It’s something you read about all the time. Everyone agrees on the need to manage change and to devote a special team to this task. Experience has shown that simply mentioning the words “IT project” is a source of stress for many people!
In their minds they associate this with a difficult transition, worrying changes, a possible restructuring of the company, a reduction or even a loss of their independence, and “progress” at their expense. When a handful of staff dig their heels in and begin expressing negative views, the smooth running of the company and of the IT project in question are jeopardized. Overlooking the human factor and focusing only on the technical and performance-related aspects can mean embarking on a perilous journey, without all the possible means and resources needed to ensure success. However, even in those companies most keenly aware of what is at stake, the implementation of a genuine change management policy can be a challenge and a major break with the established way of doing things. A break with old habits, and with part of your past. Everyone acknowledges this, and you read about it so often.
THE DIFFICULTY OF BREAKING WITH THE PAST
Good intentions are not always followed by good effects and the causes of failure are many and varied. But why is this need to carefully manage change not always incorporated within IT projects?
It is important to be realistic. When the need to manage change is not recognised as a tangible requirement for those with responsibility for it on a day-to-day basis, it is always the first casualty of a tight budget. In this type of situation, the role of the external integrator can often be an essential or even indispensable one, as a source of advice and to avoid going down the easy route of simply giving up. Any serious integrator will incorporate change management within his sales proposals. Particular care should be paid to ensuring a satisfactory budget is allocated for this. You can benefit from all the good intentions while avoiding any pitfalls by reminding everyone (backed by examples) that the human aspect of the project requires a flawless human and financial commitment.
Examples of disinterest are sadly not lacking. When implementing a project at a manufacturing company, the training manager was well aware of the need to introduce change management. I was naturally astonished when, after receiving an e-mail I sent him to prepare a meeting, I received a notification of a lengthy period of absence. This, along with a lack of internal commitment and the continual postponement of the actions needed, eventually made this a nonstarter. Generally speaking, a lack of internal commitment and the non-availability of the key stakeholders are the main causes of failure.
PROGRESSIVENESS, CREATIVITY & COMMUNICATION
Despite these difficulties, many companies or local authorities take the plunge and successfully overcome the pitfalls ahead. Looking back at the many successful projects I have run and which have received full support from the users, three words come to mind when describing them: progressiveness, creativity and communication.
It is important to ensure that communication activities are adapted and take various forms to effectively promote new projects and in particular projects which are sources of functional or technological innovation. All creative and original ideas will be either favourably accepted right away or at least get a fair hearing (resulting in indirect acceptance). As an example, when promoting a new business application we produced a number of educational and entertaining films focusing on the various plus points of the solution and its new negotiation, tailored quota management and online mapping capabilities. One of the films, screened to a “private” audience, explained the numerous benefits staff would personally derive from this new solution, which was favourably received.
As creativity is our only real limitation, we have created acceptance-enhancing incentive games to encourage the employee groups concerned to become stakeholders in implementing change. At one of Europe’s largest energy producers, the game involved playing the role of Sherlock Holmes in a coal-fired power station and finding famous names not known to the company hidden among the information about the project displayed on the dedicated website we created. I will always remember the office assistant who tried to get the answers from me one morning at the coffee machine! The field of change management is also something of a coffee machine, in other words a source of day-to-day contact. The winners of the game won a weekend for two in a B&B, and whether symbolic or not the “reward” aspect helped encourage acceptance. The return on investment of such budgets, which are relatively insignificant for the company, can be very profitable.
The use of Tumblr or WordPress-type communication platforms to really bring a project to life has also been found to get results.
We have often also quite simply opted to create documentation for users and issued pre-Go Live training (classes, V.I.P. meetings, E-Learning, etc.). Even when these activities are relatively small scale we have observed that the human factor is essential.
It must also be accepted that some types of people are simply hostile to change, whatever happens. You can’t always carry everyone with you. One morning during a training session for a well-known luxury brand, I had to deal with the following putdown from an intern: “I don’t know what I’m doing here! Can you tell us what use this training is? I’ve got work waiting for me!” The information had obviously not filtered down and I had to be as diplomatic and patient as possible to communicate and explain the messages and reasons behind the change. The morning was a failure! It is therefore vital to envisage the change management aspects from the very outset of a project with clearly dedicated staff on both sides. As integrators, the more we encourage information upstream, the better placed we will be to reap the benefits of this downstream and to provide our client with the service quality he is entitled to expect.
OPEN BUT STRUCTURED DISCUSSIONS
For one of our clients, we created focus groups for a project. Acting as educators and facilitators, we sought to generate approval for the project by allowing real discussion in an open but well-structured manner, with both sides committed to having their say but also to listening. It is important to help people understand the constraints which may prevent certain requested functions from being implemented or allow the implementation of other functions. Be forthright and honest concerning the objectives to be reached and the challenges involved. In my view, this is the best approach to adopt when managing change. A “cards on the table” approach combined with an open discussion of constraints has always got results.
This approach using focus groups was designed to build up a long-term relationship with our clients. The trust which developed between us was based on expertise in dealing with the problems presented by change. Trust is an important factor when ensuring the success of a project and change management is based first and foremost on this.
Finally, we have occasionally also stimulated a “positive buzz”, by issuing information circulated virally by the stakeholders themselves. Approached directly, the self-enhancing “insider” effect is palpable. They then go on to circulate positive feedback to those they deal with professionally, feedback generated by our presence and by our respectful attitude to them. Thus, by passing on our enthusiasm and key messages, by listening to them and by taking account of their expectations, we convey the all-important message that they are central to the project, and that the solution is a direct result of the lessons learned from their experience as users. This close proximity to the staff made it possible in later trainings in the schedule to work with employee groups having already taken onboard the idea of change and who are more committed and curious concerning the results obtained, and therefore more active and receptive.
CONSTANTLY ADAPTED COMMUNICATION
Communicate, communicate and communicate again. However, you need to combine the creative aspect of your messages with a cultural approach in the wider sense. How can people and structures best be respected as part of an educational, pragmatic and measured approach to the subject? How do you communicate with the various stakeholders in a project? And when should you do it?
For an industrial client once again, the evidence was clear. We had provided support for the company from the outset, identifying the obstacles and drivers influencing the project and the planning of the actions to be introduced, including an analysis of the risks related to process modifications, job redefinitions, the various sensitivities of the different staff and age groups involved, and the cultures prevailing in the various divisions and brands. We also helped it to plan the rate of its communications, which meant choosing just the right frequency to strike the balance between insufficient information and information overload. The exact timing of the communication is also important. I have often noticed that launching too many communication activities, or launching them too early, can build up unrealistic or premature expectations, while communicating too little or too late generates rumours or a loss of interest. The right balance must be struck in your dialogue with all stakeholders and must be constantly updated with corrective actions, measured by clearly identified KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).
For certain clients, it is sometimes essential to ensure that your communication respects the hierarchy in place within the company. The main users of the solution should not be the last to be informed but should be among the first to be consulted. It is however important to allow management to assume its rightful role: that of managing, steering and providing the initial impetus. The best way to proceed is to simultaneously plan for actions aimed at management (to obtain their approval and commitment) and personalised support out in the field to hear people’s opinions on the best way to optimise the activity in question.
I have been involved in more than 20 projects at Eozen/SQLI and I never lose sight of these goals. Each of my assignments has been a new and different challenge due to the specific culture of the country, the company and the men and women comprising it. Human behaviour patterns are complex and experience has taught me to be humble while at the same time remaining honest and forthright.
Commitment to a project is something which comes from inside, involving all employee groups including middle management. The objective to be kept in mind at all times is that the employees should embrace the change for themselves and should not be under the impression that they are simply having an authoritarian decision handed down to them by a blind and deaf hierarchy. Encouraging support means allowing trust and confidence to flourish, contributing to the success of the project.