Most of what I’ve written about so far speaks to change initiatives for which the impact can be planned – largely in the area of process improvements or systems upgrades. In those instances, a change manager can deploy a range of tools to prepare for change, lead through it and sustain a new norm.
But sometimes change just happens. In life, it can take the form of an earthquake or tornado or even the death of a loved one – where you’re forced to pick up the pieces and find a way forward. In business, the most common unplanned changes happen in organizational shifts – small changes like an individual employee’s resignation or large-scale reorganizations. Even if you know it’s coming, if you don’t know the details ahead of time, the change can be shocking and disruptive.
As I’ve said before, change management focuses on people impacts during implementation (versus program delivery which belongs to project management). In the case of sudden organizational change, human emotions become central to the conversation. There’s generally a sense of loss due to a person’s departure, one’s perceived worth, diminished control, etc. And that’s accompanied by a rash of other feelings like denial, fear, anger and so forth. Remember, people are people first – so it’s important to let them experience these feelings and work through them before we expect them to move forward. If the people impacted are also managers, we need to let them process the news as employees first, before we can expect them to support their people.
Organizational change is a tricky business. So much hinges on specific individuals and circumstance.
So what can we, as change managers, do in the face of unplanned change? After first allowing ourselves to understand our own emotional reaction to the event, we can still implement some change management tools to help stabilize the organization and help it recover. Here are some of the key tools that come to mind in this type of situation:
• Stakeholder identification – who are the impacted audiences? Don’t forget to consider internal and external parties.
• Impact assessment – what are their chief concerns? What might they have lost in the event? What needs to be done to stabilize their day-to-day operations?
• Communication – what information or context has or has not been provided relative to the change? Is more information needed? What information can or needs to be shared now? What’s the plan to disseminate information as additional solutions get worked out?
• Training – is re-skilling needed? How do we fill knowledge gaps caused by people who have left? Do we need to provide support in dealing with the human emotions in addition to technical skills training?
• Sponsor support – active and visible presence of senior leaders is crucial for employees to feel attended to. What opportunities can we create for them to show up powerfully as leaders?
• Feedback loops – what mechanisms do we have to understand how our employees are coping with the change? What do they need to move forward?
• Resistance diffusion – what type of coaching can we provide for people who are stuck in anger, grief or denial?
• Sustainment – who are the people on each team who can help others see the light and move to a new norm?
I opened this article by likening unplanned change with a natural disaster. The questions I ask above may make change management activities sound like triage in a MASH unit, and in some cases, they can be. The things a change manager would do to prepare for change normally will have to be deployed in a rushed and seemingly suboptimal manner. But having practiced them in calmer times, we have the experience to do what must be done on the fly in response to sudden and unplanned change.