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Change Adoption Takes Awareness, and That’s Not Easy

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This is probably going to sound silly but indulge me for a couple of minutes. Whether you are interested in change adoption at an individual or at an organizational level, awareness is one of the first things, and most important things, you need to nail down.

I’m not telling you something you don’t already know. But there is a depth of awareness needed within a change that we don’t pay enough attention to. And it gets in the way of smooth adoption of our change initiatives. And that’s a problem.

It is so much of a problem that it shows up in high level success measures for projects and change initiatives. And it has been showing up for years. For instance, in 2018 ApePM out of the UK posted a collection of Project Management Statistics. One of the gathered statistics is from the University of Ottawa and it claims that 33% of projects fail because of lack of involvement from management. A 2016 article in Construction Executive cites lack of consensus among leaders communicating the importance of a change as the primary reason for initiatives to fail. In 2015, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill posted that a top area for improvement when implementing change initiatives is having a clear vision of intended outcome. Way back in 2004, the American Management Association published that projects fail because there is lack of alignment between key players and the project is not clearly defined at the executive level.

The theme is consistent and withstands the test of time; projects fail because we fail to raise our level of awareness about the change. We don’t take the time to understand what is changing, why it is good or bad, who is impacted and who the heck is supposed to support and talk about the change.

Awareness of What?

The problem with a word like awareness is that it is vague. Awareness can relate to virtually anything. So, let’s set some parameters.

In a changing environment, awareness of the current situation and the future situation becomes fundamental. As does understanding why the change needs to happen at all, the benefits it is hoped to bring, who is affected by the change, how they will likely react to the change and how much change is already affecting those same folks.

That is a lot of awareness! If that is not bad enough, it gets a bit more involved when we look at who needs to be aligned and talking about / supporting the change.

As an example, let’s look at a shop floor employee named Flynn. Flynn works in Department X and he is currently working on a cross functional project team with Bess in Department Y. Department X is about to initiate a change; they are streamlining their internal processes to reduce waste. Because work moves through Department X and Y, there will be some impact to Department Y.

Below is the organizational chart for Departments X and Y. Let’s see how many people need to be aware of the change to help Flynn begin his change journey.

Department X is straightforward. Mary is the VP with three Directors supporting her. Tom is one of the directors and he has three managers reporting to him, of which Asha is one. Flynn reports to Asha. Kat works in the same group as Flynn and is his peer.

Department Y is like Department X in structure. The only interface Flynn has with Department Y is with Bess, a peer who works on a cross functional project team with Flynn.

Direct chain of command — the green boxes

Based on Department X hierarchy, the people in the green boxes are in Flynn’s management chain and they must be aware of the change. More, they need to align on supporting the change and speak about the change consistently. Asha has the added duty of understanding Flynn and what his response might be to the change.

The research and statistics cited above shows that Mary, Tom and Asha need to be aware and aligned on the change, but they probably will not. In the heat of a change implementation, that awareness and alignment may be attempted with talking points and a slide deck. But what they need is some time meeting together where they cover in detail the change and how they will support it.

Peers and influencers — the orange boxes

Then there are Flynn’s peers, who have influence on Flynn’s thinking (orange boxes). Consider Bess from department Y. Department Y is not initiating this change. The new process may impact how Flynn works with Bess in the future. Imagine Flynn explaining a change to Bess that 1) Flynn just learned about and 2) Bess’ management is unaware of and does not support. Consider the potential confusion that creates at the shop floor level of the organization. That confusion adds to the risk of failure for the change initiative.

Now imagine how different that situation is if Bess is aware of the change and knows her management supports it when Flynn discusses it with her in a team meeting. How much easier does implementing the change become on the shop floor?

Managers of peers and influencers — the gray boxes

As we can see, the cross functional relationship between Bess and Flynn increases the depth of change awareness for the combined departments. Pratik, Steph and Dell (gray boxes) need to be aware of and support the change as well and communicate that to Bess.

While Bess is not Flynn’s boss, as a peer she may have more influence on Flynn than his boss. Therefore, ensuring the same level of awareness and support through Bess’s management chain becomes important.

Something so easy gets complicated quickly

To be effective, we must spread and align awareness through the people in the green boxes AND the gray boxes to reach Flynn and his peers in the orange boxes. When we do this, we eliminate confusion at the shop floor level. Flynn and his peers are aware of what’s going on and are getting a consistent message and perception of support from their managers. They can move through their change journeys much quicker, increasing odds of success for Department X’s change initiative.

Being aware of the change and spreading awareness is hard. Its involved. More involved than we think when we hold that first kick off meeting. The trick is combining the elements of awareness, “What do I need to know about this change?” with the people bringing the awareness, “Who needs to know about, support AND communicate this change?”

Flynn is not going to get on board with the change if he is not aware of the change. And he may very well get frustrated and linger in the low point of his change journey if he is battling confusion on the shop floor, gets conflicting messages or sees inconsistent behaviors from management about the change.

Check for awareness

Change practitioners have the tools to make all of this happen. Again, it’s the depth that needs to be considered. Do we know what is changing, why its changing, can we describe the future state, are we aware of everyone who really needs to be included and on board and communicating the change? It is not the tools, or the know — how, it’s the time we take to ensure we have the depth right.

On your next change initiative, check for depth of awareness. Question yourself and your team about the depth of awareness regarding the change. If you are unhappy with the responses, you may need to dig a little deeper to raise everyone’s awareness.

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"The only constant in life is change." – Heraclitus

Such is true for life, as it is for business. The entire ecosystem our organization operates in—our customers, competitors, suppliers, partners, the company itself, etc.—is constantly changing and evolving. Change can be driven by emerging technology, regulation, leadership change, crisis, changing consumer behavior, new business entrants, M&A activity, organizational restructuring, and so forth.

Thus, the understanding of, dealing with, and mastery of the Change Management process is one of the most critical capabilities for our organization to develop. Excellence in Change Management should be viewed as a source of Competitive Advantage.

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About John Pryor

John Pryor is an accomplished Change Management leader and host of Change-Corner.com. He has spent the last 12 years leading and consulting on organizational change on a global level. You can connect with John through LinkedIn or through his website Change-Corner.com.

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