Sustaining Change Momentum

In order to keep change initiatives moving forward, experts say, HR needs to help managers get better at keeping their teams informed, enable them to be successful with the right training and hands-on coaching, and keep them engaged throughout the process.

Monday, September 16, 2013
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Most organizations' HR leaders know that effective change management is critical, but they also know they haven't figured out how to sustain it, according to new research.

More than half (55 percent) of employers participating in the 2013 Towers Watson Change and Communication ROI Survey say their change-management initiatives meet initial objectives, but only one in four say they are able to sustain gains over the long term.

Achieving long-term change requires a focus on manager training, says Brad Messinger, a Boston-based senior change management consultant at Towers Watson.

"We're suggesting [that] perhaps it's not about top down," Messinger says. "Maybe we need to do a better job of getting our managers skilled and able to handle it on their own. At a local level, organizations are not fantastic at managing change."

Though nearly nine out of 10 survey respondents (87 percent) train their managers to manage change initiatives, less than one fourth of all respondents (22 percent) say their training is effective, according to the study, conducted in June among 276 large and midsize organizations from North America, Europe and Asia.

Messinger says organizations should help managers be better at informing their teams, enable them to be successful with the right training and hands-on coaching and keep them engaged.

Communicate early and often, he says.

"What tends to happen is a brilliant communication campaign comes down from the top," he says. "But by the time [the campaign hits the management level] they sort of miss the boat. So help managers be comfortable communicating in ambiguity and be comfortable saying, 'I don't know.'

He recommends organizations provide managers with interactive training - where they can practice speaking clearly about unclear topics.

Though those in the HR field are used to talking about employee engagement, they shouldn't assume their managers are, he says.

"The importance of employee engagement doesn't always filter down to managers," he says, "so you have to train them on how to keep employees engaged -- asking for input, involving employees in the change and going first [via] role modeling. You also need to help managers understand why people resist change; how we're wired."

The challenge to HR, he says, will be to avoid trends to provide e-learning or online training for handling change.

"This type of training becomes more successful as in-person sessions, as opposed to computer based," Messinger says. "In many organizations, you don't want to take managers off the floor, but you have to look at what initiatives are worthwhile. Given how important the manager is in change management and the fact that change is the only constant, making the investment in time and capabilities and putting them in an interactive environment is crucial."

Research from the Institute for Corporate Productivity in Seattle highlights some of the same concepts as those in the Towers Watson research. The institute's report, Critical Human Capital Issues 2013, shows that the No. 1 critical issue cited by organizations is "managing and coping with change."

In fact, three of the report's top ten issues involve dealing with change.

"Our research shows it becomes increasingly more important, and yet we're getting worse at it," says Kevin Martin, the institute's chief research and marketing officer. "There are a couple ways we are looking at change: managing and coping with change for individuals and organizational change."

Again, success appears to be connected to manager effectiveness, he says.

"When you look at organizational change, it's gone up in importance among both high- and low-performance organizations. In high-performance organizations, about 91 percent view managing and coping with change, which is very much about the individual or the leader, as being highly important. For low performers, it's relatively flat."

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Agility, for both an organization and its managers, can mean the difference between change management success and failure, Martin says, and the institute has developed nine keys to leadership agility. Among those is providing executives with coaching in leadership agility.

"One of the greatest opportunities here is at the individual level, starting with the leaders," he says. "It all comes down to agility, being able to model from the top down. You can recruit outside or bring in external coaches and then make sure that reward, promotion systems and development systems are building in that type of agility."

Training and coaching should be an integral part of any strategic planning, he says, so talent aspects of change management should be built into any change.

"Oftentimes, business leaders are building their business strategy and then they're going to HR. There's a component in leadership development programs where they should be focused on training business leaders. The idea is, 'No business plan without a talent plan.' HR has to teach the importance of strategic workforce training."

More companies are investing in change management as a core competency, according to the 2012 Best Practices in Change Management benchmarking report published by Loveland, Colo.-based research company Prosci. Of the 650 respondents in the report, 35 percent have created a change management office or change management functional group, and nearly 25 percent located the office within human resources. (More of Prosci's benchmarking data is available here.)

Maintaining manager engagement begins with helping managers understand the importance of their role in change implementation, says Mike Davis, global affiliate network director at Prosci's Change Management Learning Center.

"Change is a process, not an event," he says. "And training that enables managers to go through a process of their own is the best way to keep momentum. A critical component of leveraging managers includes acknowledgment that managers are employees first and managers second. Managers, too, must understand the business drivers for change, expectations of their role and how this change will impact both their team and themselves."


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