pouring coffee into a mug that has "UGH" written on it
PHOTO: Nathan Dumlao

An assumption in every business discipline — marketing technology included — is that innovation, change and progress are inherently “good.” We must question this assumption to understand why business strategies often fail to produce meaningful changes.

My first two posts in this series discuss what strategy is and how to create a strategy. To recap, strategy is knowing today why and how you’re going to win tomorrow. You create a good strategy by including a diverse community of thinkers and influencers in the process. This third installment discusses how to manage the changes that emerge from a strategy.

Strategic change is often good for financial performance but terrifying for employees. Change jargon is filled with phrases like “workforce modernization” and “digital transformation” that sound like euphemisms for massive layoffs and replacing humans with robots (even when they’re not). People hear phrases like that and wonder: Will my job become irrelevant? Will I succeed in doing things the “new” way? Will I lose autonomy? What is my value at the end of this change?

Change management gives people a voice in change. And when people feel heard, they are more likely to work with the strategy that called for change rather than work against it.

I’ll discuss three aspects of change — grief, alignment and independent thinking — and examine how a change manager should approach them. Strategy calls for innovation, and change management can make innovation a more enduring, humane and fruitful journey.

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The Grief Model of Change

Change is anything that feels like a departure from the norm. It’s subjective. Leaders often fail to empathize with employees’ experiences of change because they are most shielded against it. The CEO remains the CEO after a “digital transformation.” However, the marketer told to abandon the software he used for a decade might feel that he is no longer an expert and is therefore dispensable. Those feelings lead to genuine grief.

Like people who suffer a terminal illness, people facing change at work may experience something resembling the Kubler-Ross model of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Technological change feels like a slow, inevitable death because it can kill off the habits, behaviors and processes employees are accustomed to. Just because they accept change, that doesn’t mean they will support it or participate willingly.

The change manager is concerned with the people side of change and parallels the project manager who focuses on the technical side. A change manager aims to create “alignment” — another misunderstood business buzzword.

Related Article: Specificity, Awareness, Inclusion: How Your Strategy Becomes More Than Just a Piece of Paper

What We Mean by ‘Alignment’

In a boardroom with 10 top executives, “alignment” is straightforward. If they discuss and share a strategy, they likely can agree on the substance of change it calls for. However, those 10 executives cannot take it for granted that their idea of alignment will be accepted by front-line workers, or throughout the chain of managers who connect front-line workers to the executives. When those workers and managers look at change, they ask, “How does this affect me?”

There will be different answers to that question in different siloes. For example, let’s say a company decided to abandon its customer relationship management system and switch to Salesforce. A saleswoman with 10 years of Salesforce experience might welcome the change, expecting to be more effective at her work.

However, for her colleague in marketing who has never touched Salesforce, that change might be threatening. He might expect confusion, a lengthy retraining, poorer performance, lower productivity and higher odds of being fired. Those fears might be illogical or unfounded, but they are real to him.

If you’re the marketer, why wouldn’t you resist the change? “You’ll have to deal with it,” your manager may say. Not necessarily. If you’ve been in the corporate world for a while, you’ve seen people sabotage new technology and ensure that change fails.

Acceptance of the fact that change is coming does not ensure alignment. Alignment is not, contrary to popular opinion, a product of “converting” people or winning “buy-in.”

Related Article: Think Digital Renovation, Not Digital Transformation

Change Management Doesn't Happen in a Vacuum

Change managers do not operate alone. Rather, they develop plans of assessment, engagement and communication that leaders in the business can use. Those leaders, not the change managers, help their team members feel secure, confident and valuable in their transformed roles. In the best case, leaders hold conversations in which employees — through their critical thinking and appraisal of the organization’s strategy — come to aligned conclusions about change.

Those leaders, who may be supervisors or managers, are best equipped to talk with their teams about the impact of technological change. They ask questions like these: Why do you think the organization is considering introducing this new platform? What impact will it have on your work? What do you enjoy the most and least about your job? What problems might the new platform address? What problems could it create or make worse? How might this technology influence why and how our team wins?

Those conversations happen face-to-face in small groups. The goal isn’t to tell people what they are “supposed” to think. Rather, the purpose of the dialogue is to ask people to think critically, not reactively, about what a change means for them. It takes people from “What about me?” mode to, “What do we aspire to do as a company, and how does our choice of technology play into that?”

This conversation must occur after a strategy is defined; otherwise, employees won’t have answers to those questions. It would be impossible to talk about why the company is introducing new technology if no one knows why and how the company intends to win.

Alignment can’t be forced. It can only be a result of independent, individual thinking in the context of a strategy.

Related Article: Goodbye Digital Transformation, Hello Cathedral Thinking

When People Choose Change

Change doesn’t always elicit high fives and cheers from most of your workers. Rather, it can instill panic. A strategy needs a change manager who can train leaders to empathize with employees and talk through their fears. Change isn’t “good” to everyone in the same way at the same time.

Honest change managers help people examine and elevate their value in an organization. Their foil — cheerleaders who try to win support through force of messaging and spin — may see short-term support but, ultimately, may trigger a backlash.

Why? That is the topic of my final post in this series. We have taken a broad view of the change manager in strategy. Next, we put ourselves in the seats of people who make strategies come true.