As a trainer, I meet many people and hear what they find challenging in their work and organisations. One theme that often comes up is that change management is complex or poorly managed. And this spells disaster for the organisation. The fact is that change management is more than just necessary; it is essential for the organisation to get any value from doing projects. Why is that?

Every project creates an output: a new process, policy, product, etc. The output has to be adopted by the business as usual and become the new business as usual for the organisation to get any value from having done the project.

For example, my project is to create a new process for how a fire service responds to callouts for specific incidents. I am not doing that project because it is fun to do process development projects. I am doing it because there is a result (benefit) we need to achieve: to reduce the number of casualties in these specific incidents. Suppose I deliver the new process on time, within budget and strictly according to the scope and quality set out. In that case, I might be able to say the project in itself was a success, but if I don’t get business as usual to adopt and use the new process and make it “the way we do things around here”, the benefits will not be achieved.

Adopting something new means changing the way we work, the way we behave, the things we use, etc. At the heart of any change, no matter how big, is people changing the way they do things. And here is the crux: people do not want to change; even when the new thing is attractive on paper, people will hang on to their old ways because this is how human beings work. This is where change management comes in. If change were easy, we wouldn’t need to manage it; we’d sit back and watch it happen.

What are the four elements of Change Management?

Change Management is a process that takes us (a person, team, or company) from our current state to a desired future state. When we think about change, we must, therefore, consider four distinct elements:

  1. The future state that we are going towards
  2. The current state we are leaving
  3. The change, which is the bridge that connects the current state to the future state
  4. Reinforcement of the change
The Four Elements of Change Management

I have yet to introduce the concept of bridges into change management. This was first done by a man named William Bridges in his industry-shaping book “Transitions – Making Sense of Life’s Changes”, first published in 1980.

In this book, Bridges makes several poignant points, but perhaps the most important is this:

There is a difference between change and transition. Change is everything we can plan and put on paper – the mechanics, as it were. Transition is the internal, psychological process a person goes through to adopt and accept the change. Change cannot happen without transition.

If you want people to transition (embrace something new), they must first let go of the old.

Here lies the keys to success in change and the answer to why so many change initiatives fail.

So, how do we turn this knowledge into successful change management?

First, let’s consider our Future state.

For people to be able to transition and change, they must have a clear understanding of the future state they are trying to bring about. They need to be able to picture it and buy into it. For this, you have a few tools:

  1. Clearly defined business benefits. These should speak to people’s brains and rational side to clarify why the change needs to happen.
  2. Inspirational change vision. This short, memorable message should speak directly to people’s hearts and pull them towards the change.
Current to Future State of Change

The future state and talking about it meaningfully is important, but it is only some of it. A lot of change fails because the change team has focused on painting a positive future.  The problem is the promise of a bright future is often not enough to encourage people to change. There is a common saying, “Better the devil, you know” (this should be the change manager’s mantra), which is very accurate. Even if we can articulate how our new thing is better in every way compared to the current way, people will often choose to hang on to the old because it is familiar and, therefore, safe. And as William Bridges made clear, change will not happen unless people let go of the old.

So… in addition to thinking about the future state, you must also:

Consider the current state and why we cannot stay in it

You have to help people understand why the current state is not sustainable. Motivate them to break away from the safe and familiar and dare to cross the bridge to the new.

There are two aspects to this:

  1. Create a burning platform: articulate why or how the current state is burning up around us, i.e. create the sense that “I have to jump off”.
  2. Create a sense of urgency: it is not enough to help people learn they have to change “at some point”(hello Climate Change, we all accept we need to change… but maybe not today… or tomorrow… etc.) – you also have to get across the message that change has to happen NOW
Elements of Change - The Change

Finally, if you have managed to sell the future and helped people let go of their current state, you must show them how to get from the current to the future.

Consider your change

  1. What steps are involved, what needs to happen and when?
  2. How ready are people (skill, will and capacity)?
  3. What do you need to do to increase that readiness? (communication, training, etc.)
  4. Map out all the steps in clear messages so that people can see the path ahead

Once people have crossed over the bridge to the future state, you might think you can breathe a sigh of relief and take a well-earned holiday… wrong. This could spell disaster and undo all your hard work until now.

People are creatures of habit. They will look for opportunities to turn around and run across that bridge back to the old and familiar. So, you’ll need to make sure there is a plan and activity in place to prevent this. You want to get to a point where people stop thinking of this as “the new way” and get to where it is just “this is THE way”. No more “the new normal”, just “normal”.

Consider reinforcing your change:

  1. Reward the desired behaviours and little successes along the way
  2. Provide ongoing support so the future state is manageable and manageable. Do not allow people to say, “I told you this wouldn’t work”, etc.
  3. Once the future state is established, remove the bridge and the old ways (a dramatic way of saying this is “burn the bridge and fields behind you so there is no going back”)
Elements of Change

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By: Karin Maule

Karin Maule

Published: 28 November 2023

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