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Five Easy Ways to Establish a Change Culture

by Michael Mandel
February 05, 2020

The time has come, after months of deliberation, you and your team have finalized on the perfect vendor. With this new software, your team will increase productivity levels, mitigate manual overhead, and above all else - lift their spirits with this newfound efficiency! Cue the crowd to cheer to sounds of “We Are the Champions,” right? 

Don’t get ahead of yourselves.  

In no way are we saying that technology does not improve overall work quality, but to expect an immediate impact is misguided. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch. In fact, according to Forbes, 54% of tech projects fail due to poor management. The other reasons included failures in leadership, management, and communication. Every single one of these reasons falls under basic change management principles. While this seems obvious, many organizations fail to acknowledge the fundamental impact of change, missing the mark entirely on effectively managing change initiatives, and instead expecting employees and clients to simply “get with the program.” 

Embracing change is imperative, as now more than ever. We live in a world where technology has become intrinsic and engrained in our life so that it’s practically become invisible. Even the simplest of tasks require the use of technology. And that’s just on a personal level – consider the world’s largest brands and how the beginning of the last decade saw many (if not all) of them embrace digital transformation strategies. Technology is the driver for change, and naturally how an organization manages change.  

If you’re willing to invest hundreds of thousands (even millions) of dollars in technology, it’s only logical to embrace a Change Culture. Change is inevitable but establishing a culture that destigmatizes the notion without trivializing the effort it can take, can transform an organization top to bottom.   

Following are five easy-to-implement steps to help you establish a successful change culture along with a with an example of how we drink our champagne, here at Mediaocean: 

  1. Understand current and future state 

Know where you are coming from, where you want to go and why you want to go there. This is fundamental to a successful change culture, as it sets the context for understanding what is necessary to get from point A to point B. Believe it or not, this step is often missed entirely in communications around decisions at a key stakeholder level, which inevitably sets everyone up for failure. How many times have you learned of a notable change at your company without any communication around what is changing and why? Without this knowledge, you are not able to identify the areas being changed and address any gaps that need special focus. Employees and clients will feel lost and confused and may find themselves focusing on less important details. It’s also important to highlight the upstream and downstream impacts of the change, perhaps impacting people and processes you may not have considered. 

Drinking our own Champagne: As an example, Mediaocean implemented a new project management tool for our professional services team. Our key objectives included centralizing project information and automating routine processes with a goal of decreasing administration and enabling more productive and robust client engagements. In order to achieve our desired outcome, we had to analyze our workflows further by answering some key questions: What are all the steps of our current processes? What are the pros and cons of the current workflow? How are those steps changing? What steps are we removing, and what steps are we adding? Who will benefit from these changes, and who may have extra steps in their daily workflow? By going through this exercise, we found we needed to adjust our deployment approach, and we came to understand that the impact would be broader than originally expected. Our training team, for example, would also use this tool, but our finance team would not.  How was the communication with our finance team going to work? We made sure to address this gap with buy-in from the finance team to ensure a smooth transition to the new tool. 

  1. Champions are the secret sauce 

Projects tend to focus on the tactical steps needed for execution rather than the associated, and very real, human aspects of change. As part of developing a change culture, we must have visible, active sponsorship throughout the organization, including senior leadership and champions within the impacted groups.  

When we launched our new project management tool, we carefully selected a small (but mighty) team of champions who were engaged throughout the project and helped make decisions that affected daily processes. Because they had direct input, the champions naturally became invested in the success of the new tool and advocated for related changes.  

  1. Communicate. Rinse. Repeat.  

We’ve all heard this a million times: good communication is a critical aspect of fill-in-the-blank. In this case – developing your change culture. It’s so true, though. Effective communication will help reduce uncertainty for your stakeholders as you bring them along on the change journey. The communication around change should be consistent and transparent – highlight the good and acknowledge the bad.  

We presented the implementation of our new project management tool as a journey. We knew we needed to understand and clearly articulate our current and future states, the capabilities of the tools, and the available customizations. While the project team, including our champions, worked through this, we provided frequent updates to our stakeholder groups. For directly impacted teams, we included demos at different milestones to demonstrate progress. We openly invited and addressed feedback, which gave stakeholders a sense of purpose and helped mitigate some of the negative feelings around change, such as grief of no longer being an expert and anger at not being included. We were transparent about areas where we did not yet have answers and where changes may not be desirable for everyone.  

For less-impacted stakeholders, who needed only to be kept informed, we provided a regular cadence of updates to highlight achieved milestones and realized benefits.   

Never underestimate the power of repetition. We drilled in on the benefits of the new tool until everyone knew our goals and understood why we were making changes, and then we continued to drill in. We also found it helpful to bring in other senior leaders to highlight and promote the benefits, which broadened the messaging and provided a bigger picture. 

By taking the time to build a thoughtful, effective communication plan, we provided insights and information throughout the process, which led to quick adoption by our stakeholders, even those less enthusiastic about the new tool. As a result, we realized the benefits of the new tool earlier than expected. 

  1. Small wins deserve a dance 

Projects are not completed overnight.  It may seem like ages before you can celebrate the fruit of your labor. Unfortunately, long timelines tend to dilute positive perceptions of the change and can instead bolster bad feelings, including impatience and distrust. Highlighting small wins along the way helps to manage perceptions and demonstrate tangible benefits. Avoid the trap of laziness here – it’s easy to let time slip by and say you’ll cover the next small win, or the next, or the next. If you realize you have fallen into this trap, acknowledge it and fix it immediately. It’s never too late.  

We intentionally added small wins to our communication approach when we launched our new project management tool. For example, when a report became available or a set of new fields was deployed, we took advantage of these small wins as opportunities to highlight our progress and demonstrate benefits to our stakeholders. Taking the time to do this created a series of positive stories which, in turn, added tactical benefits to the more strategic objectives of the change initiative. 

  1. Promote engagement through support 

Lastly, have a thoughtful plan on how you will support stakeholders impacted by the change. Consider training strategies and reference materials that account for different learning styles. Also, and we can’t stress this enough, remind yourself that people have emotions! Don’t forget to acknowledge the emotional aspect of the change, particularly for employees who are greatly affected by it. It’s natural to expect everyone to be on board without complaint, but you must make the effort to support employees throughout their change journey and encourage them to focus on the positives vs. dwelling on the negatives.  

During our launch, we instituted a few programs to support our employees. We leveraged our champions and training team to produce training courses and content to give employees everything they required to become experts on our new tool. We supplemented this with office hours for the first few weeks. We also set up a “support desk” for questions and feedback. The combination of these programs provided comprehensive support above and beyond training.  

Organizations would be wise to look at their current culture and overall outlook on change management, particularly when 88% of businesses expect IT budgets to increase or remain as is in the next year – meaning more projects, more implementations, and if done right, faster time-to-value. Technology isn’t slowing down nor is our intention to buy more of it. You do not need to undergo formal change management training to becoming a change-sensitive leader. You do not need everyone to like the change initiative you are sponsoring. What you do need is an awareness and acceptance of why change is hard, and a commitment to use these simple tools to foster a culture of change.