As people grow used to a volatile and fast-paced world, executives’ concerns surrounding organizational change management have shifted. Old worries about resistance and intractability have been replaced by the imperative to lead through near-perpetual transformation.
“Nobody resists change anymore because we’re always changing,” explains Carmen Liefeld, Leadership Coach at CO2 Partners. “The challenge for leaders now is controlling that change so that it doesn’t control them.”
The Covid pandemic accentuated these trends and turbocharged the speed of change to levels previously unthinkable. In response to growing uncertainty and shrinking employee tenures, organizations are moving away from traditional pyramid structures and into systems where they work using small, cross-functional teams that are dissolved once they meet their targets.
“People are on an endless cycle of pulling together, disbanding, and moving on—they stick around for a year, maybe two, and then they’re gone,” adds Liefeld. “Managing change today entails building systems that successfully bring people together and empower them to work quickly and effectively towards a common goal.”
Shaping organizational cultures that support continuous change
Leading organizational change is more complex than ever—time windows are smaller and error margins tighter. As consultants, we believe that successfully managing change in the post-Covid world will require organizational cultures that support continuous and speedy transformation.
Here are three ways leaders can revise their approach to change management:
1. Tell a story.
Year after year, McKinsey’s Global Survey, which has polled executives on their most significant management challenges since 2004, finds that communication is the biggest contributor to a transformation’s success. Liefeld agrees: “Organizations, in my experience, never communicate enough—especially during big changes.”
To accept organizational change, people need to understand why it’s happening and how it connects to the bigger picture. How you communicate that story will ultimately determine whether people will pitch in on your goal, disengage from your efforts, or hinder your progress.
At CO2 Partners, we advise our clients to craft a narrative that connects with people. By asking your employees questions and listening to them, you can begin to build a story and shape a message that reaches them more effectively. Employees will be more inclined to engage.
2. Lead with transparency.
“Post-pandemic, change management needs to be focused on transparency,” says Liefeld. “Leaders have this notion that the more they share, the more people will panic. But it’s the opposite of that. They need to get out of their comfort zone and share a little more than they normally would.”
When discussing the organizational change process, it’s essential to be upfront about the challenges involved. Doing so will paint a complete picture of what people can expect and create opportunities to address sensitive topics preemptively. Transparency will allow you better control of the narrative and eliminate any room for rumors or wrongful assumptions.
“If you’re not telling the complete story of why change is happening, people will start filling in the gaps. That’s just what humans do. They create stories to help them explain life,” adds Liefeld. “And most of the time, those stories they come up with are scarier than the truth.”
3. Build processes that support organizational change.
Adapting to continuous organizational change requires building systems where feedback loops cycle quickly, taking action is easy, and results are measured continuously. The processes that support your organization through its change journey will be the same ones that will help you sustain it over the long term. Here’s how to optimize them:
- Empower action. “We get into this habit of telling people they’re empowered to make all of these decisions when truthfully the culture in the organization is that they can’t,” explains Liefeld. Understanding your organization’s decision-making rights and taking the time to establish who gets to make which decisions and at what level is essential for building a culture in which people feel comfortable being bold and taking the initiative.
- Re-align your rewards systems. Aligning rewards systems with your transformation goals requires understanding your organization’s implicit culture. Liefeld advises clients to understand what’s considered to be a reward and what is negatively rewarded. For example, you want to create a culture of work-life balance but inadvertently reinforce the opposite by calling or emailing employees outside of business hours.
- Create feedback loops. Executives rarely sit with their teams to review the lessons learned during and after transformations to understand the communication and transparency efforts. We encourage clients to review by asking a series of questions about communication and transparency. Liefeld also suggests that clients evaluate what more could have been shared about the transformation or if less should have been shared. She further recommends a review of the lessons learned during the organizational change process as a way to ultimately get better at change management and grow as a leader.
Planting the seeds for lasting organizational change
In all organizations, lasting organizational change must be embedded in the culture. Liefeld admits that this is the hardest part of any transformation because it requires self-awareness. It also means asking uncomfortable questions to discover what your organization’s true, unspoken culture is—and whether it’s reinforcing or deterring the changes you worked so hard to implement.
“Ultimately, the story you tell around that change will be what plants the seeds for it to last,” she concludes. “The more you tell your story along the way, the easier it will be for it to become part of what you do.”
Transformation is one of the most challenging undertakings for any leader. CO2 Partners can help you summit that peak. Contact us to learn more about our process-driven approach.