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A few years ago I was working with a large professional services firm which was implementing a new ATS (Applicant Tracking System) in their recruiting department.  the system was designed to take in and applications from the corporate website and various job boards, automatically respond to applicants, and then help the recruiting team keep track of candidates throughout the screening, interviewing and hiring process.  The idea was that the recruiting team would eventually have a deep database of candidates to call on, while applicants would be processed more efficiently and everyone would have a terrific experience.

change management beth banks cohn

Well, of course the system as delivered wasn't quite as perfect as it had seemed in the initial presentations by the company which built it.  It didn't perfectly match the current processes, it had some very complicated features, and it wasn't quite as easy to use as it had seemed in the original boardroom presentation.

The staff began to grumble, and adoption of the new system got a bit wobbly.  It was time for leadership.

The VP Recruiting, a well-respected and popular leader, undertood a successful 3-pronged approach:

1.  Insight and input:  He asked senior team members to provide, factual, non-emotional, functional-based feedback about the system.  He ignored vague critiques like "It sucks!" but carefully compiled specific items like "It's difficult to set up new job boards within the system".  Then he took this list to the developers and told them to fix them.

2.  Training:  In the original plan, the system had been positioned as so easy to use, it wouldn't require training.  When it was clear this had been wildly optimistic, he quickly identified a couple of team members who seemed most technically adept, sent them to the developers for some in-depth training, and made them subject-matter experts with a certain amount of authority.

3.  Brooking no dissent:  While working on productive solutions to the problems via #1 and #2, the VP Recruiting meanwhile put a stop to any negative conversations about the new system.  He didn't issue an edict or bark orders; he simply curtailed any complaints that walked into his office with a, "Yes, we're working on it - but in the meantime, just keep plugging, please," and when he encountered gripe sessions within the office, he subtly but firmly put an end to them by changing the subject or referring to the ongoing revisions and training.

Why did this 3-pronged approach work?

As a respected and popular leader, the VP Recruiting had the ability to influence his staff.  By demonstrating that he knew there were challenges (by asking for input about improvements) and was willing to spend resources to get the required training for staff, he maintained his credibility.  (When leaders pretend there isn't a problem when everyone knows there is, they risk look oblivious or clueless - both of which undermine their authority.)

Most importantly, however, he made it clear that regardless of the limitations of the system, the expected behavior for employees was to do the best they could and not waste time complaining.  He was changing the behavior even if attitudes weren't quite there yet.

The result?  The behavior change led to an attitude change.  With the negative grumbling curtailed and the knowledge that there were some solutions in the pipeline, employees settled down to the new system and got on with their work.

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The right fit can make or break your change initiative

If you've been thinking that Change Management consultants are flakes who spend all their time talking about 'feelings' and not enough time demonstrating a commitment to the bottom line, you're not alone.  But the truth is that the right change management expertise can make all the difference to a chance initiative.  They can help improve ROI, speed the pace of change, help you retain your top performers, and prevent the project from going off-track.

It's just a matter of partnering with the right consultant.


Here's what you need to consider in order to choose the right consultant for your change initiative:

  1. Experience:  What changes have they implemented as part of an organization?  What changes have they experienced as an employee?  As a manager?  As a leader? Someone who has experienced change from a variety of perspectives is going to bring more understanding to your initiative.
  2. Who will actually be doing the work?  A senior consultant may be the one creating and overseeing the change plan, but delegating the actual work to specialists or juniors.  That's fine - but make sure you know who's on the team and how they'll be working together.
  3. Their role in the changes:  Change consultants can have experience in the technical, logistical or people components of change.  Be sure you know what component(s) you need, and look for someone with the right experience.
  4. Buzzwords vs results:  The best consultants are good at straightforward communications and outlining clear expectations.  If you're hearing a lot of terms like 'change agent' and 'transformation catalyst', call someone else.  Remember, a $25,000 diagram may look great in the boardroom, but isn't a guarantee of results.
  5. Approach:  Effective change management consultants ask good business questions and are looking to understand how all the pieces fit together before outlining a plan.  If they say they can just jump in and start delivering results, no questions asked, they may not have the skills you need.
  6. How many people will the consultant be bringing in?  An outside consultant may be able to bring clear vision and specialists to the table, but in order for a change to be successful, your internal employees should be fully engaged in the process.  Leaving change entirely to external consultants can mean the change leaves when they do.
  7. Pragmatism:  Good change management isn't about holding hands and singing folk songs with employees - it's about making smart business changes that ultimately lead to a better bottom line.  An effective change management consultant is one who knows that managing the people piece will drive business success.  That means demonstrating they understand the business and can balance the people side of things - if they only pay lip service to the people side, you'll have problems in the long run.  Remember:  People are your most important asset.
  8. What is their success rate?  Don't be afraid to ask. If they can't tell you it's higher than 98%, don't hire them.  It's that simple.
  9. Ask about their biggest failure - and how they turned it around.  Anyone who tells you they haven't had a failure is lying - and anyone who can't tell you how they fixed a big failure isn't ready to lead a change initiative.
  10. Does their process include a 'Lessons Learned' component?  It should.  Successful change management generates valuable knowledge and insight about the organizations, and it's important that this knowledge is articulated, documented, and transferred to the organization.  Otherwise all that knowledge just walks out the door along with the consultant at the end of the project.




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Employees can be your biggest champions when it comes to making changes within an organization: They can be cheerleaders, early adopters, and insight-providers.

Sometimes, however, people can be the biggest roadblocks when it comes to change. We all have some natural resistance to change, and that's okay - as humans, we're wired to strive for homeostasis.  But some people seem to be more resistant than others, and they tend to fit into 6 categories.


But here's something to keep in mind: Each of these 6 'resistant' archetypes has something to teach us.  It's sometimes hard to hear their message, but if we can look past the frustration (theirs, and our own) to the root cause of their resistance, we'll often find that they're providing useful insights into the change process - and listening to them will make the change process more successful.

Here's how to deal with them:


The Yeller thinks that if they voice their objections with sufficient volume, they'll eventually get their way - and they often do, because many people find Yellers intimidating.  The sad truth is that most Yellers have good points, but they're often lost in the decibels of their delivery.  The best way to deal with Yellers is simply to let them finish their rant, then pause for 10-15 seconds before you respond.  Most of the time, the dramatic post-yell silence will give them time to realize that yelling may not work this time.  It's important not to take Yellers personally - they're not yelling at you, they're yelling because they're finding the situation scary or stressful.  Sometimes they aren't feeling heard at all and they think raising their voice will solve that problem.  Acknowleding their concerns, and answering them, can often turn them into powerful allies.


These are the people who agree to everything when they're in the room, and then somehow never actually do anything they've agreed to.  Nor do they feel it necessary to support you outside of the meeting room the way they supported you inside of it.  It can be hard to spot an Agree-er until you discover that some key task hasn't been completed, or that they've been disagreeing with the agreed-upon direction behind your back, but the fix is relatively easy: Make the accountable and establish consequences for non-compliance.  Spell out what 'agreement' looks like and hold them accountable.  Ensure you follow up meetings with an email that clearly assigns their tasks, deadlines and a reporting method that makes it difficult for them to make excuses.


The Critic thinks that the best way to make a 'contribution' to the change process is by poking holes in every idea or action item on the agenda.  The most effective way to defuse a chronic Critic is to respond to each criticism with "Thank you for bringing that up."  Then, if you've had the same concern, share what has been done to alleviate it.  If it is something that you and your team hadn't thought of, encourage the Critic to provide suggestions on how to best deal with that potential problem.  Try to remain open, as difficult as that may be.  the more open you are to hearing what the Critic has to say, the more they will pick and choose what they criticize.  One last thing: Don't ever wish your Critic would just 'shut up' and get back to work.  They can often save you from problems down the road - you just have to be open to hearing what they have to say.


Like the Critic, the Nay-Sayer tends to cast a sense of doom over the change initiative, but in a more general way:  "I just don't see how this is going to be possible in the timeframe we're talking about..."  Some experts say the most effective way to deal with Nay-Sayers is to ignore them and hope they'll get swept up in the tide of enthusiasm.  I say the best way is to speak to them privately, let them know how important they are to the initiative, and give them a feeling of ownership.  In many cases, it's just a matter of making Nay-Sayers feel more personally engaged.


The flip-side to the Nay-Sayers are the Pollyannas: The hopelessly optimistic types who think everything will 'somehow' work out even if they don't actually identify or address real problems.  Dealing with Pollyannas tends to involve clearly articulating 'what-if' scenarios ("What will happen if we leave this department as it is, as you suggest, while the other departments change?") and then guiding them to solutions.  It's helpful to note that Pollyannas may be just as scared of change as Yellers - they're just dealing with it differently.


These are the people with self-professed 'high standards' who don't want to make a move until every T is crossed and every I is dotted - and who can always find a T or an I which hasn't been sufficiently dealt with.  Perfectionists tend to say that they're worried about the organization's 'reputation', but in fact are genuinely and personally uncomfortable with anything that isn't perfect.  This isn't the first time this Perfectionist has used his or her 'high standards'.  Demonstrating that you have a strong contingency plan, and that the 'worst-case' scenario won't actually bring disaster, can reduce their fears and encourage them to take action.

When you're dealing with 'people roadblocks' to change, the most important thing to remember is that almost all of them are just expressions of the natural fear and anxiety that the prospect of change elicits from all of us.  Each one of these roadblocks can be turned into precious building blocks as you move through an important change initiative.  Finding a way to calm their fears and address the anxiety can turn even the most negative archetype into an enthusiastic change supporter.


Published in News
Monday, 15 July 2013 13:40

Don't Be Fooled By the $25,000 Diagram


It's time to become model-agnostic.

I'm a big believer in the value of theoretical rigor - I guess that comes from my graduate work.  In fact, I tend to think that anyone who works in a professional services field should have a solid grounding in the theories that underpin their specialty.  Change management, in particular, is a field that can so often get mistaken for a touchy-feely offshoot of HR, I'd like to see more practitioners with advanced degrees in the field.

meaningless diagram

(An example of a diagram which looks nice, but means almost nothing when you think about it.)

However - and it's a big 'however - it's important to remember that if all the change management models we learn in degree programs were as true as 2+2=4, we wouldn't call them 'theories'.  We'd call them 'universal truths'.

And therein we have the basis of one of the biggest problems in change management: The $25,000 diagram.

What do I mean?

All too often I see change management professionals who try to use the theory approach to solve every change-related challenge.  They dust off their favorite change management model from a textbook, plug in some numbers and arrows, add some bullet points about the marvelous results this model will magically achieve - and voila!  The client gets a nice-looking PowerPoint presentation, the heart of which is an attractive diagram that appears to demonstrate a few simple actions that will transform the organization.  And a bill for $25,000 for this insight.

There's a big difference between theory and implementation

Theory is great as far as it goes, but it's only part of the solution - in my experience, implementation, execution and results are more than 75% of the change process.

What's more, every organization is different, and so far I've never encountered one that fit neatly into a single change model or approach. There's always an angle that isn't accounted for in the theory, a business function which isn't accommodated in the handy 4-square diagram, and a learning curve which isn't reflected in the results grid.

So my recommendation, when you're planning your change process, is to take a model-agnostic approach.  Instead of relying on a particular theory, look for a plan which spends more time on how the implementation will roll out - and how it will affect your people - than on how it should roll out, based on the theoretical diagram.

Published in News
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 00:00

All I Am Saying Is: Give Change a Chance


Do you really understand what a successful change timeline should look like?

Thirty years ago, I was living Tel Aviv, Israel, and one of the few radio stations which broadcast in English had a wonderful tagline, from the John Lennon song:  "All we are saying is give peace a chance."  The implication, of course, is that peace takes time to take root.

So does change.

waiting for change

Lately I've seen a disturbing trend in business, no doubt influenced by the ultra-fast startup culture: Changes are made to improve the organization, but before the changes can take root and start to bear fruit, someone declares them 'unsuccessful' and begins the process of implementing new changes.

Businesses will tell you that they don't have time to wait around and 'give change a chance'.  They need to see a demonstrable ROI now: They need to satisfy shareholders, or they need cash to invest in the business or acquire another one; they're often afraid that if they aren't Doing Something Big and Different right this minute, the competition will sneak up behind them and suddenly they'll be left behind, or a negative media profile will send their share prices plummeting; or someone will suggest that senior leadership isn't innovative enough. Or something.

But when organizations continually make investments in change that they never see through, they become doomed to a downward spiral: Ever-more desperate short-term measures that simply don't work - and definitely don't deliver long-term success.

Understand that different change initiatives require different timelines

I'm not suggesting that all change needs to happen on glacial timelines.  Change can often be implemented quickly and successfully if the right plan is in place to get it done. But it's important to give change initiatives the right amount of time to succeed: The right amount of time for implementation, the right amount of time for transition, and the right amount of time to assess whether the change efforts have in fact been successful. Companies which understand the difference between short-, medium- and long-term goals - and expect results on corresponding timelines - will do better.

Some business changes do result in immediate benefits.  A quick process redesign, a shift to a new supplier, even a small team reorganization are changes that can deliver results in 3 months or less.

However, when the scale of change is larger, and involves exponentially more people - an enterprise-wide technology change, a fundamental refocus of the core competencies of the business - the timeframe becomes correspondingly longer as wel. The mor epeople involved, the more time is required: When a technology change requires that everyone from the Senior VP to the division manager to the entry-level employee now has to make changes in their day-to-day activities, change simply takes longer to map, implement and manage.

The scope and timeframes of metrics will also depend on the change initiative. Changing the way a sales force sells a certain product line has a simple, and relatively short-term, measure of success: Have sales increased?

But let's say the entire sales process has also been transformed, including new technology and a redesigned supply chain management system. Now the sales force has to sell the products differently, manage the process differently, and educate clients about how the new supply chain system will change the way products are ordered, delivered and invoiced.

IN this case, simply measuring 'sales increases' may not be the most effective metric, at least in the short term. It may be more appropriate to measure client adoption, client feedback, increases in reorders or yearly client value - all of which tend to be longer-term measures of success.

How can organizations do a better job of 'giving change a chance'? Well, I tend to think about change the way Warren Buffett thinks about investing: "Always invest [in change] for the long term."




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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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