Change management: 10 ways to up your game

If change management is not a core competency in your IT leadership ranks, it’s time to fix that. Consider these strategies from CIOs and change management experts
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Once upon a time, change management was something that accompanied massive, infrequent new technology implementations. IT didn’t get the opportunity to practice it frequently. In the digital era, ongoing change is a given.

“Organizations must work together across functions rigorously, efficiently, and together in order to take advantage of new opportunities and fend off threats. These opportunities and threats are coming faster and harder than ever,” says Michael K. Levine, author of People Over Process: Leadership for Agility. “Change management is the art of making organizations work well – and continue to work well.”

As a result, IT leaders and their organizations need to get really good at change management today.

Technology leaders are in the middle of a constant state of not just change, but transformational change.

“Right now, technology leaders are either leading or directly in the middle of a constant state of not just change, but transformational change,” says Danielle Brown, CIO of Brunswick Corporation. “We need to know how to effectively bring along all of the various stakeholders to not just adopt, but embrace change. It is imperative for us to play this role because [that] can result in bottom-line improvements via new services, products, and business models, all enabled by technology.”

Many IT organizations have adopted agile and design thinking approaches to better align with and respond to the business. Even so, you still need to manage the impact of change. “While these are highly effective on the front end of IT projects and help transform the business’s understanding of the art of the possible, they don’t resolve change management, which is often reactive and at the individual initiative level,” says Craig Wright, managing director with management consultancy Pace Harmon.

[ When it comes to leadership, are you a mountain or a lake? Read also: 5 weird questions to ask about your leadership style. ]

What makes a good change manager?

How can you make change management a core competency of your organization? Here are some suggestions for upping your game.

1. Start with trust

“So much of change management is about building trust and earning not just a seat at the table, but a voice as well,” says Craig Williams, vice president and CIO at network solutions provider Ciena. “When I joined Ciena to lead IT, we built that trust by making sure that everything was always on, always available, and easily accessed. After smoothly implementing a number of back-end improvements that enhanced employee experience without disrupting workflows, we had earned that trust.”

Only at that point can change be part of what IT does, in partnership with business stakeholders. “Without trust, implementing change is an uphill battle,” Williams says.

2. Determine the best approach

“There are two basic approaches to making significant change: people-driven and driving people,” says Levine. The former bottom-up approach emphasizes people and relationships and encourages leaders to make changes at the right pace for their organization. That works well in well-performing organizations with solid leadership, or in cases where drastic shifts are too risky, says Levine.

“My advice would be to err on the side of valuing people and interactions if you can.”

Conversely, the top-down approach emphasizes process and tools over people and may be better for rapid change or when the organization needs a shakeup. “Picking a poorly fitting basic approach is the most common mistake I see,” Levine says. “My advice would be to err on the side of valuing people and interactions if you can; it is more sustainable, more [effective], and more fun.”

3. Make the shift from “directing” to “connecting”

“Too many leaders feel they have shared the vision a hundred times and assume they know where their employees are in the change cycle,” says Denise Austin, a director in ISG’s organizational change management group who specializes in communication. “It’s really about asking questions first and then connecting.”

“It takes time to build connections, but saves time in the long run.”

IT leaders who connect with their teams and users will create stronger relationships with them, which in turn improves communication and information-sharing, which are critical during times of change. “It takes time to build connections,” Austin says, “but saves time in the long run.”

Giving others ample time to process change is key. “As technology leaders, change is in our DNA,” says Brunswick’s Brown. “But for others, it may take time to see the 'why' or to see the 'art of the possible.' Therefore, we have to put in the time with our various business partners to help bring them along on the journey.”

4. Be an early (and able) adopter

There’s nothing worse than an IT leader who doesn’t walk the walk. “Be proactive in adopting new technology yourself. Be an example of a change agent,” says Keith Collins, executive vice president of IT at analytics software maker SAS. “The number of tech leaders that can’t navigate PowerPoint or run a video conference is astonishing.”

5. Operationalize relationship management skills

Technology team members must evolve from service providers to change management agents. “Define a consistent set of behaviors that will help every employee interacting with internal or external customers to own customer issues from start to finish,” advises Craig Nelson, partner in organizational change management at ISG. “Change the IT culture from traditional ‘firefighting’ to the true development of business relationships that drive operational and behavioral transformation.”

6. Consider establishing integrated change planning practices

These should include roadmaps for change, metrics to define success, communications strategies that align with overall organizational messages, and change readiness assessments, says Wright of Pace Harmon.

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.