

Big businesses with multiple and international sites have whole departments that focus on nothing else due to the huge disparity in working environments and cultures.  But for small/medium size businesses, where the constant pressure is to keep ahead of the game, make sure the product is the best and most recognized and to ensure that the company can respond quickly to market pressures, the need for change and how to manage it can be a challenging matter.

When we talk about change in relation to business, what do we actually mean?

For HR people, any kind of change should encompass and keep at the forefront the impact on people.  The best definition we have found for this is by the Change Management Learning Centre[1]:

 “Change management is the process, tools and techniques to manage the people side of business change to achieve the required business outcome, and to realise that business change effectively within the social infrastructure of the workplace.

What this effectively says is that, where a business change needs to happen, at whatever level and at whatever size and importance, people will have to make the change and it will fail if the people are not given the right information and support to lower natural resistance.

Therefore, business change can be broken down into three elements:  What, How and Who?  (Why the change is necessary is not a subject for discussion here.  This is entirely the remit of each individual organisation).

“What” Type of Change?

For example, it is transformation, re-organisation, developmental, transitional, remedial?  It’s important to understand because planning and strategy will come from understanding the nature of the required change.

“Transformational” change suggests a fundamental change that is likely to affect the whole organisation over a long period of time. 

“Re-organisational” change, however, is more likely to be within a particular department or at a particular level and can be carried out without affecting the integrity of the whole organisation.

“Developmental” change comes when the organisation decides to embrace new technology or process, but not for any specific purpose.  What already exists is continually improved but there is no expectation of radical progress and no specific aims

“Transitional” change is a shift in the way in which a process is completed, designed to increase efficiency.  It could involve, for example, the automation of a process that was once done by hand.[2]

“Remedial” change is needed where deficiencies occur, perhaps through underperformance or poor financial outcome. 

Each of these types of change cover situations from slow and incremental and barely interfering with business as usual to all-encompassing where no-one in the Company is left untouched.

But whatever the type of change and the reason for it, it is likely at some point to touch many elements of the company and therefore there will need to be some strategic planning to ensure that the change can be carried out successfully.

Whatever the size of the company and in whatever business, a strategic plan will provide direction to guide decisions, keeping the company on course to achieve the planned objectives and ensure that it will carry out the change in a way that is consistent with its mission, vision and values.

Strategic Planning on paper surrounded by pens, markers and notes

In a small business, where the every-day is the most urgent, it might be hard to embrace the concept of a strategic plan to carry out a change.  But refer back to the failure rate of business change.  An often-quoted failure rate for business change is 70%.  This is not strictly accurate, as it assumes that unless there is total success the change must be rated a failure.  A study undertaken by Enclaria[3] quotes data from IBM:

“The 2008 “Making Change Work” study by IBM shares a survey of more than 1500 change practitioners, in which they found that 41% of projects met their objectives. The remaining 59% missed at least one objective or failed completely. It’s important to point out that this statistic is not 70%! And it also assumes again that anything short of perfect is failure.”

Nevertheless, the statistics are worrying and should emphasize the need for good strategic planning that includes the setting of objectives and the measurement of success.

Strategic planning for a small business doesn’t need to be as time-consuming or detailed as planning for a large company, but a plan does need to identify what the business wants to accomplish and how it can achieve the set goals.

As we have said above, strategic planning is often overtaken by more immediately pressing daily business. One way to ensure that the plan gets the time it deserves it is to go off-site.

Who is to be involved in forming the strategic plan? It’s always good to encourage and involve as many staff as possible.  This will require a good communication strategy (this will be considered in more detail later). Involving team members early on will result in greater support for the plan, but of course, if the end result is likely to involve a depth of change that might significantly alter or even remove roles, then the strategic team should be kept to a small group.  However, if it’s possible, encouraging discussion during the planning process is more likely to gain buy-in.

In order to know how to get where you want to go, it seems like such a simple point that it hardly needs point out, but nevertheless a good strategic plan will start with the current position and be able to articulate the desired end point.    To identify the correct start point a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis will help clarify current situation and the internal and external factors that will be likely to help or hinder.

In deciding the required outcomes for the change, the strategic plan should take account of both short- and long-term requirements and it should look at the wider picture. If the change seems to be a fairly simple, straightforward one, that can be easily achieved in the short term, what are the implications for the long term?  Is it sustainable?  How will it sit alongside existing practices over a longer period of time?  This could be an issue of developmental or incremental change, where adjustments will be necessary over a longer period to ensure that the various elements of the business can work seamlessly. 

The strategic plan will only get buy-in when fully revealed if it ensures that it meets the company’s mission, vision and values.

The biggest problem that can condemn a strategic plan is that, once it is made, it is set in concrete and followed no matter what happens.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a good motto, but building in some flexibility to review, learn and change if and when necessary is an important factor in a successful strategic plan.  Jason Little in his article “Change Management is Dead” in 2011 said that:

Where there’s a need, people change.  It’s unskilled change agents that create resistance by forcing rules and processes on people that have to live with the consequences of those rules and processes.[4]

Whilst we don’t fully agree with this, it’s one way of saying that a lack of flexibility can destroy a change plan.

In addition to the above there are a number of issues that should be taken into consideration in preparing the strategic plan, once the type of change needed is clarified:

  • What has been the recent history of organisational change?  Identifying what has worked well in the past and what has not will ensure that pitfalls are avoided.  Albert Einstein is broadly credited with saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results”.  This is as true for organisational change as for any other aspect of life.
  • Who will manage the change?  Once the strategic plan is complete, someone has to be in charge.  Giving the responsibility to a “change agent/sponsor” with the ability, capacity and fortitude to carry it out and not be afraid to be flexible will give greater strength to the likelihood of success.
  • Who can influence the success of this organisational change?  Knowing who are the organisation’s positive influencers, and equally, who is likely to be a demotivating factor, is a particularly important issue for the person appointed to see the change through.  Encouraging, gaining the support of and working with the positive influencers and having sufficient insight to anticipate and weaken or negate the negative influencers is a particular skill that will be needed by the change management leader and/or sponsor.
  • How is the organisational change to be communicated?  It may seem obvious that letting staff know what is happening and why is important, but the subtleties of communication should not be ignored.  How news is given will entirely dominate how it is received.

This leads both onto and back to the subject of change and how it is people, not organisations, who carry out change.  An understanding of the Psychological contract is critical before any plans are put into place.

According to the CIPD[5]

The term ‘psychological contract’ refers to subjective expectations, beliefs and obligations, as perceived by the employer and the worker.

The quality of the psychological contract heavily influences how employees behave from day to day. Workers who perceive it as balanced in terms of the contributions they make to the organisation, and what they receive back from the employer, perform better, demonstrate more extra-role behaviours, and indicate a higher level of commitment to the organisation.

The psychological contract is based on employees’ sense of fairness and trust, and their belief that the employer is honouring the ‘deal’ between them. This is why violation (or breach) of psychological contract by the employer can have sudden and powerful consequences for people and organisations, negatively affecting job satisfaction, commitment, performance, and increasing turnover intentions.

Part of the advance planning for change should include how the news may impact the manager/employee relationship, particularly if there is a negative aspect to the change such as re-deployment or redundancy.  Even for those who are not affected, seeing colleagues move or leave can be damaging and cause “survivor guilt”.   Considering how to avoid a breach of the psychological contract in the first place is better and quicker than repairing the damage later.

In even the most positive of situations there is going to be resistance and this will be one of three kinds:

  • Cognitive
  • Emotional
  • Behavioural

Cognitive resistance is a mindset that is negative and set against the change.  It often manifests itself in “avoidance” techniques such as changing the subject, engaging in endless and pointless debate on the subject, arguing own views on the issue and trying to confuse.

The change leader can best deal with this by listening to augments with an open mind.  Not all of the comments will be negative.  There may be something valid that can be incorporated into the plan.

This is a situation where the positive influencers can be of vital help, in being always well informed and able to challenge the negative arguments.  They will or should be able to challenge irrational beliefs with facts.

Emotional resistance comes from feelings, feelings of helplessness and fear.  These can often be based on bad experiences in the past that will immediately give an expectation of a bad experience being the only outcome to the proposed change.  This type of resistance can quickly become personal, resulting in emotional attacks on whoever is delivering the news.

For a manager/leader to overcome this, it’s important to know the source of the fear.  If this behaviour is being demonstrated, the best course is to deal with it, with compassion, but to keep to the script of the need for the change.   Once the reason for this resistance is understood it can usually be negated or at least diminished.

Behavioural resistance generally comes in two types:  action or inaction.  In other words, defiance or omission.

Action/defiance can be demonstrated by a refusal to act on instruction, or actively resisting any and all aspect of the change for as long as possible.  Inaction/omission will result in the individual simply ignoring everything and carrying on as if nothing is happening.

How does a manager deal with these behaviours?  Trying to engage and explain is, of course, the best choice, but where the behaviour is deeply entrenched, no amount of explanation about the advantages to the person and to the organisation is going to make any difference.  Sometimes some kind of sweetener can help, but this would need to be balanced against the needs and expectations of other staff.  If this situation gets to be inevitable, the manager/leader will have to lay out the inevitable consequences, which could mean that the role is no longer necessary and could lead to it being removed, or that the individual will be subject to disciplinary action if they continue to refuse to co-operate.

But in all of these cases, if sufficient time is taken to understand the ground cause of the fear, resentment or worry, then it’s possible to turn a negative into a positive, moving the individual from resistance to commitment.  People don’t act badly just because they can.  Not everyone wants to uphold the “status quo”.  Some thrive on change and this, too, should always be factored in.  But resistance to change involves the human psyche.  Every person is an individual so there are no textbook solutions.  Just good management/leadership and a willingness to engage at every point on the resistance continuum.

Resourcing the Strategic Plan

If the plan is to achieve its objectives it has to be well resourced.  This is likely to include an experienced change leader, a team of enthusiastic staff who fully support the change and will champion it at all times (this could be as few as 2 or 3 people in a small organisation), the financial resources for any training in new skills that will be necessary;

The Communication Plan

How the vision for the change is communicated will determine its success.  Provided there is sufficient information and the opportunity to ask questions, there won’t be gaping holes that are inevitably filled with opinions and guesswork.

McConnell (2007) states that “employees usually resist change not because they disagree with it but because there is a lack of knowledge about what will happen, or because of the manner in which the change was communicated to them. Either they have to learn something new and they fear their ability to adapt to it, or there is a lack of communication causing confusion or misunderstanding. Employees function best in situations when they are fully prepared and informed. The manager’s role in preparing employees for change involves up-front communication. He or she must be prepared to answer questions about the nature and source of the proposed change.

Planning on a table with papers and notes

Who should deliver the message?  If this is an organisation-wide change, then the person at the top of the organisation should be the one to give out the initial information.  It’s likely that this person will have been closely involved in the decision making about the change and in the initial strategic planning.  This is the person from whom important communication is expected.  But if a lead manager/sponsor has been appointed, this person will play a significant part in keeping people up to date.  And finally, the individual’s line manager is going to play an important role in talking about the change process on a day-to-day basis, and about how it will affect those most heavily involved.

For the first communication the question will be “Why” and as we have already said, the answer to this question can only be given by the individual company or organisation.  This is likely to be related to production/profitability/compliance, etc and the benefits thereof.  This information should always be in the mix of any future comms, a reminder of the fact that this is not change for change’s sake, but a valid change that will protect not only the business but individual roles.

The next question is “what’s in it for me?”  If the organisation is to gain the support and engagement of its staff, they need to know how they will be personally affected.  People have values and needs and emphasising how they will be better off after the change is made is again vital information.

Should ongoing information be formal or informal?  The answer is probably both.  If milestones have been set out, then formally reporting back on how these are being met ensures that everyone gets the same information at the same time.  However, differing aspects of the change process will inevitably happen at different times, so keeping up a constant flow of 2-way conversation will ensure that everyone is aware of the progress of their own stake.

How should the Comms be delivered?  There are certain circumstances where the initial news has to be communicated formally and in writing.  This is where the change is likely to contain contractual matters.  However, for process change, constant discussion and explanation will be better retained if carried out face-to-face.  This give the opportunity for immediately questioning and discussion. If there are issues, they can be more quickly nipped in the bud and staff will feel more comfortable if they are considered important enough to have a 1-1 discussion.

Of course, there are other ways of communicating and a good plan is likely to involve these.  They can include breakfasts and lunches, newsletters, “town hall” meetings, screensaver messages.

And finally, how can feedback be gathered, both in terms of good news and of the feelings of staff going through the change?  Town Halls and Q&A sessions are good, but some people feel uncomfortable about speaking up in front of a group.  There are on-line questionnaires that can be sent out to groups to gather feedback and for keeping abreast of engagement.  If any communication has been misinterpreted or not understood, the assessment questionnaire can help to get the messaging back on track.  A tool such as Buzz Box  can quickly gather a snapshot of how people are feeling at given moments in time.  These require only a simple response in terms of “yes” or “no” to given questions, or a 1-5 score.  They can only measure a moment in time but gathered throughout the course of a change initiative can show how engaged staff have been and the profile of how engagement levels have shifted at different points of the change cycle..

business leader highlighted

Following Up

When the change is done, the project is over and the new process/information/technology incorporated, what comes next?  Is that the end?

A canny organisation will realise that this is also an opportunity to demonstrate how success was achieved, see it as an opportunity to re-enforce its mission and values, and advertise it to incoming staff.

Some people go above and beyond, and recognising such effort demonstrates the organisation’s loyalty and gratitude in such situations.

And finally, as we said at the beginning of this article, change is constant, so having achieved a successful one, the organisation can keep the idea of positive change alive and do it’s best to ensure that staff need not be afraid of the future.  Follow the mantra “ Do, Review, Learn, Improve” and you won’t go too far wrong.


[1] Prosci.com

[2] www.businessdictionary.com/definition/transitional-change

[3] Enclaria.com/Influencing Change at Work

[4] Management30.com

[5] CIPD.co.uk/psychological-factsheet