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How to Lead Your Team Through a Tough Change

Some people like change, some hate it, and most of us can handle change if we think it's a good idea. Whether you like it or not, seismic change is part of the business environment and your job as a leader. How can you help your team get through a layoff, a reorganization or a change in the project plan without losing productivity or having people melt down?

In his new book, Changemaking: Tactics and Resources for Managing Organizational Change, author Richard Bevan lays out some guidelines for communicating change to remote teams. Even managers of more traditional teams can learn a lot about how to walk your team through a change with a minimum of drama.

What are the unique challenges to instituting a major change with remote employees vs. co-located folks?
We can get pretty good interaction in communication with a widely dispersed virtual team, using everything from conference calls to TelePresence â€" but nothing quite replicates person-to-person, face-to-face communication.

So the first challenge in dealing with remote employees is to ensure that communication is flowing freely in every direction: out, back, and among team members. Because if you don't have interaction, feedback, discussion and exchange there's a much higher possibility of misunderstanding or failing to pick up key issues or needs.

The second challenge is finding ways to create synergy among people who are not only widely dispersed but may be in very different time-zones. It becomes very easy to say, "let's do this by email" because there's no time that works for everyone for a web- or phone-based meeting.

And the third challenge is the tendency for team members far from the center to display an additional layer of skepticism about messages â€" especially about complex change â€" that seem to be handed down rather than co-developed.

Is there a step-by-step process for rolling out a "fait a complit"?
First be sure you have an extraordinarily good reason for not consulting the stakeholders â€" those involved, affected, and able to influence the outcome. This is in part because they will wonder why they weren't asked to contribute, and in part because they will invariably have issues, questions and ideas that (if assessed in advance) will strengthen the outcome. Then:

  1. Make sure the initial communication is especially effective: clear, concise, and focused.
  2. Acknowledge that the process didn't involve consultation and explain why.
  3. Say immediately that you do need and want a high degree of input and engagement in the implementation process, and explain how that might work (e.g., implementation teams, planning groups, regular conferences, site visits by leaders, website for information and ideas, and so on).
  4. Demonstrate and sustain a readiness to listen to questions and concerns, and to address them carefully and fully. Recognize that without advance consultation the process of discussion and persuasion, and eventual adaptation, may be protracted and challenging.
  5. Follow-up rigorously - check, question, evaluate, and course-correct
What are the follow up steps necessary to make change stick?
The key follow-up step is to repeatedly ask those involved how things are going, and then to be diligent in addressing the many concerns and questions that you'll uncover. Ask informally, in casual discussions; and more formally, by having managers raise the questions in meetings with their teams; or in a fully structured way with (for example) an online survey.

What tools and tech have you seen managers and organizations use to be successful? You can't go far wrong using these...

  • Stakeholder research â€" by discussion, email of survey â€" with key people and groups will uncover important issues and needs in advance.
  • A very concise (one page or online equivalent; preferably much less) Business Case covering what's happening, why and how is indispensable in compelling clarity and providing a consistent platform.
  • The good old FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) guide is as useful as ever, and can be online and invite additions.
  • Repeated checking and assessment (how's it going, what are the issues, how can we help, what do you need, how can we do this better?) ensures that problems are identified and addressed early in the process.
You can hear more of this very enlightening interview with Richard Bevan on the Cranky Middle Manager Show podcast.
Read more: picture by flickr user striatic CC 2.0
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