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I think this cartoon is supposed to illustrate the many ways in which people will resist a proposed change in the workplace.  It does - and it definitely covers most of the most common resistance responses you can expect to any change initiative.

However, what struck me most about this particular illustration is that while one person is standing there doing the talking, 11 other people are having private thoughts.  Not all of them are negative, and not all of them will ever be shared with the person leading the change or even with the other people around the table.  And this is where change can run into serious problems.

Most of us know that feedback is important in the change process.  But as I've mentioned before, we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss change resistors, because they very often have something to teach us.  Maybe they do have a better idea; maybe they have an important piece of information that should be taken into consideration when mapping out and implementing a change strategy; maybe they're just an indicator that the organizational culture and communications need a lot of work before any change can really take root and be successful.  But as long as only one person is communicating while 11 others are silent, no amount of expert change management will make a change initiative successful.

change management communication

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We often talk about change leadership within an organization:  Whether the organization is changing their software, the sales function, or the entire business focus, having the right leadership is crucial to success.  And in many cases, leadership starts with the president or CEO - it's important for the person at the top to be a positive, engaged role model for the change.

dueling banjos in change management

But what happens when the change is happening in an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) context?  In those cases, there is often more than one person 'at the top' - each organization has a president or CEO or chairman, and it may not immediately be clear which of them will, ultimately, be in charge, or who will ultimately wield more power.  This can create serious problems for change management, particularly in change leadership.

A few years ago, the British Journal of Change Management published a study in which several organizations were studied over the course of 7 years.  One of their findings was that during the M&A process, change was derailed when individual workers felt that change had been imposed on management, rather than being led by management.

It's not surprising:  In most mergers and acquisitions, one company is seen to be dominant, while the other feels like it's getting 'swallowed up'.  It's not unusual for the senior leadership of the 'swallowed' company to feel like they're just marking time until their position is made redundant and they're given a nice severance package.  It's hard to lead anything - including change - if you're just waiting for your pink slip, even if that pink slip is going to come with a lucrative cushion.  And that's the best-case scenario.  If the merger/acquisition has been acrimonious, there may be active negativity emanating from the executive suites.

When leadership figures appear to be ambivalent (or actively disparaging) about the changes happening to the organization, two things happen:

  1. Leaders stop being leaders:  When leaders appear disengaged from the process, they stop leading and start looking like they're just victims of change.  That's when employees start feeling like the change has been 'imposed' on the leaders - and start seeing their former leaders as fellow 'victims' of change.  It's hard for anyone to lead much of anything when everyone's feeling sorry for them because they're a victim.
  2. Change resistance becomes more entrenched:  It goes something like this:  "If the president, who we've always liked, isn't engaged with this merger and seems to have been unwillingly stuck with it, then it must be bad.  So we're just going to keep doing business as usual, and let those new corporate overlords put that in their pipes and smoke it!"  This isn't good for anyone:  It makes the existing employees of the 'swallowed' company look petty and unproductive; it makes the work environment for everyone toxic; and ultimately it costs a whole lot of money, either in lost productivity or in massive turnover.

What's the solution?  More attention paid to the importance of transitional leadership during a merger or acquisition.  Letting the leaders of the acquired organization disengage or take on a victimized attitude is short-sighted - and costs money in terms of productivity, increased turnover, and a longer ROI horizon.  Leveraging those leaders to help facilitate change during the M&A process means the new, merged/acquired organization can start delivering efficiencies more quickly.



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The other day I was having lunch with a colleague, a long-term change management practitioner.  "Getting people to understand the need for a formal change management strategy and implementation plan has always been a bit of a struggle," she said.  "But I feel like it's getting harder.  Leaders of organizations seem to just assume that everyone is comfortable with constant change, so there's no need to 'manage' it."

She's right:  These days, when organizations think about change, they tend to think it's something they do all the time (maybe it's called 'innovation' or 'disruption' or 'process improvement', but it's all 'change') anyway, so there's no need to 'manage' it.  And who needs a change management expert anyway, when a junior project manager with a GANTT chart can track timelines and send reminder emails to people who miss deadlines?

In some ways I agree that the role of change management has, in fact, changed.  Twenty years ago, launching a new enterprise-wide software system - for example - required a whole lot of change management, because it often signaled a fundamental shift in the way the business operated and the average worker took longer to adapt.  Today, depending on the organization, department and function, deploying a new piece of enterprise software is often easier, because the technology is more seamless and most employees are quicker to adapt.


Change management really isn't about chasing people around with a GANTT chart or making sure the latest Sharepoint update has been installed.  At the end of the day, change management - at least the way I see it - is about helping organizations handle change with the most beneficial effect on the bottom line.

Here's the thing:  Constant change is tiring.  As I said in my first book, when you are constantly changing, your employees aren't getting better at it - they are getting tired.  And when your employees are tired, they aren't as productive.  Employees don't really 'embrace' constant change - they just brace themselves because they know more change is just around the corner.  It's like when you're on a roller coaster ride and you grip the handrail really tightly in anticipation of the next wild turn.  Now, I know some people love roller coasters, but even the most die-hard fans don't want to ride them all day, every day, for a living.

That being said, I know change, even constant change, is now the norm for most companies.  So help your employees help you by becoming the best and most transparent communicator you can.  Spend time tellin gthem the 'why' of the change, help them see how they fit in, re-train them if necessary - and cut them some slack, acknowledge their pain.  You might just find that productivity (and enthusiasm) go up.

I've talked about this before:  When change isn't properly communicated and implemented with an emphasis on the 'people side of change', it costs the organization time, money, and, in many cases, the top-performing employees.

And that's where change management is important.  Developing a change management strategy is about gathering requirements, listening to feedback, communicating effectively and making time for training - all of which will ensure the change happens more seamlessly and painlessly than it would otherwise.  The result?  A healthier bottom line, faster.

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Humans need narratives in order to make sense of their world - we're hardwired to respond to stories.  If your change initiative doesn't provide a strong 'story' that your employees can understand, internalize, and communicate to others, I can guarantee it won't work the way you want it to.

"But," I hear you say, "I'm not exactly J.K. Rowling over here.  How am I supposed to come up with a 'story'?"

Don't worry - storytelling isn't about writing a novel about your business.  It's about creating a narrative that puts the new information in a context that helps people make sense of the change and understand why it's important.  Here's how to get started.

OPTION 1:  Tell the story from the employee’s perspective

In this approach, the business story is told from the employee’s point of view, and should include one or more of the following elements:

  • Use the employee as the protagonist to demonstrate why the new model makes sense (“Employees in X department were finding that processing new orders was taking more than 24 hours, which made it difficult to meet deadlines.  The new system will cut the average employee’s workload in half.”)
  • Describe how the new model will solve customer problems (“By cutting the 24-hour processing time in half, customers will get their orders faster and with less time spent on CRM.”)
  • Communicate how the new model or approach will make better use of resources, activities or partnerships compared to the old model (“By partnering with Acme Inc., we’ll gain new markets for our product line which will increase sales and help the company grow - which in turn will deliver benefits to all our employees in the form of greater job security, better career opportunities, and increased compensation.”)
  • Demonstrate how the change will better reflect the employee’s values, beliefs or ideology and thereby increase their job satisfaction (“By changing to the new system, we’ll cut our energy use by 25%, because we believe that companies have a responsibility to look after the environment and we know our employees believe that, too.”)

OPTION 2:  Tell the story from the customer’s perspective

In this approach, the story is told with the customer as the protagonist.  This approach is particularly useful for businesses with a strong customer focus and where employees are already inclined to identify with customers.

  • Describe specific challenges the customer faces and how the new model will help address these challenges (“We know our customers have been hit hard by the recession, so our new a la carte pricing helps them manage expenditures more effectively.”)
  • Use some drama and emotion to help the story resonate with employees (“Our products are used by 3400 childrens’ hospitals across the country.  Our new process will ensure that our products do a better job of making children’s surgical recovery times easier and less painful - which means they can go home to their families much sooner than they did before.”)

Remember:  Stories which are perceived as patronizing or overly simplified can backfire:  “They told us X in the meeting, but I saw on the news that our share price is down due to Y.  I guess they’re lying to us as usual.”  Whether you go with Option 1 or 2, keeping the narrative honest, transparent and authentic is crucial to organizational buy-in.


Adapted from Business Model Generation [ link to ]  by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.




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Last time, we talked about how gathering input from the organization prior to a change is crucial to success.  But how, exactly, can you gather input without having to sit down with each individual employee?

Here are 5 ways to get accurate input without spending months on one-to-ones:

  1. Focus groups:  Set up a series of focus groups across the organization.  Include all departments which will be affected by the change (even if it’s only tangentially), all levels (juniors often have valuable insights), and all roles (IT types might be less gregarious than the salespeople, but they often know more about the organization than you think)
  2. Deputize managers to gather feedback:  Bring managers from the relevant departments together and show them how to facilitate an input-gathering session with their direct reports.  Provide them with some standardized, structured questions so you get consistent responses across the various departments
  3. Host a ‘town hall’ meeting:  Bring everyone together in an auditorium or other large space, present the change strategy, and then ask for questions from the audience.  This won’t work in every situation (it depends on the size and structure of the organization) but it has the added advantage of providing employees with information about the change, and this can build both enthusiasm and teamwork
  4. Try a pilot project:  Try a 4-6 month pilot in a specific department or area (much like McDonalds will try out a new menu item in a limited geographical region before rolling it out to all restaurants).  The feedback and insights you gain can be used to tweak the change strategy when you apply it to the rest of the organization.  This won’t be feasible for all change initiatives, but works well for new products, new marketing systems, new customer service processes, etc.
  5. Set up an online forum:  Create an online bulletin board within the company intranet and invite employees to offer input, insights or even questions.  You may find that a normally reserved employee has a lot to offer when s/he has the opportunity to express their thoughts in writing without feeling as exposed as s/he would if required to do so in person.

As I mentioned before, sometimes it’s not appropriate to do too much internal input-gathering prior to a change.  However, it’s important to remember that when you ask for input, you’re helping your stakeholders to feel personally invested in the change - and that’s the first step to ensuring they respond positively and enthusiastically when it comes time for implementation.



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A few months ago I started working with a new client to develop and implement a change management strategy around their sales processes.  “We really just need you to create the strategy and oversee the implementation,” the senior leadership team told me in our preliminary meetings.  “We have a full-time project manager who’ll be able to handle the day-to-day.”

“Great,” I thought - after all, if you leave all your change up to external consultants, the changes often walk out the front door when the consultants do.  So I was looking forward to working with the project manager.

Our first meeting seemed to go well:  She came prepared, with an organized binder full of reference materials and some good questions about implementation details.  I thought we were off to a good start.

Until the next day, when I sent her a follow-up email - and she replied, CC-ing no fewer than 8 other people.  “Okay,” I thought, “she’s just letting everyone know we’ve gotten started in earnest.”  But no.  Every email response was a ‘reply all’, and if the email had been sent only to her, in her reply she added everyone who’d ever been involved in the conversation - juniors, co-workers, managers, senior leadership, sometimes even suppliers. 

Thanks to the relentless use of ‘reply all’, by the end of the week I had 62 emails about a project that hadn’t even really started yet, and I was exhausted.  When you’re working off-site with a new client, you have to pay close attention to emails.  Spending so much time re-reading ‘reply all’ threads in case they contained important information somewhere in the scrolldown was driving me nuts - especially when it turned out that most of them consisted of really crucial information like “Thanks.  Talk to you on Monday.”

But in some ways I was glad it had happened so early on, because a chronic ‘reply all-er’ can be a real problem for a change initiative.  Here’s why:

  • They aren’t respectful of other people’s time.  I wasn’t the only one who had to sift through 62+ irrelevant emails that week, and I’m quite sure that the other 8 people who’d been CCed on everything had many more productive things to do.  When people see a change initiative as a huge time-suck, they’re more inclined to resist it as the project moves forward.
  • They don’t know how to prioritize information.  When a project manager doesn’t realize that, for example, the CIO doesn’t need to be copied on an email regarding the design of some new materials for the sales team, it’s a good indication that they won’t understand how best to communicate information about the change to the rest of the organization.  And this can be a huge barrier to change management success.
  • They’re too worried about office politics.  People who CC everyone on every email are usually trying to cover their own backside, spread blame, or make it look like they’re busier than they really are.  All of these tendencies can be lethal to a change initiative.

So how do you handle an obsessive CC-er?  Since she was a long-time employee of my client’s organization, and was internally well-liked, I couldn’t have her removed from the project.  And she was quite good with managing timelines.  So I put her in charge of ensuring we were on track with various deadlines, and, using the “We need a single point of contact” approach, I got her to funnel all communications through me for the duration of the initiative.  The change implementation was successful - and we never had a 62-email-week again.


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Imagine:  You’ve created a new organizational structure which turns the traditional hierarchy on its head.  Your new org structure is new!  It’s creative!  It’s innovative!  Most importantly, you know it’s exactly what your organization needs in order to move to the next level. 

You announce your new structure on a Monday morning, and tell everyone that it’ll go into effect two weeks from that Monday.  You take the senior leadership team through an exciting PowerPoint presentation detailing your plans, then send them out to make it happen in their departments.  You’re excited - the future is so bright, and your organization is going to be so well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunities coming down the pike!

Cut to:  Six months later.  You’re sitting in a conference room with your senior leadership team, trying to figure out how, exactly, your business has fallen so dangerously behind the competition.  The innovative organizational structure that seemed so promising 6 months ago has dissolved into chaos, your top performers are starting to evacuate, and if you don’t come up with a miracle, fast, you won’t be at the head of the boardroom table much longer.

So what happened? 

(Change + innovation) - (change management plan) = Changerous

Things get changerous when you try to implement a whole new model without a change management plan.

“Change management?!” you scoff.  “Who has time to be that boring and old-school?  Around here, change is hardwired into our DNA.  We’re dynamically synergistic, we’re early adopters!  We’re so far ahead of the curve we’re practically Zappos!  Go on - take your Gantt charts with you, while our all-Millennial workforce conducts our entire business via Tumblr!”


Here are 3 things you might want to think about:

  1. Done right, change management plans can (and should) be just as innovative as the change itself.  It might help you to know that Google had a very detailed change management plan for the implementation of Google Glass
  2. Your business may have done a lot of changing in the recent past, but that doesn’t mean you’ve gotten better at it.  In fact, it may mean that your employees don’t bother to make changes because they know next week they’ll have to do it differently anyway
  3. Your 20-something employees may seem amenable to change, but their lack of experience may make it difficult for them to really implement it effectively.  Even the brightest, most agile employees need to understand how their jobs will change, and how all the new pieces fit together.

Think about it this way:  You’ve been driving for years, and you’re pretty good at it.  Then someone hands you the keys to a Maserati, says, “It’s all yours - have fun!”, and walks off into the sunset.  You get in the car, turn the key in the ignition - and then realize it’s a stick shift, which you’ve never driven before.  Trying to get it out of the parking garage without getting a couple of lessons in driving manual transmissions?  That’s changerous.


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'Change' seems to have become a hot topic for businesses again.  As a change architect - and someone who makes her living from organizational change - I find myself greeting the news with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I’m thrilled that more organizations are recognizing the need for change.  On the other hand, 70% of change initiatives still fail in some way, so it’s not like organizations are getting better at it.  And sometimes it seems that ‘change’ has become a strategy in and of itself:  “We need to improve the bottom line.  Let’s change…something!”

Organizations are still looking for the mythical silver bullet, that proprietary alchemy which will magically make their changes work.  Each time they set out to change, they look for some new silver bullet, because the old silver bullet didn’t work.  The problem is that it’s not about finding a magic bullet - it’s about recognizing that successful change needs the right strategy and implementation.

I’ve led lots of change projects over the years, and not one of them has failed.  That’s not because I invented a magic bullet - it’s because I’ve spent more time than most people learning to understand the way I, and the people I’m leading, react to change. 

It’s important to remember that being the ‘changer’ (the leader of change) is much different than being a ‘changee’ (one of the people affected by the change).   Within an organization, senior leaders are used to thinking of themselves as ‘changers’.  But when their change initiatives don’t succeed, it’s often because they forgot that they’re also ‘changees’ - and that their reactions to change, as a changee, are influencing the process in a negative way.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you are Joe (or Josephine), the CEO of a $30 million company in the retail sector.  You’re on your way to work (where you’re scheduled to be in an important meeting as soon as you arrive) and discover that your usual route is closed thanks to unexpected roadwork.  You’re forced to follow a detour that not only takes longer but goes through an area with which you’re entirely unfamiliar.  The delay makes you feel panicky about missing the start of the meeting,  you’re unsettled by the confusion of the detour - and when you finally get to the office, you can’t shake your feelings of anxiety.

Then you dash into the meeting, where you’re hit with some bad news from your VPs.  “Oh, great,” you think.  “Once again, they’ve all failed to meet my expectations.  They’re always disappointing me - what the hell is wrong with them?”  You decide you’ll have to ‘do something about it’, but the thought of having to spend hours coaching your senior leadership team through the next quarter just sucks all the energy out of you.  By the time you head home for the day, you feel like you’ve been been on a forced march through the desert - and you never did get around to tackling all the other items on your to-do list for the day.

When this kind of relatively small, unexpected change unsettles Joe (or Josephine), it’s not hard to understand how big change can cause anxiety, even in senior leaders.  Anxiety can lead to a lack of action, sudden changes in direction, or apathy - and when the leader of a change is paralyzed, inconsistent, or detached, it’s not surprising that the rest of the employees are similarly affected.  (And thinking things like “my team is always disappointing me” is almost guaranteed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

So if you’re finding yourself leading a change project which isn’t going well, the first step may be to look in the mirror.  Are you bringing your anxiety to bear on the project?  Are you setting your team up for success by believing in their abilities, or are you letting them meet your expectations of failure?  Most importantly, are you modeling the kind of enthusiasm for change that you need to see in them?

As the person who initiates change within the organization, you may not be affected by the change in the same ways that those lower in your organization will.  But here’s something to think about:  Change is just as much about ‘how’ as it is about ‘what’ - and how your employees react to change is directly related to the way you do.

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The other day I was having lunch with a former colleague who had recently become the VP of HR & Recruiting at a large company.  She was frustrated.

“I don’t know what the heck the problem is,” she sighed.  “I know the department was a disaster when I came on board last year, but I got rid of the two managers who were causing most of the problems, I’ve brought in new technology to replace the outdated system that had been on its last legs for years, and I even brought in an improv coach to do some fun team-building exercises.  But everyone still seems demoralized and I don’t know what more I can do at this point.”

Since this is a classic change management dilemma (“We made all the right changes - why hasn’t productivity/morale/business improved?”), I asked her a few questions.

There is such a thing as being too positive

Most of us know there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  Generally speaking, it’s a good motto for both our personal and professional lives:  No one wants to be friends with a Debbie Downer, and no one wants to work with (or promote) someone who spends all their time complaining.


When you’re the leader of a change initiative, and the change is happening because the pre-change state is best described as ‘a disaster’, refusing to acknowledge that disaster doesn’t make you look like a positive, Dale Carnegie type - it just makes you look like maybe you don’t actually understand the situation.

That’s what had happened with my lunch companion.  She’d been brought in specifically to transform the HR/Recruiting department, but as a new hire who prided herself on her professionalism and positive attitude, she didn’t want to alienate her new team members by being negative about what had gone on before her arrival.  So instead of announcing that the two managers had been unceremoniously fired, she let everyone think that they’d simply ‘moved on to other opportunities’; instead of acknowledging that the existing technology was a productivity-sucking blight on the organization, she talked about the increased usability of the new system; and instead of acknowledging that the bad managers had created a lot of dissention within the team, she positioned the improv coach as a fun activity to help her get to know her new staff. 

Most importantly, when her direct reports alluded to the previously disastrous situation, she pretended not to understand and instead just refocused the conversation on how great things were going to be once the changes were complete.

The result 

Her employees - already on edge as a result of an extended period of bad management - concluded that she was just another dingbat brought in to make their lives difficult, and that the changes she was making wouldn’t actually fix anything because she hadn’t understood the problems in the first place.  So they didn’t bond with the new managers she hired, they resisted using the new technology system, and half of them mysteriously had urgent appointments on the days the improv coach was scheduled to come in.

The lesson

As a change leader, being relentlessly positive isn’t always the best approach.  Of course you don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about how terrible things were before you arrived, and it’s never a good idea to speak badly about former employees, even if they were idiots.  But it’s crucial that you let people know that you are, in fact, well aware of the pre-change problems, and that you understand how those problems affected your team’s ability to work effectively.   You can acknowledge the problems without being negative:  Instead of ignoring an employee’s snarky comment about how cumbersome the previous technology was, you can say “I know - it was brutal!  That’s why I’m so excited about the new system.  Let me tell you about it…”

When people realize that you understand their frustration, they’re more inclined to see you as someone they can work with rather than just another adversary they have to work around - which will make them much more enthusiastic and responsive to the changes you’re trying to implement.


Published in News
Wednesday, 27 March 2013 07:12

Change Leadership: A tale of two departments

A few years ago I was working with a mid-sized packaged goods company which had two large operations in different parts of the country.  Each operation focused on a particular product line, for which it had separate sales departments, and the change initiative was to unite the technology systems for both to allow for better cross-selling and customer service.

Six months into the project I was perplexed:  While one operation was proceeding effectively with the changes, and was already showing positive results (increased sales and better customer feedback, etc.), the other facility had stalled, and we were starting to meet active resistance.

At first, the reasons were unclear:  Though the organizational goals were aligned across both operations, we'd prepared customized change strategies for each location based on their people, process and technology.  How had we gotten one change plan so right and the other so - apparently - wrong?

As I've mentioned before, good communication is the foundation of any successful change management strategy and implementation.  I decided to spend some time at the underperforming facility, talking not just to project team members but to various other staffers as well, to see what I could find out.

Spending a few days on-site at the underperforming facility and talking to employees quickly revealed the problem:  The VP Sales of that operation had missed several key planning meetings at the beginning of the change process due to work-related travel commitments.  Though he'd been provided with documentation - and had participated in subsequent meetings - he'd been left feeling under-consulted and left out of the process.  In addition, there were long-standing rivalries between the two operations which hadn't been adequately articulated in these key early planning meetings - so the VP Sales was feeling threatened by the changes.

The result was that while the VP Sales of the high-performing operations was actively engaged in the change and was doing a great job of enthusiastically leading his people forward, the VP Sales of the underperforming operation was not only demonstrating lacklustre leadership for the change, but was actively undermining it by telling his managers that change-related tasks were a 'low priority' and could safely be sidelined in favor of 'business as usual'.

The solution

As it turned out, the solution to our problem was relatively straightforward:  We (the CEO, the VP Operations, and I) spent an afternoon with the VP Sales of the underperforming operation to review the change strategy, with particular emphasis on the decision-making rationale that he had missed earlier in the process.  We actively solicited his insight and input and made a couple of revisions based on that input.  He became a much more enthusiastic supporter of the change initiative, and went back to his people with a more positive leadership approach.

The lessons

  1. Don't underestimate the value of single individuals in the success or failure of a change initiative.  A single unengaged VP can derail an entire change initiative.
  2. Don't assume enthusiasm and engagement.  Even though the underperforming VP Sales hadn't been at some of the early planning meetings, we'd simply assumed that - since he hadn't expressed concern or issues at subsequent meetings - he was on board and as enthusiastic as everyone else.
  3. A little bit of TLC can go a long way.  Once we determined the problem, we didn't 'bully' the unengaged VP Sales into compliance or 'shame' him by comparing him to the high-performing VP Sales.  Instead, we took the time to review the change strategy with him, ask for his insight, and implemented revisions which addressed his concerns.  It's amazing how demonstrating respect and consideration can transform a non-engaged leader into a fully-engaged one.

BONUS LESSON:  If key members of the change strategy team can't participate in early meetings, ensure they are provided with one-on-one follow up.  Making the time to keep everyone on the same page right from the beginning will save a lot of time and frustration later on.


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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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