Change is inevitable, but successfully managing it isn’t. During times of organizational transitions, a holistic effort that begins with preparation, moves into execution, and continues with ongoing reinforcement is essential.
What’s So Complicated About Change Today?
Think of the highly varied work that goes into managing complex change, such as transitioning data from an on-premises environment to the cloud, integrating the production systems of a recently acquired business, or rolling out a fleet of 5G-capable devices at a hospital.
Beyond marshaling the raw technical expertise necessary for determining what’s practical and on what timeline in scenarios like these, senior leaders and managers must also:
- Review potentially applicable rules, regulations, and legal precedents, such as data privacy implications and employment practices laws.
- Analyze the impact on company culture, including possible reorganization of teams and where they may work in the future, whether in-office, remote, or a combination of the two (i.e., hybrid work).
- Consider how employees, customers, the public, competitors, and regulators may respond to any prominent action.
- Plan and execute a communications strategy accounting for all of the considerations above.
Overall, managing complex change means steering projects that often have technological, cultural, and organizational dimensions, on top of all of their usual implications for the company bottom line. Such issues naturally test an organization’s change management strategy, creating challenges on top of the fundamental uncertainty and resistance that any type of organizational change may inspire.
To illustrate just how challenging managing complex change has become, let’s look at the unplanned acceleration of hybrid work that has transpired since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Managing complex change of this sort is the only road to effecting transformative change.
What Managing Complex Change Requires in the World of Hybrid Work
83% of 9,000 workers surveyed for a 2021 study think hybrid work is ideal.
Hybrid work is an inherently complex change for any organization, before even considering specific technological and logistical dimensions.
Is returning to the office the optimal move, given company culture and objectives? Or is staying mostly virtual more cost-effective, both in terms of employee retention and reduced office and travel expenditures?
Is there a happy middle path of hybrid work that won’t diminish the perceived value of remote employees?
As is clear, there aren’t always clean answers to each question. Strategic change management, however, can provide the guardrails, definitions, and processes for seeing a clear path forward despite the difficulties and opacity evident in complex change events.
Four Key Tasks for Managing Complex Change
Someone overseeing a shift to (or even away from) hybrid work must not only ensure employees receive secure and sufficiently modern devices that may be in short supply — for example, 5G-capable phones plus laptops with trusted platform modules and appropriate network security — but also formulate policies with well-defined employee expectations and eligibility rules.
Other change management issues that may arise range from the potentially risky, such as tax and compliance issues related to remote employees relocating to states where an employer is not registered, to the possibly rewarding, for example being able to tout lower emissions from reduced employee commutes.
Challenges abound. Leadership must be prepared to manage change across multiple fronts:
1. Impact Planning
What’s the impact on employee morale of a more restrictive hybrid work policy (e.g., only one day per week remote) versus a looser one? Who is most impacted by this shift in business practices? What do those impacted need to be successful once the change is made?
Is the company working toward clear, achievable goals for its hybrid teams? Are there useful feedback loops, tapping into multiple channels such as email and online meetings, in place to gather feedback and ideas from stakeholders along the way? And can that feedback be translated into corrective actions as needed?
How does the company plan to transfer knowledge between leaders and teams? Is an online information hub available? What about in-depth Zoom sessions for telecommuters? What training schedules and materials are feasible based on the geographic distribution of employees?
4. Change Management
Does this overarching initiative for managing complex change account for all of the definitely and potentially affected people, processes, and technologies? If it succeeds, will it reliably improve retention, lower costs, and deliver other sought-after benefits and savings? Have any dashboards been configured, or surveys drawn up, to track the progress of these granular goals against the overarching change management plan?
Ultimately, every project is a change management project, because change is constant and ubiquitous. However, despite being the mainsprings of business transformation and sustainability, change management programs often lack the resources required for their success. Famously, 7 in 10 change initiatives fail, and the causes of failure range from inadequate employee buy-in to management-side anxieties about the cost of change.
Resulting actions, such as cutting the change management budget, only diminish the prospects of succeeding at executing complex change.
Years ago, it was estimated that organizations needed to allocate at least 15% of any project’s budget to change management, including training. This number likely undersells the importance of change management strategy, with Gartner saying that “change fatigue” had reached an all-time high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and contemporaneous disruptions.
In this context, not investing enough in effective change management has serious costs. Employees were almost three times as likely to feel burned out if their organizations didn’t have clear-cut communications about hybrid work plans. Change management is an investment that can’t be sold short.
Holistically Managing Complex Change
Continuous and holistic change processes, which span not only change management but also previous preparation and ongoing reinforcement, are vital. These processes enable organizations managing change to mitigate risk and emerge on the other side with less of the pain and disruption so often associated with big change.
An effective change management model won’t shy away from the complexity involved. Instead, it’ll address this complexity directly through the expertise and experience of its practitioners, as characterized by three key competencies:
1. Planning for Complex Change
Before managing complex change, an organization needs to know the sources of that change — e.g., technological advancements, new competitors, evolving regulations, corporate transactions — along with both the current and intended future states of operations. It must also understand who will be impacted by the change and how they will be affected.
Planning provides an opportunity to assess audience and stakeholders and to make sure that teams aren’t left managing complex change on an ad hoc, reactive basis with insufficient staff and a disorganized strategy.
2. Managing Complex Change
Project management, supported by ongoing assessment of progress (e.g., through dashboards and surveys), is integral to this aspect of managing complex change, as is the handling of any likely resistors to change. This is an opportunity to leverage trusted project management principles like agile to your benefit.
Timely communication via appropriate channels and content help alleviate the anxiety that employees may feel about an impending complex change. For example, a transparent, realistic description of what the change entails and why it’s happening may gain more employee buy-in than trying to oversell how great and painless the change will be in theory.
3. Reinforcing Complex Change
This step is the one that often gets forgotten.
Just because a company has finished preparing for and then managing complex change doesn’t mean that that change will endure. It needs reinforcement as part of a continuous action plan.
Creating process documentation that encapsulates the change management process, creating accessible FAQ materials and help center articles, and following up with stakeholders until attaining a statistically valid response rate for acceptance surveys all help in this regard.
Executed well, these three competencies improve adoption, increase effectiveness, and foster trust across the lifecycle of a change management project. Naturally, managing complex change is never simple — but having access to the right expertise and experience makes it more straightforward than going it alone.
For expert support in your next change initiative, contact CrossCountry Consulting.