The process of change management refers to the systematic approach that is used to deal with a digital transformation or transition of the goals, technologies or processes of a business or organization. While there are many iterations of the strategies used to affect change within a business, it is time to take a step back and reevaluate the common practices of change management in order to see if we have perhaps been doing it wrong all along.

The vast changes that have occurred over the last six months of 2020 have forced many business leaders to reevaluate many assumptions that have been long held. Remote and distributed workers have proven that they can be trusted to be as productive and efficient as they were while working in the pre-COVID work environment. Collaboration tools, videoconferencing and project management techniques have been tested, altered and positively impacted. Most industries have had to adapt to these changes or cease to do business in light of lockdowns, school closings and social distancing efforts. Even the medical field has adjusted to the crisis and is using remote videoconferencing for visits with their patients. What changes could or should occur in the field of change management? 

Benjamin Granger, senior principal at Qualtric’s XM Institute, said the changes that have occurred in response to the COVID crisis have forced businesses to rethink the way business is done. “Simply put, the same policies, procedures, technology that we used to use in 2019 can be perceived very differently in 2020 based on the extreme experiences employees went through over the last few months." 

The Times They Are a Changing

Essentially, we learned through experience that when pressed, employees are adaptable and capable of using new tools, methodologies and processes in a relatively short period of time. Businesses have had to rapidly adapt and re-invent themselves in light of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Digital transformation has never been more important, and businesses have been pressed to go from having a fully in-house workforce to having a fully remote workforce in a two week period. Though the process was painful for many leaders as well as employees, it enabled businesses to survive, when they would otherwise have had to close down, and not surprisingly, many businesses actually thrived. The changes that have occurred are not going away any time soon. According to a Gallup poll taken in May of 2020, 52% of managers will continue to allow employees to work remotely once the crisis is over. 

Jennifer L'Estrange, a leader in the field of change management, and managing director of Red Clover, believes that the recent crisis has revealed many errors in the change management process.“I don’t think we’ve been doing it wrong all these years, but I do think that COVID has challenged (or even obliterated) some of the long-held assumptions around what we can and cannot do with business process transformation and change management. And, as a result of what we’ve learned during the pandemic, we now have an opportunity to look at transformation through a different lens,” she said.

L'Estrange recognizes that people are generally not happy with change, but suggested that “If COVID has achieved one positive thing, it has lowered our collective resistance to change. Necessity is the mother of invention, and throwing a global population into lockdown over the course of a few weeks has proven that, if we clearly demonstrate a need for change and its urgency, anything is possible. Work practices that were previously in person only (court hearings, standardized testing, psychotherapy, employee terminations, public schooling, open houses, to name a few) have moved online, forever changing our perception of what is possible and resetting our expectations of what is probable going forward.”

L'Estrange isn’t alone in thinking that the crisis has affected the way we look at change management. Karen Thomas-Bland, founder of Intelligent Transformation and partner level management consultant, said, “The assumptions that supported years of stable, predictable growth are no longer likely to be valid. What is clear is there is no return to ‘normal.’ Markets, strategies, customers, suppliers, technologies, processes and people all need to be re-evaluated in the new world and the way we transform and change businesses in the future needs to evolve to reflect this. In a world of unprecedented disruption and market turbulence, transformation revolves around the need to generate new value, to unlock new opportunities, to drive new growth and to deliver new efficiencies, but in doing this to be purposeful, bold, human and courageous in the approach to change.”

Keith Kitani, CEO of change communications platform GuideSpark, shared what he sees as the current state of change management. “Leaders are at a critical crossroads in pivoting their change management strategies to succeed in this new environment,” he said. “We’ve seen COVID-19 drastically accelerate digital transformation, with a massive shift to remote operations practically overnight. And now that companies have gone fully digital, employees will expect this as the new norm. Business objectives will need to keep up the pace, and as our reliance on digital communication continues to grow, cutting through the noise will only get more challenging.” 

Innovation and Adaptation Are King

“If our resistance to change has fallen, our need for clear, thoughtful communications has not. In fact, as we raced to keep up with changing legislation balanced against climbing case counts and businesses in crisis, we found that communications was the glue that kept organizations moving forward, in spite of massive disruption. Weekly meeting rhythms shifted to daily crisis calls for the first few weeks, then shifted again to daily huddles where we triaged and treated and moved to the next item on the list,” L'Estrange reflected.

Adaptation, communication and immediacy were among the key strategies for L'Estrange’s business. “We didn’t use stakeholder maps, formal communication plans, or try to plan too far ahead. After all, the legal landscape was changing so quickly that the guidance we had on Monday was invalid by Friday. Here’s what we did do:

  • Communicated frequently, even when there wasn’t much news.
  • Spent more time listening than ever before.
  • Evaluated and eliminated anything that was a time waster.
  • Challenged assumptions on how and where work could be performed.
  • Focused on the issue that was right in front of us, right now.
  • Got back to basics and made sure that everyone felt safe — at work and at home.
  • Set a limited number of critical KPIs that moved the business forward.”

“I think that if there is one thing that we learned from the COVID experience it’s that we can move transformation forward in short bursts with far less administrative overhead than what was traditionally the case. Also, it’s often better to make a decision that’s wrong (and fix it later) than to wait and not make any decision at all. The businesses that were fast out of the starting gate were the ones that were successfully able to pivot — even if they wobbled a little at first.”

Bill Kirst, senior principal of operations excellence at West Monroe, said that having a change management strategy is a necessity on a good day, but during trying times, it can make the difference between success and failure. In his own business, Kirst focuses on connecting with each employee. He emphasized that “It has never been more important to reach every employee in a mindful and balanced way, especially in our current circumstances. An intentional change management strategy is the strongest vehicle companies can use to connect with employees and support them amidst all this uncertainty.” 

Learning Opportunities

Kirst has also seen the positive impact that COVID has had on change management, and said, “Clients and companies are transforming and embracing speed and nimbleness more than ever before, and this means less reliance on bureaucracy and non-essential activity and faster decision-making to generate outcomes.” 

Another positive effect of the crisis has been the awareness that a change management strategy can massively improve the odds of a business surviving and even thriving as it weathers the storm. Kirst said that one of the largest blunders a business can commit is underestimating the importance of change management. “First and foremost, underinvesting in change management is the biggest and most prevalent mistake a business can make. Changing people’s behavior is not as simple as giving them a new technology, they must be trained and empowered with a growth mindset to change the way they do their jobs for the future.”

Have Change Management Strategies Changed?

The impact of COVID has been felt throughout all industries, and Kirst’ consultancy has had to make changes as well. For his West Monroe consultancy, that meant focusing on core business values. He said “We have doubled down on the importance of speed and trust in our work to support business delivery. Trust is the most important ingredient for helping others in these times of uncertainty. We are also witnessing the increased appreciation for strong partnerships with technology teams, iterating on proofs of concept, supporting demos to test and learn, and modernizing learning approaches that focus on providing the knowledge, tools, insights where needed.”

Thomas-Bland believes that the standard change management practices need to be updated to reflect “the new normal,” and suggested that “we need new ‘fit for purpose’ framework for business change and transformation.” One of the components of the framework she envisions for businesses is “leading with purpose and humanity and connecting it to value. The disrupted working world we find ourselves in needs an even greater focus on leading with purpose and humanity. This is about linking the transformation ambition to the organizational purpose. As you take stock and tackle your company’s vulnerabilities, you also need to set bold aspirations and push for specificity on the alignment between purpose and value.” 

Another key element of Thomas-Bland’s framework that speaks to the changes inspired by the COVID crisis is for businesses to build in “resilience, sustainability and constant evolution.” She reiterated that “real value emerges over time. Transformation solutions should support a quantifiable and data driven approach to capture this value over the long-term horizon.”

Dr. Nisha Nair, a faculty member in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke with CMSWire about the effects of the COVID crisis on the change management process. “I would say it is not so much that our understanding of change and traditional thinking around change that has failed us, but the fact that the COVID situation has rapidly crunched up many of the early stages like unfreezing and creating urgency for change, with the change already upon us, leaving little room for going through the preparatory stages of readying for change.” 

That said, Nair doesn’t feel that traditional change management practices have failed us, and are, in fact, still valid. “If you look at the classical models of change (such as Lewin’s staged model of change, classifying a change process as moving along the stages of unfreezing, movement and refreezing, or Kotter’s eight steps to why change efforts fail, with things like not establishing a strong enough sense of urgency, or lack of a vision and its undercommunication, or absence of short-term wins and the need to anchor changes in the new culture and institutionalize it), all of it still holds true, some more than the others.”

Final Thoughts

In a post-COVID world, (which we have yet to experience), we will all have to adapt to new rules and behaviors, both in our business and personal lives. Traditional methodologies for change management may have to be adapted to fit the new models of business that are beginning to be seen as normal. As Nair stated, “there is much to learn from these existing models of change in order to ensure that in a post-COVID world, our altered behaviors and the new normal is accepted. So things like investing in short term wins, having a compelling vision and a guiding coalition to champion the change efforts, and the need to institutionalize new patterns of behaving and existing, become all the more pronounced.”