change management initiative

The Importance of Leading Your People Through a Change Management Initiative

By: Mehrdad Rad

Have you ever landed on a website that sent you down a rabbit hole? You dove into the content, clicking through and researching, but somehow always knew how to get home. Those navigation bars, bread crumb paths, and headers on websites are so valuable because they show you the path you’ve taken and the big picture of where you’ve traveled.

The same holds true when you’re leading a team throughout a new initiative — you must be clear on everything you’re doing and that’s been done. Your team has to understand the direction you’re going, so they can all walk in the same direction down the path. The better you can lead your people, the more success you will have. 

Having been on both sides of change management initiatives throughout my career, I’m intimately familiar with the various stages that teams go through to get into momentum. Managers often go through five steps while getting teams vested in the change, where each step comes with its own set of action items and pitfalls to avoid.

Step 1: Sense of Urgency

Before you get into the nuances of the change, you first must help your team understand why the change is happening and why now. This is the foundation of your change management process. Without having this firm foundation, the platform you’re building on will shake at every breeze. 

During this stage, managers must examine the market and competitive landscape for two key areas — potential crises and untapped opportunities. The crises signal the risks of not implementing the change. The untapped opportunities show the potential of implementing this change. I learned about this approach from Steve Jobs. Every time he would sell a new idea or a new product he would follow a three-step process:

  1. Let them know what’s happening 
  2. Let them visualize how it will change their day-to-day life for the better.
  3. Let them know what happens if they do not jump on board with the new opportunity

This approach is hugely valuable because it lets your team members understand the big picture of what’s unfolding. This not only gets them on board, but it also frees up management from having to micromanage them throughout the process. Rather than relying on a checklist every day to know what to do next, the team is able to self-select their action items to reach the big milestones associated with bringing the project to life.

Common Pitfalls: When first painting the picture of where a team is heading, many managers underestimate the difficulty of driving people from their comfort zones. As a result, they become paralyzed by the risks and struggle to take action. To avoid this, use the three-part approach to create a sense of urgency and build buy-in.

Step 2: Form a Coalition

A single person cannot lead a major change initiative. It requires a team of cheerleaders to see the process through to adoption company-wide. Having a strong coalition on board with the change initiative will empower the team to stay on track and move faster towards adoption. 

As you form a coalition, you must bring together a group of people who share the commitment to the project. These people will be casting the vision to the team, so it’s equally important that they have enough influence among their teams to lead the change effort. 

Common Pitfalls: Often, the coalition consists of the wrong key players. Focusing on people without any prior leadership experience in teamwork or little training in team efforts will make it harder for you to create the type of sound bath needed to get teams on board with the change. Rather than relegating team leadership to Human Resources, building a coalition with senior line managers and quality strategic planning executives is important to help get and keep teams vested.

Step 3: Create the Vision

With the why established and the team of project advocates on board, it’s time to start casting the vision for how this change will unfold. Mapping the journey of this change effort will let you pinpoint specific milestones and touchpoints where changes will come to reality. 

You can develop strategies to realize the vision by putting this map together. Creating the vision by mapping out what’s needed strategically and tactically allows your team to understand where you’re going with the initiative. In seeing that big picture, they can better understand their role and how they can show up to help keep the project on track towards competition and adoption.

Common Pitfalls: While creating a vision for your change initiative, following the Goldilocks rule is a good idea. Don’t make it so detailed and complicated that no one can see the journey ahead. At the same time, don’t make it so vague that the vision stays fuzzy. 

Step 4: Communicate the Vision

Once you’ve created the vision, you must also communicate it to everyone affected by the upcoming change. This isn’t as easy as sending a quick memo to your team. It requires that you bring them on board by regularly reminding them about what’s happening and communicating where you are in the process. 

In communicating the vision, it’s important that you use every vehicle possible to help your team see the new vision and strategies for achieving that vision. In offering multiple ways of communicating the vision, you can meet people where they’re at, deliver the same message in various ways, and solidify that this initiative is here to stay. 

This step also allows you to start training your team on the new behaviors expected of them once the initiative is live. Deploying your guiding coalition can help with these efforts. The team of advocates for the change can also help communicate how it will better the team’s life in the long run, getting them more invested in what’s about to happen.

Common Pitfalls: Often, managers feel like they’re talking about the change too much, which can lead to under-communicating the vision to the team. Other times, managers behave in a way antithetical to the vision, which can create distrust among team members. By talking about what’s happening often and modeling the change, managers will have a much easier time getting their teams on board.

Step 5: Empower Others

Here’s a fact I’ve found true across all the teams I’ve worked with: All team players want to feel like they are contributing to the vision. Gallup confirmed that fact in a recent study where organizations that focus on individual strengths see employee engagement increase from 9% to 73%. Now that’s powerful! 

Great leaders know that teams become more powerful when they empower others. They can drive bigger wins by unleashing the leader within each person and liberating them from using their power. Not only will empowering employees improve their confidence, but it will also increase your confidence in them. When your team is empowered to leverage their strengths, they require less oversight from leadership. Without micromanaging a team, you can also increase your effectiveness, freeing up your time to lead the organization and achieve the vision.

Common Pitfalls: It’s common and expected that some employees would resist change. As a leader, it’s your role to empower them and help shake that resistance. Without empowering your team, you risk losing key players or reducing adoption among your entire team. 

Step 6: Plan For and Create Short-Term Wins

It’s important for teams to feel excited about what they’re experiencing as they get their hands dirty in the new change. That excitement acts as an inspiration to continue adopting the new platform, process, or system. It enables them to see the value faster and feel the benefits sooner. 

Throughout the rollout of the change, it’s important to plan for and create short-term wins. When it comes to transformational initiatives, these changes can include visible performance improvements by the engineering team or defined upgrades to past processes among various departments. What the wins are specifically isn’t important. Each set of wins will vary depending on the team. What is important is having those defined milestones in place, so you can celebrate with your team as soon as they experience that win.

In addition to celebrating with your team, organically highlighting the change champions among your team can also help build momentum around the new release. Recognizing and rewarding employees who contribute to those improvements helps key players stay vested and vocal about the purpose behind the change.

Common Pitfalls: Too often, organizations will leave change up to chance. By not recognizing short-term successes and failing to track successes early enough, an organization will miss the momentum of the new release and risk falling back to old ways. 

Step 7: Consolidate Improvements and Produce More Change

As the feedback around the change rolls in, so will ideas for how you can become more efficient. Often, it requires teams to get into the trenches and use the new system to see where these changes can be consolidated and improved. 

With increased visibility around the transformation initiative and recognition of early wins, you can identify areas that will bolster credibility around the initiative and areas that could undermine the vision. Amplifying the good makes sense. Consolidating or eliminating the areas that undermine your overall vision will help you continue gaining buy-in among your teams. 

As more positive changes get highlighted, you’ll be in a position to hire, promote, or develop new team players who can further implement the vision for the project. These hirings and promotions can often reinvigorate the change process because new change agents and projects will be brought on board and developed. 

Common Pitfalls: Sometimes, an organization will declare victory too soon after the first micro win. By taking a step back and showcasing various wins, you can better communicate improvements resulting from the change. That consistency in a specific result will show that the success is long-lasting and not just a sparkle. In addition, it will drown out the voices of resistors to the change, allowing for wider and more prolific adoption. 

Step 8: Institutionalize New Approaches

Sometimes, a change initiative doesn’t stick. When this happens, it’s usually for two reasons — it wasn’t communicated effectively or implemented well. In either case, connections must be made between the new behaviors that are being asked of the team and the organization’s overall success. In further hammering home the why and vision for the project, your team may start to see that these new approaches span the organization and the purpose behind them. 

Developing leadership and succession plans consistent with the new approach will further help demonstrate the why behind the change. Employees will be able to see the bigger impact and ripple effects of their work, which will help drive adoption and gain buy-in among the team. 

Common Pitfalls: Creating a new social norm within your company culture helps ensure successful change. Shared values consistent with the changes across the board help bring everyone on board and get invested in seeing it through. Only promoting people who personify the new approach can help keep projects on track as personnel changes occur. Those promotions will help you take a top-down approach to institutionalize the changes.

People are at the Heart of Change

People are at the heart of any change initiative. Without getting them on board, you’ll have a harder time realizing the change management potential and driving adoption throughout your organization. Focusing on leading your people through these initiatives, and avoiding pitfalls, will help you and your team lean into and ultimately thrive during transformational projects.