Change management in a pandemic: 3 steps to success

In the age of COVID-19, the ability to adapt and implement change quickly is essential. Leaders need to do these three things with ruthless consistency
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The volatility and uncertainty we’ve all felt in the COVID era makes it clear: Being able to execute strategic change quickly and effectively is more important than ever. Given that many such changes are digital responses to the new reality, this is especially true for CIOs and IT leaders.

How can leaders maximize success when implementing strategic change? The key is to do three things with ruthless consistency: Develop and sustain the right focus, create the right environment, and build the right team.

1. Develop the right focus

Concentrate your focus and prioritize your goals. Taking on too many strategic change initiatives at one time is a recipe for failure. Once you’ve identified potential strategic initiatives, evaluate them against criteria such as:

  • Resource requirements
  • Time to completion
  • Return on investment
  • Strategic impact
  • Payback timeline
  • Probability of success
  • Organizational trauma

Select a few strategic initiatives that best meet your criteria, making sure to select no more than what you can collectively and sufficiently resource. Then validate your choices by articulating the consequences of not executing each one. Are the consequences compelling? If so, there will be a stronger impetus to execute.

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To sustain focus — which is especially challenging in today’s world — conduct bi-weekly or monthly progress tracking meetings to ensure that time-linked milestones are being met and that potential obstacles are identified and countered. And be proactive in recalibrating your strategic initiatives in light of changing conditions.

2. Create the right environment

The right focus is essential, but unless you create an environment that closely aligns with that focus, your team isn’t likely to do what you need them to do. Creating the right environment requires you to do five things:

Connect the dots: For people to be engaged, they need a sense of purpose. But purpose alone isn’t enough. You must translate that sense of purpose into organizational goals and individual expectations. That makes purpose real and actionable.

Equip them to succeed: When a leader trumpets strategic change but doesn’t provide the resources to accomplish it, people get frustrated. When a leader provides skills but not the authority to apply them, people feel the leader doesn’t trust them.

Too often, leaders send mixed messages — their actions don’t back up their words. For any strategic initiative to succeed, you need to ensure that your team members have sufficient knowledge, skills, resources, and authority.

Don’t just manage – coach: Do your team members know how well they’re doing – and do they care? Be a coach, not a manager.

Coaches take responsibility for the performance of their team members. Coaches ask: What do I need to do to help each team member perform at their best? Coaches regularly provide team members with meaningful feedback and guidance about their performance. They regularly reinforce good performance and hold team members constructively accountable when expectations aren’t met.

Are your processes and policies optimized for the strategic change you need to execute? If not, you could be unwittingly undermining your efforts.

Design your organization to win: Few things irritate people more than when they want to do a good job but are prevented from doing so by cumbersome processes or restrictive policies. Are your processes and policies optimized for the strategic change you need to execute? If not, you could be unwittingly undermining your efforts.

Treat people as human beings first, employees second: When you consistently convey that you respect, trust, and care about your team members as individuals, you get discretionary effort — the above-and-beyond initiative that enhances your organization’s ability to execute. It can also help to relieve the anxiety that many are now experiencing.

3. Build the right team

All your efforts to develop the right focus and create the right environment will be wasted if you haven’t built the right team. In addition to the necessary skills and experience, look for three traits that are especially important today: adaptability, responsibility, and optimism.

In these turbulent times, you need people who can adapt to changing conditions and high-pressure situations, who take responsibility and don’t wait to be told what to do, and who embody an optimism that your organization can and will be successful.

These are challenging times. To adapt to our changing reality, your organization needs to be able to execute quickly and effectively. Develop and sustain the right focus. Create the right environment. Build the right team. Do all three with ruthless consistency.

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Michael Canic, PhD, is the author of RUTHLESS CONSISTENCY: How Committed Leaders Execute Strategy, Implement Change and Build Organizations That Win (September 1, 2020; McGraw Hill).