People like to joke that the only things that never change are death and taxes, but that's just not true. If it were, you would never hear things like, "That's just the way we've always done it," and, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Not changing, even if the current situation is rife with workarounds and rework, is more comfortable and less risky than trying something new, so it's no wonder that people push back when leaders try to shake things up.
But if you're reading this blog, you likely know that change is a vital business imperative. Overcoming your team's natural resistance to change isn't impossible, but it takes intention and effort. Here are some of the techniques that our customers have found work well.
Acknowledge the Apprehension
Some leaders try to ignore the fact that people resist change and proceed as if everyone is into it. But if positive change isn't already built into the culture, this can be a mistake. Instead, it is smart to talk about the fact that change is difficult and that there may be legitimate reasons for sticking to the status quo. It is also a good idea to talk about past attempts at change that didn't work out well either for the business for the employees. Explore ways to make future changes more successful. It's also essential to listen to and talk about employees' concerns. You may learn quite a bit about your organization's culture by doing so.
Connect with Things Employees Care About
Organizations try to improve for a reason, but often those reasons don't reach or resonate with front-line employees. These days people want to understand the purpose of their organization and how it brings good in economic and non-economic ways. It's important for employees to know how the goals of the organization, and even more importantly, their individual goals relate to the mission. They also need to know what's in it for them. When people connect with the "why" of change, they are far more likely to engage.
Provide a Roadmap for Change
Change is scary because we prefer even an imperfect familiar state to the unknown. It's especially frightening if you can't see the path from where you are to where you want to be. That's why it's helpful to introduce a controlled improvement cycle to manage change. Popular options include PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) and DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). Using a change roadmap helps people feel more confident that improvement will be achieved in a careful, controlled manner rather than ad hoc changes that are more difficult to manage.
Embrace Bottom-Up Change
It is the role of leaders to set the direction for the organization and select the most critical strategic goals. Still, when it comes to specific tactics to achieve the objectives, it pays to involve front-line employees. One useful technique is called Catchball. Someone, usually a manager, starts with an idea for improvement or a specific goal and "tosses" it to someone on their team. The team member returns it with feedback and suggestions. The idea is passed up and down, back and forth among the group until a consensus is reached on changes to try. This gets everyone invested in the results and helps gain buy-in for trying something new.
Measure the Impact of Change
Success is the key ingredient for employee engagement. When people can internalize the benefits of continuous improvement, it becomes easier to take risks and let go of the status quo. It is important not to focus solely on the financial impact of change. Look for other results to measure over the long run, including metrics like customer satisfaction, quality, safety, and time to market. The best way to measure the short and long-term impact of improvement is to use software designed for this purpose.
Recognize and Reward Success and Learning
People who are resistant to change are often concerned about the risk associated with making mistakes or failing to improve. You can flip the script on this by recognizing both successful projects and those that don't achieve the expected results but still have value in lessons learned.
The bottom line is that people need to be assured that the rewards of positive change are worth the risk. Sure, you want most changes to have a positive impact on key performance metrics, but it's also great if once in a while, your team "fails forward." When that is a reasonable option, people will be free to put their best ideas on the table and give new ways of operating a fair shot.