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How to Manage Change

HR can play a critical role in helping the workforce evolve to meet future needs.

​When Alex Brenner, SHRM-SCP, worked for an Ohio mental health care company that was on an acquisition binge, she expected complaints from physicians and counselors about the new processes and technologies for electronic medical records that the new owners were rolling out. What she didn’t expect were complaints about lobby furniture.

“We were rebranding and changed the fabric on the waiting room chairs,” she says. “That was something familiar and personal. [Employees] liked the previous color.”

Brenner, now the president of her own HR consulting business, Starting Gate Solutions LLC in Cleveland, learned a key lesson: Even relatively minor changes can be very important to some people.

The ability to manage change is more critical than ever, as the upheaval caused by the pandemic has shown. And it’s a skill more HR professionals should cultivate, experts say.

Even before the challenges of a world health crisis complicated matters, most change initiatives failed, studies show. A common reason for the failure is that business leaders often don’t involve the HR team until after the project has launched and employees resist. 

Then leaders belatedly ask HR to help “fix people,” says Cindy Gil-Avila, SHRM-SCP, a Miami-based senior manager for people development at YPO, a global learning and networking organization for CEOs. “They treat the end user as the root cause of the problem for not embracing change,” she says, when the real problem was the lack of consideration for the people who would be impacted.

Who’s in Charge?

Unlike other business functions, change management doesn’t “belong” to any one team in the organization. Often, change management sits within HR. But in large organizations, the function may be in a formal project management or change management office. Some companies put it in the office of organizational development. 

This inconsistency can lead to HR professionals having an undefined role in change initiatives, even though they’re the “people” experts. And that unclear role can lead to employee resistance.

Change initiatives are more successful when HR is a partner in the strategic planning phase, Gil-Avila says. As an organizational development manager at her previous employer, a promotional-products company with 2,400 employees in North America, she worked on a variety of change management projects, including technology rollouts, acquisitions and relocations. 

Unfortunately, HR professionals historically haven’t had much formal training in change management, notes Gil-Avila, who is a certified change management professional.

Sandra Knight, president of Knight HR Consulting and Coaching in Dallas, can attest to that. In the middle of her career, after 15 years in HR, Knight was pulled into an HR technology project as functional leader and change manager at Zale Corp., which at the time had more than 18,000 employees and 2,300 retail stores.

With no training, “I was like a deer in the headlights,” Knight says. “I’d never done it before but said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ ”

And by doing it, she learned. Fortunately, she had a great teacher, an outside consultant with change management expertise. 

“That consultant taught me the technical pieces of it—how to develop a comprehensive communications plan, how to conduct gap analyses and how to identify ‘change champions,’” Knight says. Change champions are influencers within the company who can help explain and justify the need for change among their fellow employees. 

Gil-Avila says more HR professionals than ever before are focusing on developing change management skills, and she notes that several professional associations are offering specialized courses.

“Every HR manager should have a strong foundation in change management,” she says. “When companies had to pivot to virtual work during the pandemic, change management skills helped companies do it well.” 

There are several models for change management, including some that are complicated. But Gil-Avila summarizes the basics in four steps:

  1. Analyze what needs to change and who is impacted.
  2. Develop a plan to change it.
  3. Execute the plan.
  4. Measure the results.

The problem, she says, is that people often do only the second and third steps—they just develop and execute a plan. “They don’t analyze all potential impacts first, and they don’t have a metric by which to measure whether it’s successful and sustainable.” 

To measure a new program’s success, HR professionals could establish goals such as increasing employee retention by 50 percent or improving customer service scores by 20 percent. 

The metric should be observable and quantifiable, says Ed Cook, president of The Change Decision, a professional training and coaching organization in Richmond, Va. “That’s the ultimate justification for whatever money you’re spending,” he notes.

What is Change Management?

Change management is the systematic approach and application of knowledge, tools and resources to deal with change. It involves defining and adopting corporate strategies, structures, procedures and technologies to handle changes in external conditions and the business environment. Effective change management goes beyond project management and technical tasks undertaken to enact organizational changes and involves leading the “people side” of major change within an organization. The primary goal is to successfully implement new processes, products and business strategies while minimizing negative outcomes.

Source: SHRM Toolkit: Managing Organizational Change.

Communicate Often

Frequent two-way communication is critical. There’s no such thing as too much communication, Brenner says, but make sure everyone—including business leaders, managers and other change champions—says the same things. 

“Everyone involved in the change, including your change champions, needs to be on the same page with messaging,” Brenner says. And communication is not just about talking; it’s also about listening. Ask employees for constructive feedback, be attentive and make sure you respond to that feedback, preferably by talking with employees. 

Because everyone has different communication styles, Brenner says she would “put notices on people’s doors, send e-mails, meet with them face to face, follow up by phone, then send them a Slack message.” 

While some might consider that overkill, it was reassuring to the employees at the mental health practices that were acquired by her company.

“Whenever someone brought something up with us, we always got back to them,” she says. “I think people really appreciated that.”

It’s also important to explain the reasons for making changes and the role of employees.

“You need to explain not only what’s happening, but why their participation is important, especially how as a company we all benefit from this,” Knight stresses. Change champions can be particularly useful in this respect, she notes.

Lara Paukovits, senior director, communication and change management, at HR consultancy Willis Towers Watson, recalls working with a client that was revamping its compensation and benefits package. Many of the employees liked things the way they were. But the HR team had the data in hand to justify why changes were necessary, she says.

“Just telling them that we are changing something doesn’t always quite work,” Paukovits says. 

HR professionals helped people see the bigger picture—for example, that the company needed to update its approach to match new, emerging needs. 

“We realize that people might not like the change for themselves, but if we can help them understand the broader picture of others in the organization or the company as a whole, we can help them work through that,” she says. 

Knight would sometimes seek out people who were most critical of the change.

“When you start asking people their opinion, they feel they have a voice—and all of a sudden they aren’t so critical,” she says. “They may even start becoming change champions.” 

Just as individuals communicate differently, so do organizations, given their unique cultures. Thanks to numerous acquisitions, Brenner’s former employer grew from five to 21 offices in just two years. Even though the same financial and operational strategy applied to each acquisition, “each company came with totally different people, different challenges and different behaviors,” she says.

For example, some health care practices were accustomed to technology and therefore required less help in learning the parent company’s electronic medical records (EMR) system. Other practices that were less tech-savvy required more onsite, hands-on training. 

In those cases, Brenner made sure to train select members of the support staff as power users so they could continue the training and support the staff long after the initial trainers left. 

Don’t forget about nonverbal communication. Knight says branding a change management project, especially by creating an interesting logo, can help employees better understand the project and the process. At Zale, she branded the technology project as “Z Vision” and created a project map similar to The Game of Life board game, including project milestones. “It helped to give the project a face,” she says.

Find Advocates

A key step in the process is to choose change champions who are trained on the program that is being implemented and can serve as resources to those in their respective departments. 

Choosing the right individuals can make a big difference. Knight selected change champions not only from the corporate levels, but also from different departments within the company, such as distribution centers, to make sure she had communication channels with employees who had different perspectives and needs. 

Large companies may be able to analyze data to identify influencers who would make effective change champions, says Brooke Weddle, a partner in McKinsey & Co.’s Washington, D.C., office. By analyzing information from e-mail, calendars and even social media, a company can sometimes see hidden but important connections. 

“How many ties does this person have? Are those ties diverse? Is this person a bridge builder?” Weddle says. “It can really help you think about how change happens in your organization.” 

The real influencers may not be high in the org chart; Brenner found that administrative assistants were particularly effective change champions. 

“If we got the admins on board and trained on the new EMR system, we were much more successful with the physicians,” she says. “They had the physicians’ ears and their trust.”

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Stress the Benefits

Employees may feel disadvantaged by some changes. Brenner had to have difficult conversations when her company standardized contracts across its operations, including the acquired health care practices. There were wide variations in the practices’ contracts, with some giving doctors and counselors a much higher percentage of revenue than others. 

Brenner emphasized that the new, larger entity would provide more marketing support and produce higher patient volumes, which would likely result in higher compensation even if the percentage was lower. She also stressed that the new company was offering more benefits, such as 401(k)s and health insurance.

Be Proactive

Even when they’re implementing a change initiative, HR professionals sometimes don’t recognize the process as a distinct discipline. 

“Change management may feel intuitive for HR professionals since it is people-focused, but it is a discipline with a structured process, methodology and tools,” says Karen Ball, Cincinnati-based director of marketing and development at Prosci, which provides change management training.

Gil-Avila recommends that HR professionals identify whether they have individuals in their company with change management expertise. “Change management is a specialty,” she says. “If no one in the company has that change management role, HR might consider training someone internally.” 

Sometimes HR resists playing a meaningful role in change initiatives. Weddle had a utility company client whose HR professionals were asked to participate, but they weren’t proactive. When the change management team talked about the project, HR shot down new ideas.

“While I understand they had to ensure things like legal compliance, they simply played the role of gatekeeper,” Weddle says. “No one wanted HR to be part of the discussion because it limited the extent to which we could think outside the box.” 

Plan for the Worst

Things will go wrong, so try to imagine and plan for worst-case scenarios. Knight learned this when the technology project at Zale went live. In the first week after launch, her office was flooded with 3,000 calls from retail store managers. It turned out that the new software didn’t work on the Web browsers the stores used. Someone on the technology side had “missed a gap.” Even though that was outside her control, Knight still had to deal with the fallout. 

“There was no way I could’ve anticipated that, but I realized that you just don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. “I learned you have to anticipate the worst thing that might happen and have a plan.” 

Train Others

When HR professionals are in charge of implementing change initiatives, they sometimes hold on too tight.

“There can be a tendency to own it, to hold the capability within their team,” Ball says. “But change management should be a distributed capability throughout the organization.”

Gil-Avila agrees, noting that HR can help promote best practices for change management throughout a company. That could’ve helped during the early days of the pandemic, when organizations were forced to change quickly. 

“Too often, leaders don’t consider the people aspect of the change or how [the change] might conflict with another department,” she says. “Then they’re surprised when people don’t support the change.”  

Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.

What is HR's Role?

In many organizations, the change management function resides in human resources, although the project management office is a close second, according to surveys of change management professionals conducted by Prosci, which provides training on how to implement change initiatives.

Interestingly, when a 2019 Prosci survey asked respondents to select what they thought would be the most effective home for change management, the top choices were “strategy, transformation and planning” and “project management office.” Only 5 percent of respondents said HR.

The stark difference indicates that the respondents “believe change management is a strategic capability that needs to be better located in order to support strategy, project execution and organizational development,” says Karen Ball, director of marketing and development at Prosci.

Many HR professionals transition from transactional roles to more-strategic roles as they progress in their careers. However, Ed Cook, president of The Change Decision, a training organization, says the most successful change initiatives he has seen are led by a triumvirate: the organizational sponsor or leader, an HR professional, and a change management professional.

If they’re not in charge of change initiatives, HR professionals should at least be included as strategic partners, says Brooke Weddle, a partner at McKinsey & Co. “HR is responsible for being the thought leader but not necessarily the complete engine behind the effort.” —T.H.