Recipe for successful organizational change

Investing employees with sense they are agents of change — and their input has value — puts companies on path to positive outcomes

Organizational change — driven by technology, global competition and empowered consumers — has become the new normal for companies in nearly every industry.

As a result, firms with sufficient resources are hiring change managers and a number of methodologies have emerged to shepherd employers through transitions that could disrupt the normal conduct of business.

However, smaller companies with limited resources often lack an HR department or the budget to add change managers to the payroll. Sometimes the change is a reduction in headcount, exacerbating the challenge.

For smaller organizations to successfully navigate periods of rapid transition, change management has to happen in-house. This can be accomplished through a dedicated HR professional or other managers charged with HR responsibility for their groups.

There are several good reasons this kind of leadership should come from HR but it can be summed up in a word: people. Change initiatives can be about a lot of things — adopting new technology, merging with other companies, adapting to changing market conditions, moving into new facilities — but the common element is always employees. When poorly managed changes create business disruptions or productivity losses, those problems are often traceable to employees who are unwilling or unable to accept and adapt to a changing workplace.

There are a few simple strategies employers can adopt to make positive contributions to change initiatives. These include:

•making employees stakeholders of change

•customizing communications to address different internal audiences

•capturing the institutional knowledge of seasoned workers

•building flexibility into plans and timelines.

Underlying these strategies is the need to position companies and employees to drive the changes, rather than simply reacting to changes others bring to them. Investing employees with the sense they are themselves the agents of change puts companies on the path to positive outcomes.

Get employees involved early

Too many instances of organizational change start in a particular department, travel up the chain of command to gain buy-in from executives and only then are shared with the broader population of workers. By the time employees first hear of a pending change, companies may already have committed to plans, roles and timelines.

The implicit message to workers is the change is more important than they are — a bad start for an effective implementation. When employees feel like change is happening to them, it can lead to resistance, poor adoption, turnover and behaviours that undermine successful transitions.

Successful change initiatives start with candid, one-on-one conversations with the employees who will be most impacted by the coming transition. This removes, or at least lessens, the element of surprise when oncoming changes are announced and can also help the company identify individuals who can contribute to shaping the project and championing it among their colleagues.

Capture institutional knowledge

The longer people have been doing a task a certain way, the less inclined they are to do it differently. This can translate into some of the most valuable and experienced employees being the most reluctant to embrace change. Employees nearing retirement may choose to retire early, while those at mid-career may sense an opportunity to test the job market.

Demographers have been anticipating an imminent wave of retirements from the baby boom generation anyway — though this has been delayed by the struggling economy — so many companies have already put an emphasis on establishing mentor relationships and transferring knowledge to the next generation of leaders.

There’s a specific risk to this activity. If the early stages of a large change include explicit attempts to pass knowledge from older to younger workers, and this is not a normal part of the corporate culture, seasoned workers can take it as a sign their days are numbered.

The best practice is to integrate knowledge transfer into the company on an ongoing basis. Even if a transitional period creates a sudden increase in turnover, companies that have successfully saved the collective wisdom stand a better chance of holding their ground in the marketplace.

Communicate with employees

Effectively planning for change starts with an act of empathy. Ask yourself: How are my employees going to feel about their jobs after this change takes place? As an example, imagine a company that is looking at opening an overseas office that will be staffed at least partially with existing employees, many of whom will be asked to relocate permanently.

For younger, unmarried workers, this may seem like a great adventure and improve their attitude and loyalty. But for more seasoned workers, with families and roots in the community, this could sound like bad news.

By introducing the subject in individual conversations or among small departmental groups, managers can frame the conversation in terms most relevant to each audience. If an employee feels like the company has considered her individual situation, there’s a greater chance for positive first impressions and a productive ideas exchange.

Communicating candidly does not ensure every employee will support the change but it reduces the likelihood of bad blood and counterproductive behaviour. Take a page from Communication 101 and ask a few hypothetical questions: Who am I trying to reach? What are they most concerned about? What sort of action do I need from them?

Plan to change directions

A simple pun might sum it up as well as anything: Change is certain but not exact change. It is short-sighted to believe ambitious plans for change are going to go as planned.

An initiative originating in an IT department may have done a great job anticipating cost and compatibility with existing systems and yet underestimated the time required to train everyone about aspects specific to their job.

One classic framework for managing projects consists of four phases: assessment, development, deployment and evaluation. When the project represents a significant change to an employer, recast this methodology into six phases: assessment, evaluation, development, evaluation, deployment and evaluation.

As plans are drawn up, form a committee of diverse individuals who are responsible for evaluating projects as they advance. Measure interim results against expectations and invest the evaluation committee with the prerogative to suggest course corrections and address unanticipated consequences as they emerge.

Big changes are always going to be a challenge but with foresight, candour and common sense, HR managers can be a real asset to companies during times of transition. By putting employees first and demonstrating their input has real value, employers can more easily adapt to a dynamic marketplace during periods of change.

Jeff Holloway is regional vice-president of Robert Half Management Resources in Toronto. For more information, visit or follow the company on Twitter at

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