6 steps to winning hearts and minds when making big changes

Consultant Hansjörg Zahradnik explains how to get people on board when implementing new processes and procedures.

Staff often resist new processes and procedures with astounding tenacity. I'll give you an example where, for weeks, a project manager had been fine-tuning his new work processes. He was tasked to simplify and speed up order processing at his company. One detail in his plans had upset four colleagues in the admin department, which sparked resistance: Admin colleagues, who had previously only been resposible for examining contract documents sent by customers (whereby inconsistencies were handled by colleagues from the sales department, who would contact the customer and clarify the issue) were now required to bypass sales and contact their counterparts in their client’s companies directly in order to resolve any queries. 

“Our old procedures made us successful”, complained the four contract specialists. “Why should we also now deal with the customer? “

This is not an isolated case. Becuase, once the habitual way of doing things is strongly ingrained in any organisation, even the slightest of  changes will provoke angry reactions.

Staff will say things like, “everything always worked perfectly the way it was,” or “all these new processes are not aligned to the nature of our work”, or “another weird decision from top management.” 

Experts know that all these statements are attempts to hide what is really bothering employees - feelings of fear, defiance and anger. Neurologists have discovered that work routines leave traces in our brains. When we repeat and practice the same task, we build connections among nerve cell which become expanded into data highways. Changing these patterns - in other words, rerouting the highways – triggers discomfort and it is exhausting work.

But that is why employees tend to fall back into old habits which then undermine change efforts. Project managers who introduce new processes need to be aware of these difficulties. Enticing colleagues with facts alone in order to engage them with change is not sufficient. Professional change specialists use the following six strategies in order to win over the minds as well as the hearts of their colleagues:

1 Give reasons and explain the objectives

Why changes in our department? And why now? Employees want to understand the reasons for new procedures. They want to know if they can expect minor changes or if they need to prepare for major adjustments and restructuring. This is why the project manager needs to know the answers to these questions and he needs to immerse himself into the thinking and reasoning behind his assignment. Experienced project managers will clarify with executive management which objectives are to be met through the changes, which circumstances necessitated these changes and which strategic advantages for the company’s future are to be gained by these changes.

2 Involve affected employees

Nowadays it is no longer possible to sneak in changes behind the staff’s back. That is why project managers like to get affected employees – or stakeholders – on board as soon as possible. It is important to form allies among stakeholders and to firmly engage them with the project. These allies can sway opinions in the company in favour of the project – especially if these allies are socially well connected. In winning support experienced project managers like to follow the guideline offered by the ”ADKAR” principle: Are stakeholders aware of the change project and its implications (Awareness)? If not they need to be informed by the project manager. How much do they welcome these changes (Desire)? How can colleagues be won over who are indifferent towards the project or even reject it? The next question then is: What additional knowledge (Knowledge) and abilities (Abilities) will colleagues need to develop in order to function within the changed framework? And the last question is: What can the project manager do in order to ensure that new procedures become entrenched and sustainable after the project closes down (Reinforcement)?

3 Don’t plan the details too early in the process

Project managers often like to specify early on who does what and at which time. But be careful! When changing work processes planning such details early on can counteract the in-tended effect: It creates chaos instead of order. The difficulty lies in assessing opinions and feelings of stakeholders towards the change project in advance. “It is advisable to remain flexible with these type of projects and to frequently revisit plans. The stance taken by employees and resulting reactions are impossible to gauge at the outset.”

4 Take emotional needs into account when planning

Experienced project managers take feelings seriously and take them into consideration while planning. For example having to let go of habitual ways of working may trigger grief. That is why skilled project managers speak with appreciation of the old ways and emphasise the successes they made possible. They even consciously incorporate parts of old process into the “new world”. This helps to accept the new and say good bye to the old.

5 Prepare management

Project managers should take care to not prepare only staff for change processes but also their management. Managers must be able to bear up to the feelings triggered in their subordinate. They cannot duck when there is bad news to be delivered. And most of all they cannot condemn their employees when they express resistance. “Most employees actually welcome change – as long as they do not have to fear chaos for themselves”, says the expert.

6 Go for quick wins

Quick wins early on in change processes can give the project a positive reception among staff. These wins don’t need to be big. It is enough when employees perceive the project to be off to a good start. For example one or two staff members could give a short talk about the positive impact of the changes on their work day. However, these quick wins must be real and authentic. Make-believe improvements will erode your most important requirement for successful change which is your staff’s good will.