Making change easier

Keeping ahead of changing technology and a changing business environment means adapting and implementing new ideas on a continuous basis.

Yet many people tend to shy away from change. People don’t like changing procedures, processes and overall change in general. The status quo is comfortable. Change seems hard.

If you are in charge of making changes, it’s a frustrating ordeal. You’re tasked with implementing a new system or product, and you encounter active resistance. What do you do?

How do we overcome the desire to remain stagnant? Start by understanding why most people resist change and then find ways to overcome that opposition.

When asked, people complain about change because:

1. Slow implementation. The organization takes so long that people lose interest, incur more costs, add time and increase reworks.

2. No sense of urgency. When leaders are not first to embrace the new system, the team thinks the change is not important. Remember AOL in 2005? Its CEO was Randy Falco, who didn’t use e-mail. His secretary printed out his emails for him to review. (Yes, we all wonder how the CEO of AOL didn’t use e-mail.) If he doesn’t use his own product, how does he relate to customers and understand his employees?

3. Lack of understanding of employee resistance, attrition, feelings, and considerations. Many employees may feel “they can’t make me change” and they may actively work against it because “it is the way we’ve always done it.” They are comfortable now. The people who made 8-track tapes didn’t want to make cassette tapes either.

4. No perceived ultimate benefits by the end users. If the new system’s advantages are not obvious, the comparison will be negative. “This isn’t much better than the old system. Why are we spending all of this time and money on this?” Have you ever bought a new computer update and were disappointed? This leads to lack of morale, loss of productivity, and lack of effort to adapt.

5. Lack of confidence in the new system or product. There is fear that the new system is going to be even worse or nonfunctional. Employees worry that they will have to make the change just to change back, or that the new system will be a bridge to yet another new system.

Think back to April 23, 1985. Coca-Cola introduced New Coke amid great hype and enthusiasm. It was such a dismal failure that production of New Coke ended that same week.

6. Lack of understanding the time needed to make changes. I was recently at a medical practice implementing a new computer system. Patients (including me) waited in excess of an hour as staff and the “implementation team” struggled to manage the federally mandated new system. The staff apology and excuse were delivered to patients without urgency or sincerity. “This is a new system, we are sorry for the delay” did little to alleviate the frustration of the patients. One woman asked why she was not notified before her arrival if the office was running over an hour behind schedule (a fair point).

If changing systems is not of immediate benefit to those inconvenienced, they will become hostile to their own staff and customers.

7. No clear sense of achievement. As people struggle through new projects, they need measurable steps to make sure they meet requirements. This also gives teams occasion to celebrate. Small victories help keep employees focused and motivated.

8. Project fatigue. I know organizations that spend so much time preparing people that they constantly “cry wolf” — when it finally does arrive we are tired of hearing about it.

Shortly before my Navy retirement, the brass decided to change the uniform that everyone was required to buy (cost = $45 for shirt and shorts) and wear for our physical training testing. It was meant to be an improvement over the old uniform that no one wore. Users widely despised them, and worse, no one knew why the change was mandated.

To make change work, organizations need continuous improvement, user feedback, available help for questions and to process problems, and early and constant relevant training.

Make sure the change you want to make is worthwhile and clearly communicated. Make sure leadership is fully behind the implementation, and that the schedule includes ample training time. Make sure people understand the “why” and not just the “what.” (I don’t believe the new uniform made me run any faster.)

Real change for improves performance, increases effectiveness, delivers better products or services, and better serves the user.

If you are going to make a change, do it right.

Mary C. Kelly, PhD is CEO of Productive Leaders.