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Ten Tenets of Change Management

by Larry Pendergrass, Principal


Adapting to change
Tenet #1: Fully understand and respect the past.
Tenet #2: Learn together why change is necessary.
Tenet #3: Create your guiding coalition.
Tenet #4: Break it down into phases.
Tenet #5: Over-communicate. Be consistent. Make it simple.
Tenet #6: Empower decision-making consistent with the vision.
Tenet #7: Plan, recognize and celebrate short term wins.
Tenet #8: Expect, identify and validate the grief process.
Tenet #9: Recognize that some will not make the change.
Tenet #10: Be visible. Be involved.

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Adapting to change

Years ago I was given a new role as manager of a group of engineers. A subordinate engineer proudly told me “I have always chosen my own boss, not the other way around.” He was happy to announce “I have decided to let you manage me.” Although a fallacy, some people need a feeling of complete control of their lives.

Others are able to think of life as one big adventure, and to view change as a part of that adventure. No two people adapt to change in the same way. It is often your job as the leader of your organization to help people not only accept a necessary change, but to embrace it, to turn their fear of the future into an exciting problem to be solved. You may also have to identify those people who will not adapt to the change, and plan for their exit.

There are times when the “my way or the highway” method of change is necessary due to the urgency of the situation. This approach may be justified, for instance, if your company is standing on the precipice of bankruptcy and you must ram through aggressive, unpopular and non-negotiable changes. If you must use this approach, the residual negative impact will be felt for many years, and should only be used in a “save-the-firm” situation. More often than not, you get better results through capturing the minds and hearts of people rather than relying solely on position power to drive your agenda.

To be successful in managing change, you need a keen understanding of the current business situation, a clear vision of a better future, a high level of social awareness, and relationship management skills. Every change management event must be tailored for the culture and the business issues that face the affected organization. That said there are certain tenets that can be formulated, a set of immutable principles that will apply in essentially all change management situations.

The following tenets act as a reminder when beginning a significant change:

  1. Understand and respect the past.
  2. Learn together why change.
  3. Create your guiding coalition.
  4. Break it down into phases.
  5. Communicate simply, consistently
  6. Empower decision-making.
  7. Celebrate short term wins.
  8. Expect, validate the grief process.
  9. Accept some will not make it.
  10. Be visible. Be involved.


Tenet #1: Fully understand and respect the past.

Although the author has faded into obscurity, this Japanese saying lives on in many beautiful Japanese calligraphy paintings. The future can only be built on a respect and an appreciation for what has come before. You must know why the choices of well-meaning and intelligent people were correct at some point in the past, but no longer work.

Years ago I was asked to transfer to another division of my company to work in a market new to me. I started by interviewing about 50 internal experts in the field in order to understand the state-of-the-art and the current assumptions of the day. The result was powerful. Not only had I bootstrapped myself to a much better understanding, but I had validated and respected the tremendous knowledge of these experts. I gained their respect partially because I gave them respect; and when it came time to challenge many of the assumptions of the day during the following years, I could move the thinking of the organization much more easily and quickly. Recognition of the past, and a respect for those who came before, is necessary to gain followership; and without strong followership change is much more difficult.

Your sponsors usually expect fast results if you have been hired to drive change. There is a sweet-spot in time to act; if you act too soon, you may not have the knowledge and the followership for success. You are naïve, and may take the organization in a wrong direction. But, if you wait too long to act, you will become convinced like everyone else that change is not possible, or worse, that nothing should change. You become part of the problem.

Take time to recognize the past, to understand the current situation, to respect those who have come before you. But don’t wait too long.


Tenet #2: Learn together why change is necessary.

If you are brought in to be a change agent in a new company or a new job within the same company, the chances are good that you are not well-known by the new people with whom you work. You have not yet earned their trust, but they will follow you because you have the position power. You receive positive feedback from your teams even while they question your wisdom, your capability, and your right to be in your position. In this circumstance, going off into a dark room to analyze the organization’s problems and returning with a proclamation of a new vision will not engender a strong followership.

Borrowing from Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And education of those people that will be called upon to suffer through the impending chaos of a changing organization will benefit any leader driving that change. Rather than force-feeding your results to your staff, a more powerful approach is to learn through joint diagnosis of the problem. Enlist the aid of your key well-respected leaders to understand what is preventing or threatening your leadership in the industry, both from inside and outside of the company. Through joint diagnosis of the problem, few will be left who challenge the need to make the change.


Tenet #3: Create your guiding coalition.

Leaders need to enlist the help of influential and respected people that will refine, guide and execute the plan. A leader banging the cadence drum alone, without the clear support and involvement of other key personnel from around the organization will lose impact, sounding detached from the reality of day-to-day business. A leader driving change must gather and charter a powerful guiding coalition. A properly selected group will add vitality and validity, and extend the reach of the leader into all corners of the organization.

I worked in organization that had suffered a massive, sudden reduction in revenue and profits. Significant change was needed. At a time when spirits were very low, the leader of this organization was able to re-invigorate a management team that had been beaten and bruised. The need for each person to act as an emissary was flawlessly articulated. His passion made it hard to not be on board. We were there to be the catalysts and caretakers of a new organization.

Rolling out significant change requires substantial help. It requires people you can trust, people that have worked with you to understand the need for change, the stakes and the sense of urgency. They should be well respected, have authority to act, and possess solid decision-making skills. Choose them carefully, help them understand what needs to be done, charter them well and send them out to drive change.


Tenet #4: Break it down into phases.

Seldom is it the case that you can afford to dedicate people fully to a project to usher in change. In a world where employees are already expected to pay for increased productivity numbers by putting in extra hours, the news that more work will be added in the name of change is seldom welcome.

In our exuberance to show significant progress and to achieve our ultimate goals, all too often we reach too far, too soon. The result can be a project that is crushed under its own weight. To better gain support and the mindshare of the organization, split your ultimate goal into smaller phases with a clear and useful outcome at the end of each one. Besides gaining buy-in, two other benefits of the phased approach are better risk management and timely recognition of your people.

Sudden changes in the firm’s ownership or leadership, significant industry issues, or major customer problems are just a few ways your change project faces risk. The result may be the cancellation of your project and the loss of significant but unfinished work that would have had importance to the ongoing enterprise. Breaking the change project into phases allows for a useful output to be generated in the face of an uncertain future, and before the change project can be threatened by cancellation. Also, the results of the first phases can illuminate the work to follow. The first phase can be thought of as “buying an option” to execute following phases.

Finally, a phased approach allows the closure necessary to give frequent recognition for your team’s hard work. For greater success, break your plans for change down into phases.


Tenet #5: Over-communicate. Be consistent. Make it simple.

No matter how many times you think you have given the same message during a significant organizational change, give it again, and again, and again! Remember that while the future is crystal clear in your mind and in the mind of your guiding coalition, most of the organization is entrenched in their current paradigm. Even if you have given the single most eloquent speech of your life, as they walk out of your turning-point meeting and go back to their day jobs the message is fading away with every step. The tyranny of the urgent takes over. Most of the people in your organization are worried about fulfilling the daily expectations of the firm using current processes, tools and roles. What is to come, the vapor-ware you offer, the future you are presenting will be believed when it impacts them.
But sooner or later it will impact them. You need to prepare them for that time. You can also lengthen the retention of your message by (1) being consistent and (2) making the message simple.

Firm it up first. Refine your strategy and message before taking it to the broad audience. Be sure it is the right one. While leaders need to show that they are movable should the data demand it, too much wavering causes a loss of faith in leadership and produces a confused and unengaged workforce.

Secondly, make sure your message is clear and simple to recall and share with whomever asks. If someone has to refer to a poster on a wall to read what changes are coming, you have not made the message clear enough.

Over-communicate, be consistent, and make it simple.


Tenet #6: Empower decision-making consistent with the vision.

As Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” All too often leaders set themselves up to be the only decision maker for their change management projects. The result in some firms has been that top management is the bottleneck on many decisions.

I like to compare the style of the American football coach to that of the soccer (or European football) coach. In American football, we see the coaches barking out orders from their playbook from the sidelines to the quarterback. The quarterback in turn barks out orders to the rest of the team. This organizational style works well in a game where, after each play, the game is stopped and new orders are given.

In contrast, the “soccer coach” or “European football” style follows a more decentralized decision-making environment. There is still a clear leader articulating the vision, mission and goals and acting as trainer and final decision maker for the toughest decisions, but decision-making is largely distributed. Decisions are driven down to the lowest possible level. This method optimizes for multi-tasking, development of new leaders and involvement and buy-in from all in on the team. It may also optimize for speed, but without proper coaching you may see risky or inappropriate actions taken by some.

When a fast game starts and nearly continuous play is expected, there is no time to continually ask the coach’s permission and guidance for every play. Success relies on a motivated, trained, self-directed team to make decisions in an ever shifting landscape, decisions consistent with the overall mission.

Empower your people to drive toward the future. This action will not only speed the process and release top leaders for other strategic efforts, but improve the solution generation and the degree of buy-in at all levels in the organization.


Tenet #7: Plan, recognize and celebrate short term wins.

Tenet #5 encouraged you to break your change project down into phases, but you should go further. You should assure that within the phases you have milestones to recognize, ways to encourage and reasons to celebrate. Your team needs to see progress, to know that their efforts above and beyond the normal day’s work are paying off, and the more frequently you are able to demonstrate and recognize this progress, the more effective you will be in encouraging your team to continue in the fight for change.

As an example, in your overall plan to change the direction of your firm you may have a technology or business acquisition phase, an outsourcing phase and a legacy product obsolescence phase. In the technology acquisition phase which may span several years, find intermediate milestones (such as signed partnerships for a specific technology or business need) to celebrate.

You as a leader need to sponsor interim celebrations to drive home the point that your team is making progress. Otherwise, it is easy for these small wins to get lost in the chaos of everyday work.


Tenet #8: Expect, identify and validate the grief process.

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is perhaps best known for the five stages of grief model. While originally formulated to help in counseling during the grief process for death and dying, this model is transferable to expected stages for any kind of emotional upset or personal change. The stages in the grief model are:

  • Denial: This change cannot be happening! The facts are wrong!
  • Anger: This change should NOT be happening! Whose fault is it?
  • Bargaining: How can I keep this change from happening?
  • Depression: I have no power to stop this change. All is lost.
  • Acceptance: I guess it is what it is. How can I work with this change?

It should be noted that people do not always move through these stages sequentially. Often people will go through iterations, apparently make progress toward acceptance and then fall back to one of the other stages. No two people react in the same way with difficult news. Some will pass through the cycle very quickly while others will work more slowly through the stages. As a leader, you need to recognize that this grief process is real and will delay your people from helping with your change management process.

Succeeding through the grief process will take the right combination of passion with compassion, drive with allowing time, and messaging with listening. In addition, it is important for you to recognize the grief cycle in yourself. As they say on the airlines, you must first “put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you”.

Your role in change management is not to isolate and protect everyone from the change, but to help others get past the grief cycle and become productive participants in the change. There may be no stopping this change, but you can, as an effective change leader, help others make the best of it and even embrace the change as providing new and exciting opportunities.

Ignore the grief cycle at your peril. Keep your eye on your key leaders, your guiding coalition aiding in your change management process. If they are not through the grief cycle, they cannot be your best advocates.


Tenet #9: Recognize that some will not make the change.

 “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Lao Tzu

Not everyone can live the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, allowing change to flow into their lives without resistance. As hard as Lao Tzu’s advice sounds to follow, your people must eventually accept the changes imposed upon them. Those who are not able to do so will become a drag on your forward movement as an organization. Your role in the process includes bringing as many people as possible forward into the new vision. But no matter how you have recognized and appreciated the past, how you have painted a compelling vision, how you counsel, who you enlist to carry the message to the masses, how consistent you are with that message, and how often you recognize progress; there will still be some people who will not come along for the ride.

It is not always easy to recognize those who will not make the final journey. It is not necessarily those who, in the beginning and with good intention, argue with you about the change. Often critical thinking and vocal challenging of the goal is essential to the acceptance process, and to shape the vision for ultimate success. If your requirement is for a future organization that values constructive contention (and I certainly hope it is… see my Ten Tenets of Leadership) you need to be careful not to squash these challenges too early in the process.

At some point, the challenging has to stop, decisions are made and you need to be able to move forward with confidence, knowing that your team is with you. At this point, the negative impact of those who are not bought into your plan cannot be over-emphasized. Identifying them as early as possible is essential. Take action sooner rather than later, or your change management project will be in jeopardy.


Tenet #10: Be visible. Be involved.

Periods of great change are seen as periods of danger. In times of great danger, a leader leads from the front, clearing the path and showing, not just telling the way. In your change management project, you must be out in front, fully visible and highly involved. It is not enough to stand and the rear and point the direction. Remember that you are charting a course into scary and uncertain territory. Many will fear for their jobs, or at least fear the way their tasks will need to be performed after the change. Having a leader that is as fully committed to the success or failure of the project as the change management team, one who has the same agenda and stands to lose or gain in the same way is essential to obtaining the necessary dedication from the team.

Leaders show their priorities by when they are visible and where they spend their time. It’s not only important that you reiterate the vision and state its importance of change in formal gatherings. You signal the entire organization concerning the primacy of a given project by whether or not you show up to status meetings, mention  its progress at your organization-wide presentations, publicly recognize individuals for their significant contributions and work to clear the path for project success.

Do not delegate this critical change management project completely, even to your most trusted employee. If this is a critical juncture in your business, if this is a time of danger, if this is of the highest priority, if you want people to follow you, then you must lead and show ownership for this project.



“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” - Rosalynn Carter

These are words of wisdom. I would add that a great leader takes people where they ought to be with a full understanding of how to move minds, to shift hearts and to bring people into a new vision of what the future will bring for them. A great leader understands how to take people through the grief of change to not only acceptance but the full embrace of this change. The great leader understands change management and knows that painting the right vision is only a small fraction of the work the leader must do to move an organization. The great leader knows how to lead people to their own realization of the need for change, and of the power within themselves to accomplish, even drive that change.

Remember these tenets as you begin your next change project, and you will realize greater success.


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