The Human Side of Championing Organizational Change

~ 11 min read | September 1

“But that’s how we’ve always done things”

“This is going to make my life more difficult, rather than easier”

“Is this really necessary?”

You must have heard one or all of these reactions to proposed organizational changes at some point. That’s because change is hard, especially in large organizations.  It pushes people out of their comfort zones. That’s why there is a natural resistance to change.

But here’s the thing about change – it remains an elusive concept. And that’s why, despite knowing the change is inevitable, we stumble and falter when we actually deal with it.

Why? Because change brings with it a lot of uncertainty and we are hardwired to resist it.

Always in Motion is the Future

In an iconic scene in Star Wars, upon being asked to see what lies in the future, Yoda says ‘Difficult to see. Always in Motion is the Future.’

Organizational change is no different. To keep up with what’s in store for the future, organizations must change. A change at scale involves the entire organization and hence is always difficult to implement.

While organizations always have a master plan for the transformation, they may not always have a transition plan for one of its important stakeholders, the ones that actually make things happen.

The employees.

Bracing for Organizational Change

To truly drive change, you must have buy-in from the people who will execute your vision.

So it is important to articulate why the change is important and how it will have a positive impact on the organization in the long term. How can an organization do this effectively? And going one step beyond, how can organizations enable and empower their people to lead the change? Let’s look at some playbooks with examples.

Communication, Communication, and Communication

Yes, I said it thrice because I can’t stress the importance of this enough. It is the people who are most affected by the change and it is people who are going to implement the change. So it is critical that they understand the purpose behind the change and how the changes you are making today will help create a compelling future for the company

Hallmarks of effective change communication are:

  • An authentic and genuine message on why the change is important and its long-term impact on the organization
  • Communicating through multiple channels. 
  • Scope for feedback and clarification on the interpretation of the message

In fact, it makes sense to do a stakeholder analysis of the change process. This involves stakeholders that are directly and indirectly affected by the change, the degree of impact, their requirements, and expectations. The stakeholder analysis will also help in assessing the general attitude of stakeholders towards change, which can be crucial to drafting the communication strategy.

Foundations of Change Communication

Nailing the communication will lay the foundation of your change efforts and you have to do it while being empathetic and clear. It’s quite the task! But here’s a framework to follow:

    1. Share the vision early on. The vision needs to be clear and compelling so that people get enough time not only to assess the impact of the change but are also inspired to adapt to it.
    2. Highlight the benefits, but also the impact. Be sure to answer the “What is it in for me?” question and how the change can help them become more effective in their day-to-day functions. This helps people understand why the change in the first place.
    3. Involve the leaders in the organization from the beginning. Empower them and let them lead the communication.  How they react to change and the behavior changes they adopt will eventually trickle down to everyone in the team.
    4. Encourage dialogue. Assess the reaction to the change narrative. Engage in conversations with people to understand their interpretations, their fears, and their roadblocks in implementing the required change. Involving people in the feedback process will increase their ownership in the transformation.
    5. Repetition is key.  Keep the communication consistent over time. Keep the employees informed and engaged at every step of the change process. Make sure all the communication ties back to the initial narrative

It’s impossible to know all the answers. There will be times when the lack of clarity could make employees anxious. However, it is important, to be honest about what you know and what you don’t. Follow-up with detailed responses whenever you know more. This breeds a culture of trust.

How Multichoice Championed Change Communication

Multichoice, a leading entertainment company, in Africa and the CEB (now Gartner) 2017 winner for excellence in change communication, launched a year-long campaign called #NinetyNine in 2016, with an aim to resolve the 99 problems that are most frequently mentioned in their customer claims.  This small idea had a big impact on the company’s fortunes in just one year.

What did they do right? Well, the CEO led the way by communicating and actively participating in ground-level resolutions from the get-go. They posted reminders to keep the campaign always on the radar. They even celebrated each success with a surprise party. After one year, they not only resolved the 99 problems but also doubled the number of their customers.

That’s change communication done right! You can check the full story of #ninetynine here.

Champions of Internal Change

Change is scary, but interestingly in an organization, the desire to change isn’t completely absent. In fact, you’d find a lot of watercooler conversations around what changes can disrupt the business or how things could be executed better. Since people working in the trenches have a deep understanding of the business, they can also spot opportunities for change early on.

But do all of these people initiate change? Nope. Not all of them. But there’s always someone who’s very aligned with the organizational vision, isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, and believes in the culture of speaking up and being heard.

They are your internal champions of change. And they can be anywhere – from executive boardrooms to the newest member of the sales team. If you’re wondering how you can spot one, this might help. You’re looking for someone who:

  • Has insane ownership of the things they do, of the function they belong to, and of the organization’s vision
  • Educates those around them. Takes on the role of being an evangelist of change 
  • Isn’t afraid of confrontations and tough discussions.
  • Is empathetic and understands the emotional toll change can take.
  • Are very very persistent. They don’t give up easily!

These internal change champions not only tend to play a monumental role in the change process but also often go on to script one of your biggest successes as well.

Let’s take the example of Ruchi Sanghvi, Facebook’s first female engineer and one of the main people who spearheaded Facebook’s ‘news feed’ feature. News feed was launched in September 2006 and gave millions a reason to go back to the site every day. It was the feature that set Facebook apart from every other social network. Before the news feed, you could post a picture or a personal update on your page and people could only see it if they made the effort to come to your page.

The news feed by bringing all your friends’ news to your homepage made Facebook easier to use. “News Feed … updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his favorites or when your crush is single again,” Sanghvi, then a product manager, wrote in the blog announcing its launch

The feature however sparked off concerns about privacy so much that people started protesting outside the Facebook office.  But that didn’t deter Facebook, they weren’t going to get rid of the feature as they could see its growing traction despite the concerns. “It’s not only different from anything we’ve had on Facebook before, but they’re quite unlike anything you can find on the web,” said Sanghvi. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

How can you Empower the Change Catalysts?

  • Give them ownership. The word ‘empowerment’ gets thrown around a lot, without ever realizing its true meaning. When change champions are micromanaged, their willingness to lead diminishes. With true ownership, these champions can experiment, be creative, and find new avenues to lead the way. 
  • Build a culture of speaking up and being heard. Encourage feedback and engage in a dialogue. This helps change champions to voice their opinions and encourages others to follow suit.
  • Trust them to lead. Giving up the reins can be difficult. But if you see the potential in them, trust the champions to lead important aspects of the change. Who knows, their driven madness will be the x-factor that drives the change.
  • Provide necessary resources. Bring a method to their madness. Provide them with the tools, training, and resources they need to lead.

When empowered, these internal champions of change can turn one of your biggest problems into a competitive advantage.

That’s what happened in Hewlett-Packard. It’s common knowledge that computers heat up when they are left running for a while and that hastens their failure rate. This is known as thermal transfer. At HP, engineers wanted to be seen solving more intellectually challenging problems. So, most of them felt solving the thermal transfer problem wasn’t worth their time. Until one of the engineers, Chandra Patel decided to take on the problem. He reached out to some of his colleagues in the global engineering team who had previously dabbled in the problem. His initiative ultimately brought together 100 engineers together who worked as a team to solve the problem.

Today, HP is a leader in the thermal transfer domain which adds to their bottom line thanks to cost savings generated by cooler and less failure-prone machines. Harvard Business Review says every company has positive deviants like Chandra Patel, individuals whose uncommon behaviors or practices enable them to find better solutions to a problem despite having no extra resources than their peers.  For a successful transformation, the key is to find and make these positive deviants evangelists of change and galvanize the rest of the team.

Measuring Effectiveness

Once your change efforts are in progress, how do you measure adoption? More importantly, change is a phenomenon that involves emotions, how do we measure something like that?

Well, you can’t measure emotions, but you can derive insights from some assessments, surveys, and even performance evaluations of the employees. According to Prosci, since the individual is the unit of change, measuring individual progress can be a leading indicator of overall project success.

From Managing Change to Leading It

When it comes to business model transformation, there is no better success story than Adobe who transitioned from its software- in- a -box business model to a subscription-led business in 2012.

While Shantanu Narayen and his senior executives set the strategic goal for transforming Adobe’s business, there were several internal change champions who came together to orchestrate the change. For instance, Adobe’s CMO Ann Lewnes became the champion of digital marketing practices which gave them valuable insights on how to run a cloud company. The company formed a team called  Adode[email protected] to evangelize the use of Adobe’s technology.

Ron Nagy, Sr. Evangelist at Adobe, encourages collaborating with internal practitioners, product marketers, and technologists in addition to customers for creating marketing use case narratives. “If you are starting a program – there have to be individuals with knowledge of the tech, what is possible, and the business.  You need to take the input from practitioners and other sources, then do the translation to what is relevant to the marketplace,” he says. Adobe formed an internal forum that brought together the marketing, IT, and engineering teams. Internal users of the product would share areas of improvement and best practices. The forum allowed product marketers to resolve product usage challenges by sharing the best practices and provide feedback to product teams on the evolution of existing products and define the roadmap for new products.  By sharing the knowledge from their internal forum with customers, Adobe was able to create great customer engagement and a capability demonstration machine that could showcase Adobe’s technology. (You can listen to the full interview about Adobe’s Critical Knowlege Mapping here).  

Organizations don’t change, people do. And with the champions of internal change leading the way, it’s only a matter of time before your ‘change story’ turns into a ‘success story’.

Chargebee is a change agent that helps SaaS businesses scale with efficient subscription billing management and revenue operations. At Chargebee, we’re celebrating the Champions of Change. Do you know a Champion of Change? Write to me at [email protected]. Let’s discuss!

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Nupura Ughade

Of the House Slytherin, First of Her Name, Content Marketer @ Chargebee, and an Admirer of All Things Nerdy