Change management isn't a checklist—it's about adoption
- Change management means laying the groundwork for a positive experience
- Successful technology adoption hinges on effective change management techniques
- It’s important to ask the right questions—and enlist advocates
Change is inevitable—whether large-scale or minimal—but how an organization deals with that change can make all the difference. And that’s certainly the case when it comes to managing change within higher education.
Years ago, change management wasn’t handled in the same way that it is now. If an institution were launching a new program or software solution, for example, the goal was to go-live, and whatever happened later… just happened. The institution made an investment, implemented it, and got things up and running. After that, everyone gave each other high fives and that was that.
However, what we found was that upon the completion of a project, whichever group was expecting to receive benefit—or value—from that project was unable to identify or demonstrate the alignment between benefits and project outcomes. Flash forward to today, and we now know that change management is an essential part of defining a project’s purpose and its benefit—therefore making sure any project is successful.
Ultimately, the biggest driver for higher ed to embrace change management is to improve time to value. Now, that doesn’t mean that any given project will, from an implementation perspective, proceed faster or be less expensive. Rather, improved time to value means focusing on the change, thinking through the steps required, and considering who will be impacted so that the institution can start seeing benefits more quickly—without having to re-tool things later.
An institution will eventually gain value from a new project or solution, but change management helps it happen faster and with a lot less pain for users and constituents. In addition, you don't want to build a reputation as an institution that just shoves technology rather than solutions down the throats of users without getting their input, feedback, or perspective.
Using change management to reduce stress
There’s no doubt that change is stressful. The key is to reduce as much user stress as possible. Successful change management begins within an understanding of the problem, the people, the process, and how the new technology or solution impacts the user before the impact happens.
Change can either be a positive or a negative experience, and the purpose of change management to lay the groundwork for a positive experience, while mitigating the negative ones.
What might a positive change experience look like? It might entail updating the learning management system between terms (based on a mutually agreed upon time) rather than during finals week. Yet another example might be utilizing a power user/governance group to create a scheduled maintenance calendar for the academic year that includes notifications two weeks prior to maintenance—specifically scheduled downtimes—as well as notification of resolution.
An example of negative change management would occur when an individual or department purchases or implements replacement technology without understanding current users, their utilization needs, or security requirements. Another example might occur when an institution elects to update campus by renovating a building, unaware that the data and networking closet is housed within that building. The entire campus will likely be negatively affected, and the institution will incur significant bad blood and animosity throughout campus. Such a lack of constituent awareness and buy-in might cost the campus a lot more in discord than the renovation is worth.
If you're handling change management well, one of the things that you’ll start asking yourself is this: Where are we going to meet resistance? If you don't explore that question early on in the process, then you’ll certainly find out where you’ll meet that resistance—when you go live with a new solution. And that's the worst time to meet it. It’s preferable to find those trouble areas ahead of time—whether through your power user groups or user groups that traditionally have problems with adoption. Anticipating problems and being ready to help users confront them can definitely reduce stress.
The basic concept here is to reach out to those who will be impacted early and often. No one likes a 6:00 a.m. email that says, “We’re implementing a new system tomorrow. Stop using the old one.” Involving users early in the process lets them know that change is coming—and addressing concerns before they turn to panic.
What types of initiatives require change management?
The simplest answer is this: Any initiative that hinges on a successful adoption.
Change management for technology adoption takes two forms—ones that require user buy-in or adoption and ones that don’t. The former means alerting users that a change is coming, but no action is required on their part. Changes that don’t require buy-in, like minor updates to software or hardware, involve timely notification—approximately two weeks prior—and a statement that no action is required.
The latter is more involved, and asks users to take some kind of action. Changes that require adoption, like new technology or even the adoption of cloud strategy, require significant change management. In these projects adoption is the single most important critical project component to success.
Keep in mind that there are different levels of change management. While change management process or steps remain consistent regardless or the project, the execution of the process varies based upon the level of impact and number of constituents. The degree of change management for a video conferencing system that you may use once or twice a month is different from the type of change management required for a travel and expense (T&E) system, where employees may use it several times a week.
Also, remember that people like to consume information differently. Some may want a five-page FAQ. Some just want to figure it out, and some want to sit through an hour-long demo. It’s important to consider different options to help everyone adapt to change. Not all of these will be effective or needed for every project, and no one form of communication or training is effective for everyone. It’s important to think through the most viable communication methods for each audience.
Creating the right mindset to manage change
We’ve already mentioned the first part of creating the right mindset for change—communicating early with those who will be affected by it. But sometimes, that means involving stakeholders right from the get-go. During the project planning process, begin by asking, “Is this technology change necessary? Why is or isn’t the change necessary? Who and what departments will be impacted by the change—and when and how much of an impact is expected?”
And here’s another important question to ask: "Can I ask for your support?" That's very important, because having advocates—or champions—for the change can help build momentum. An advocate may serve as point of contact to answer questions, and establishes the mindset that the proposed change is a team effort, not something imposed by a single person. It’s imperative to have all the right people at the table early on—even during the vendor selection process. If the right people aren’t involved to define the problem and desired outcomes prior to interviewing vendors, then then project is doomed to fail. For example, if one particular department on campus, like the athletics department at a Division I institution, uses the T&E software more than the others, then it’s critical to invite those individuals to be a part of the vendor selection, rather than bring them in afterward.
Another important point is to ask the right questions. Asking, “Do you understand the change that’s coming your way?” is very different from asking, “How do you feel about that change? What are the impacts of this change on you or your department?” Asking the second question may yield important and useful information. You may, for example, learn that a proposed change is coming at a busy time for a department.
In addition to advocates or champions, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of “influencers”—those with enough sway in the organization to help push the change forward. Sometimes this might be a senior-level vice president. Or sometimes it’s a well-respected, less senior individual who is known to be insightful and who offers sound advice. These are the people with a finger on the pulse of the organization.
So how do you identify those influencers? You’ll know who they are through experience—and if you don’t, then ask. And ask more than one person. Here is what we’re trying to do—who is the best person to handle this? Who has expertise in this area? If the same name comes up more than once, you know you’ve got the right person.
You’ll also need to get senior-level people involved in the change and on your team to support the proposed change. How do you approach them and get them to allow their employees to spend their time working on this project with you?
Begin by reaching out to those influencers mentioned above. Brief the influencer on the project, and then get out of the way—the influencer will talk to these senior individuals, often at a peer level, and soon enough a network of people bound together by your project will soon begin to build. The idea here is not to bypass senior leadership, but not to overburden them with details, either. This is a more organic approach, as opposed to a top-down “command from above” that calls for compliance.
The role of the neuro-physical process of decision making
Relationships and emotion factor into the change management process. We all like to think that we make decisions based on facts and logic (and those certainly matter), but in reality, subconscious factors (such as personalities and office politics) will play an important role as well. It’s important to acknowledge these factors individually and with the team. Identify these as potential barriers and devise steps to remove them.
That simply means there are plenty of moving parts in the decision-making process, some of which are not top-of-mind. That’s why it’s especially important to ask the question, “How do you feel about this change?” Sometimes people don't even realize how they feel about something until you ask them.
Ultimately, we're dealing with people, not robots. So, even if we do a good job of explaining or we tick all the boxes on the change management checklist, we've got to remember that people and emotions are critical for a successful adoption process. Understanding how to deal with both are essential to success.
Continue the series with part two: The importance of alignment in change management.