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Managing and leading in times of change

Interview any candidate about change and the chances are they’ll say, “I Love it!”  And in principle they do.  So why do we struggle to lead in times of change? Why is it so difficult to get change accepted? 

You may be a pioneer or trailblazer buying the latest technology, excited by the new, ahead of that ‘change curve’ when compared to your peers. But what if you’re asked to change or take on something that doesn’t suit you or your current circumstances? Then, your heels start to dig in.

Like our interviewees, we love change if it’s OUR choice. But how do we inspire those around us when it’s NOT theirs? To survive and thrive, we have to drive change. There’s no template for Covid, no ‘recipe’ for success.  It’s a constant trial of new ideas, prototypes, failing fast and trying again.

Getting people to change and accept new ways means getting personal. If politics never follows logic, neither does change.  The secret is in connecting emotionally – through empathy – to convince others of the need to change.  As politicians might say, connecting with hearts, as well as minds. 

There are many tools to manage and lead change.  Prosci’s ADKAR starts with emotion and empathy and getting people on board. It stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Re-enforcement. Their view is that until people understand why the change is needed, are aware of the context for change, have some desire to do it and the skills and knowledge to implement it, it’s a non-starter.

Kotter’s eight step process is also a game changer, researched over 40 years and widely used. It too, starts with getting people aware of the need to change and the importance of creating a sense of urgency.

In these current times, I’ve turned again to the remarkable, pragmatic work of Diane Dormant. Her ABCD of change is easy to understand, implement and follow.  As she says, follow the steps, don’t miss any out, don’t change the sequence and don’t rush it.  For me she is the Delia Smith of change.

Great leaders challenge the process, think outside the box, experiment, try out new ideas recognising that they won’t always work but that we learn from the mistakes along the way.  Dormant’s ABCD is a brilliant tool to add to this.

‘A’ stands for ‘adopter’.  The people you’re asking to change.  Everything you do needs to be seen from their perspective (substitute awareness or empathy), not from where you, the leader, may be.  I’ve seen Directors scream in frustration when, after several weeks or months of discussion with their Board, they find the rest of the organisation just don’t ‘get’ what it is they’re trying to change. 

Gentle reminder – they were never privy to those discussions. Your people have to catch up. Adopters need to gather information, talk to others who have been or who are going through similar experiences, be encouraged to explore how it feels and visualise their life with this change.

‘B’ is the ‘black box’ – the change itself, always from the perspective of the adopter.  If the change is complex, requires significant effort in terms of time or resources, is radically different from what’s gone before or carries no obvious gain – warning lights.  I recall a change introduced early in my career. We (the adopters) were told to use a new expense claim system.  Forms were now triplicate, receipts required for everything and we would be compensated in 60, not 30 days.  Clearly there were benefits to the business. But us?  It was more complex (black mark), inconsistent with how things were before (second black mark), required more effort (third black mark) and there was absolutely no gain for us – in fact, we argued, a significant loss. We had to carry expenses, personal, for a further 30 days (fourth and fatal black mark). We voted with our feet. It was withdrawn.

‘C’ stands for ‘change agent’ – the person(s) leading the change and what we can do to help people not only want to change but know how to change. It’s here that Dormant’s approach is inspirational.  She explores the different roles leaders can take to help their adopters.  It starts with awareness – as we watch a trailer to decide whether to see the film, the change agent needs to provide an overview to advertise what lies ahead. The leader then moves to a counselling role – this is a time of self-concern for the adopters – they’re uncertain, asking questions. Next, we encourage a mental try out, imagining how it will look and feel in the new order – our leader now in the role of demonstrator. From there it’s a ‘hands on’ trial – experiencing the change with the leader as guide or instructor.  Until finally we move to adoption itself, with the leader stepping away from day to day support.

Every change takes place in a context – or ‘domain’ or ‘dimension’, the ‘D’.  If change is essential (working from home during lockdown is a great example) then there is an urgency and drive to do it.  Leaders were able to move fast, change was adopted. No obvious external factor?  We have to work harder, and it will take longer. As Dormant points out, open, unthreatened organisations are far easier to change than closed defensive ones – which brings us back to the importance of empathy and understanding your people.

We may face unprecedented change post Covid, but humans have been adapting and changing forever. Follow a structure, don’t skip the steps, don’t rush it and don’t leave anything out.  And remember – get into your adopters’ shoes, but don’t forget to take your own off first.


Isobel Rimmer is founder of training and development consultancy Masterclass Training and author of new book Natural Business Development: Unleash your people’s potential to spot opportunities, develop new business and grow revenue

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