When everything around you is changing, it may be time to re-think change management.

Research by Josh Bersin published in Chandler’s Governance Matters magazine suggests that an agile approach to managing change in the workplace is called for and that “a traditional approach to change management is no longer sufficient for the rapid change that businesses in all sectors are experiencing.”

Traditional change management can’t cope

According to the WGU business school, “Change management is a structured and careful approach to making sure that changes are smoothly implemented and that there are lasting benefits to those changes.”

Indeed says that change management is “the methods and ways in which an organization defines and implements various change processes, both internally and externally” … and goes on to list 17 principles (and links to 13 methodologies).

Just reading these descriptions of traditional change management can make your eyes glaze over, never mind actually experiencing them. So, when Bersin dismisses the “spreadsheets, assigned deliverables, and rigid deadlines” of traditional change management, he may be onto something.

Change in the post-pandemic business world is constant, unpredictable, and fast-moving. It requires resilience and flexibility—concepts incompatible with rigid deadlines and spreadsheets. A strict process doesn’t allow for unpredictability—or prepare the workers and managers to cope with radically different outcomes than they’d planned for.

Agile processes offer a path to navigating turbulence

Treating adjustment to significant, ongoing shifts in how people work and learn as a “project” that can be started and ended on a schedule (remember those rigid deadlines) denies the basic nature of the changes we are experiencing. Bersin’s approach is centered on human behavior—and what is needed to change human behavior. To that end, Bersin offers five essential practices.

1. Think small

Even the largest changes happen incrementally. Over time, as people adopt and adjust to incremental changes, significant changes occur. This echoes the Agile concept of successive iterations. Each small change is tested or adopted by a small group. Best practices may be identified, shared, and adopted more broadly. Successful strategies and tools are likewise adopted more broadly. Mistakes are contained within the small test groups.

2. Reinforce success

A key to successfully changing behavior is reinforcing what you want more of—and ignoring or discouraging behaviors you no longer want to encourage. “Rewards and recognition can be monetary or intrinsic, public or private; but most importantly, they need to be fair and equitable,” Bersin wrote. They also have to be something the workers and learners value.

Many organizations are stumbling in their change management attempts when they gild their “back to the office” initiatives with “perks” that no one wants, such as game tables, endless junk food, or mandatory team “fun” activities. Instead, reward hard-working employees with higher pay, greater flexibility, opportunities to learn and advance, and other meaningful recognition of their hard work and expertise.

3. Put workers front and center

Rather than imposing change on employees, Bersin suggests bringing them into the process. “If we design without the active engagement and input of employees, solutions often fall short and may not even solve the actual problem,” Bersin wrote. And, when change is forced on people, they are more likely to resist it than if they were involved in designing the change.

Design thinking is Bersin’s suggested approach here; it shares with agile the emphasis on successive iterations, offering the opportunity to fail in small ways, learn, and improve. Above all, design thinking focuses on the mindset of the end user—in this case, the employees and learners impacted by the changes under consideration.

4. Choose—or nurture—human-centered leaders

The range of leadership responses to changes resulting from COVID and other disasters is broad and often surprising, ranging from the draconian—a CEO who told Florida workers to keep working through an incoming hurricane and companies that are terminating employees who are not back on site, for example—to Google’s multifaceted embrace of flexibility.

Successful leaders increasingly realize that clear, transparent communication, while essential, is only the beginning. They also must show empathy, integrity, and an approach that recognizes that their employees and learners are humans with varied needs, preferences, and priorities that must be balanced alongside work. This mindset often leads to flexible workplace policies that attract and retain workers.

5. Fill skills gaps

Bersin argues that change management skills in HR personnel are critical to successfully leading employees through constant change. These skills are equally necessary—and equally likely to be lacking—among organizational leaders. Focusing on developing these skills at all levels of the organization, especially among HR leaders, learning leaders, and the C suite—and among future leaders—is the obvious starting point for organizations seeking to thrive, innovate, and grow during these turbulent times. Efforts to strengthen change management skills might include coaching and mentoring or formation of communities of practice, Bersin wrote.

Join a learning leadership community of practice

Leading your organization in times of change—or transforming learning culture, building a leadership pipeline, or adopting new training strategies—can be an uphill climb. Explore these and other challenges with learning leadership peers in the Learning Leaders Alliance. Share what works, and hone your skills and examine strategies that will prepare you to navigate today’s ever-evolving workplace.

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