Ten things to remember about organizational change during a time of change
COVID-19 has forced organizations to alter how they work so they can survive through lockdowns, lost revenue, reduced workforces, and unsteady economic conditions. Some changes have focused on retrenchment: How can we operate with a skeleton staff and diminished resources, and still meet essential customer needs? Other changes have provided an opportunity: As a McKinsey & Company study found, one large retailer was able to launch a curbside-delivery business in two days, instead of the 18 months that the original workplan estimated.1
For those organizations that have been able to survive (so far), the pandemic has revealed an important lesson: Under pressure, they can make changes quickly. However, to ensure the changes are strategically smart and sustainable, don’t overlook the fundamentals about organizational change that apply even in a time of massive shifts.
Here are ten principles that can help you succeed with organizational change, along with “COVID corollaries” that allow you to adapt the principles to fit our extraordinary circumstances.
Ten principles about successful organizational change (and corollaries for the pandemic)
- Strategic change is the best change for the long term. Any organizational change will be most beneficial and long-lasting if it is in service to a higher, larger goal to advance the business. Change requires time, energy, and resources, and so it’s best to choose changes that serve an important business objective.
COVID corollary: When your organization is confronting survival, ask: What changes will make us most viable?
- Examine current reality to inform how you define and design the change. We create change in response to some aspect of the current state that is no longer working well. To know what to change, understand reality fully and unflinchingly, and then design a change that will address it and make things better.
COVID corollary: When reality itself keeps shifting, know that your change plans may have to shift as well. But always ask: What’s happening now, and what change is called for in response?
- Where possible, invite the people affected by a change to co-create it. People are always more invested in a change if they participate in defining, designing, and implementing it. They will feel ownership for the change if you bring them into the change process as co-authors, preferably from the very beginning.
COVID corollary: During a time of uncertainty and surprises, gather strength by banding together with your employees and stakeholders, and inviting their creative contributions to shape the changes that will help your organization survive, even thrive.
- Make a change plan and follow it. There are logical, proven steps for successful organizational changes. Map the steps and then go through them one at a time. Don’t rush to implement your change without laying the foundation first.
COVID corollary: Know and understand the steps for successful organizational change, and then streamline them to keep pace with the condensed timeframes and resource constraints the pandemic may impose.
- Harness your assets to make the change proceed more smoothly. What does your organization do well, and where does it have strength? And, in the area you hope to change, what’s already working well that might provide clues about how the change could happen faster and more easily? By tapping into these assets and insights, change can often become less daunting and more energizing.
COVID corollary: Amid the pressures to change in stressful circumstances, take stock of and be grateful for the people, processes, and other assets your organization can count on to see you through the changes you must make.
- Small, tactical changes linked together can make bigger changes happen. Change is sometimes more possible and palatable if you design smaller changes that you can implement quickly. Success with one change can provide energy and insights to pursue more. Then, if you connect smaller changes together, you can realize larger change that’s often more successful. (Just be sure the changes you do make are strategic ones—see principle 1.)
COVID corollary: If you make a series of fast, necessary changes to stay viable, think about how you can link the changes together to strengthen the organization and make it more relevant in a post-pandemic world.
- Treat people with empathy, dignity, and respect through the change process. People vary in their relationships to change—depending on how they’re wired, their prior experiences with change, and how they will be affected by the change at hand. Even if a change has obvious business benefits, accept that people embrace change on their own terms. Design your change accordingly.
COVID corollary: Beyond people’s relationships to change in normal circumstances, they are threatened, exhausted, and in some cases personally affected by the pandemic. As you pursue changes within the organization, add extra compassion into the change process: Ask how people are doing. Ensure they sustain work-life balance through the change. Inquire about help they may need.
- Communicate transparently and frequently through the change. Build trust among those whom the change affects by communicating openly about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how—as well as what you’re learning, and what you don’t know yet. Do so more often than you might think necessary. People will thank you.
COVID corollary: As circumstances evolve quickly, don’t forget to communicate what’s going on with your changes (even if you don’t have answers to every question). In turn, you will generate support, and possibly ideas that may help the change.
- Remember that change is mostly an experiment. You haven’t made exactly this change with these people and in these circumstances before, so by definition you’re experimenting. As such, relieve yourself of seeking perfection with your change, and instead treat this is as an opportunity try new things, and learn and adjust as you go. Set your objectives accordingly.
COVID corollary: The changes you make under the duress of a pandemic are complete experiments. Build learning feedback loops into the change so you can monitor what’s working and what’s not, and then adjust quickly as needed.
- Design your change as a journey and a process, not an event. Organizational change does not happen with the flick of a switch; it happens over time, with many interdependent and interacting components. Plan accordingly and you’ll experience a change that is saner and more successful.
COVID corollary: With so much external uncertainty, your change path will encounter many twists and turns. Take stock of what you’re learning along the way, so you become smarter at every stage of the journey.
You and your colleagues are making changes by necessity during these difficult months. Apply or adapt these principles to make those changes even better and more likely to benefit your organization for the long term.
1 “Reimagining the Post-Pandemic Organization,” McKinsey Quarterly. McKinsey & Company, May 15, 2020. ↩
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