The change agent’s circus act


In major organizational transformations, one of the most destabilizing periods is the window of time between the “old” way of doing things, and the “new” state.

This in-between period is like flying between trapezes: an employee is asked to have the courage to let go of the current bar to move forward, but she’s left anxiously looking for the next one. In many ways, her safety depends on it.

Change leaders have to pay particular attention to this critical period in which fear is at an all time high. Maintaining the momentum, and providing employees with a sense of safety and direction is vital to successfully moving to the other side of transformation.

In many organizations we work with, this transition period is among the most challenging. The change team is consumed with the task of building the new state (such as deploying a large-scale IT system, or launching a major re-organization). Almost always, these transformation projects take more energy, time and money than had been planned, and the change team is torn between devoting enough resources to making the change happen, while maintaining current business operations.

In that context, one of the first things that gets dropped is adequate attention and focus on the fear caused by the transitional in-between state. That can be a costly mistake: the grip of fear will cost a change project significantly in terms of employee engagement, internal alignment and team productivity. Since major transformations typically roll-out over a period of two or more years, the cost of this time gap can be sky-high.

Case in point: one of our clients went through a major organizational transformation exercise in which many new roles were created, several were changed and some were eliminated. The organization had a payroll of $14 million for its team of 175 employees. If employee engagement were to dip by only 5% during the stressful transition period (well below industry standards), that would represent a net loss of $700,000 per year. Over a three-year transformation period, that conservative drop in engagement and productivity would cost $2.1 million. Of course, that does not include the related costs such as increases in employee sick leave, which are typical in large transformations.

Put in these terms, the business case for a strong approach to change management with a focus on the pivotal transition period between the old and new state is clear.
Here are some ways to address the critical transition period:

Pay attention to what’s ending. So often, change projects are so focused on building the new state that change leaders tend to under-estimate the importance of focusing on what employees are letting go of. Acknowledge what the team is saying goodbye to, and legitimize that experience. Even if the new office or IT system seems empirically better in every way, employees likely have strong attachments to the current one, for reasons that may not be clear on the surface to managers. Allow time to grieve and be respectful of the past.

Be clear on what’s staying the same. Transformation unmoors employees who may struggle to find touch-points of stability and familiarity. Make a point of highlighting the big ticket items that are staying the same throughout your change: for example, the company’s values, benefits packages or customer service priorities. Focusing on key pillars of consistency will have a normalizing and stabilizing effect.

Normalize change. It’s helpful to cultivate an understanding and acceptance among employees that change is business as usual. High performance organizations embrace continuous improvement, and that means that by definition, things are not supposed to stay the same. Building your organization’s muscle in resilience and agility is vital. A place to start might be to point out that the “old” way of doing things was, in fact, likely a change itself from a previous way of operating.

Get employees involved. Experience and research demonstrate unequivocally that employees contribute positively to change to the extent that they are given opportunities to be meaningfully involved. While staff may not have a choice on the nature of the change that’s happening, there may be significant areas where they can contribute ideas. For example, participating in business need definition sessions for a new IT system, or being consulted on how a new organizational structure can best be deployed.

Provide opportunities for dialogue. The smallest unit of change is conversation. During a period of transformation, it’s important for employees to have regular opportunities to engage in conversation and exchange about the change. Our clients have found that one of the most effective ways to achieve this is by scheduling monthly dialogue sessions in which employees can informally connect, ask questions and provide input to change leaders.

Focus on line of sight. The change communications plan should focus on providing a strong line of sight for employees, making it clear what the change means to their particular team or function. Making the change relatable and more concrete using terms and reference points that are relevant to specific employee groups will have a stabilizing effect. For example, if the organization is centralizing its services, what does that mean for the accounting department?

The single biggest mistake we see in transformations is the “black hole effect”. Change leaders are busy and tend to want information to be fully finalized and clear before they communicate to staff. This is a significant strategic error: it leads to an unintended consequence of creating weeks, months or even a year when employees hear very little about a change. This breeds negativity, anxiety and dis-engagement. Change leaders are well advised to follow the golden rule of change communications: communicate as much as you can, as early as you can (even if the information is incomplete). Setting up a regular “drumbeat” of communication will set your change project on a positive course, supporting your employees through the nerve-wracking but immensely satisfying high wire act of organizational transformation.

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