Two undeniable truths are that change is constant and change is inevitable.
We’ve seen this more than ever in recent years as businesses across industries are adapting to a post-pandemic economic landscape.
As human resources professionals, we play a crucial role in supporting our organizations through transformational change and bringing employees along on the journey.
Here I’ll explain how HR adds value by leading and supporting change initiatives and share a simple but impactful framework to help you develop a solid change management strategy that you can easily use for any project or plan.
What Is Change Management And Why Is It An Important Skill For HR Professionals?
SHRM defines change management as “The systematic approach and application of knowledge, tools, and resources to deal with change.”
Put simply, change management is a series of thoughtful and strategic steps designed to minimize the pain of change and maximize receptiveness to the shift from the current state to a future state.
As an HR professional, you’ve almost certainly participated in or led an organizational change initiative. In fact, you’ve likely been involved to some extent in tons of them.
Maybe you were integral in the rollout of a new performance management system, or perhaps you’ve been tasked with developing a hybrid work policy. Maybe you led the restructuring of smaller, leaner teams in the wake of a company layoff.
All of those things can be incredibly daunting when we think about how they affect actual people. It's no secret that humans are inherently resistant to change—we don’t want our well-established habits or routines interrupted.
There can also be fear at play in the resistance and, beyond resistance, what about employee engagement? How can we be sure people will be enthused and engaged in the change we’re implementing?
A good change management plan can ease those worries and give you the confidence to lead transitional events by providing you with a roadmap of strategic and intentional steps to follow.
Last year I was asked to develop and own the change management plan for a people initiative at work.
We were implementing a new HRIS, and I was responsible for ensuring that employees knew this new system was coming, how it would benefit them, and how and when to use the system once it went live.
Well, when it came time to get started I was at a loss on how to develop my plan, and what elements needed to be included. I needed a template to organize my ideas and create action so I started researching change management frameworks.
There are many useful and credible methodologies for creating a change management plan and not just one “correct” or definitive approach.
For instance, there’s the popular and widely used ADKAR Model from Prosci that emphasizes the importance of addressing a person’s journey through change and tailoring strategies to help them progress through each stage.
Then there’s the Kübler-Ross Change Curve which takes a different approach. It explains that people go through a series of emotional stages when experiencing grief, and the model has been adapted to apply to various situations of loss and change, including organizational change.
But the next model is my favorite, and it’s the one I used for my initiative, The Kotter Model.
This 8-step model recognizes change as an ongoing process, rather than a one-time event, and that continuous monitoring and adaptation are necessary to ensure the success of the change initiative.
I found it easy to incorporate my company’s cultural tenets into each of its steps, which helped me keep it relevant for our population, and I just really like the simplicity and the logic of the framework.
Here’s an overview of each step and how I put them into practice in developing the change management plan for my initiative:
Step One: Create a sense of urgency
My company was desperate for an HRIS as we needed a single source of truth for employee data that would empower managers to make informed decisions for their teams.
We were coming up on our annual merit cycle, and the process had always been manual and arduous.
Our new system would make merit planning significantly easier for our managers, so to create urgency and excitement we highlighted this event as an example of how they’re going to majorly benefit from the rollout of this new tool.
Step Two: Build a guiding coalition
The next step was to identify a coalition of “influencers” across the company.
These were people who were eager to get into the system, excited for its capabilities, and were early adopters of the change.
Most importantly, they were also people that others respected and would listen to and trust.
The influencers’ jobs were to be change champions and endorse why implementing the new system was the right move for our company and why it would ultimately help employees.
Step Three: Form a strategic vision
A group of us created a short but powerful “elevator pitch” to capture our vision. It included how the new system would improve our processes in efficiency, data accuracy, and reporting capability.
The goal of this elevator pitch was to help gain buy-in from extended stakeholders to help them better understand the need for the HRIS and it also served as a consistent and unified message for the HR team to use when speaking about the platform.
Step Four: Enlist a volunteer army
I was fortunate in that I had a team of people who offered to help me without me having to ask.
My volunteer army included a brilliant writer from our internal communications team, who helped me draft a series of company newsletter snippets about our new system, a newly hired HRIS analyst who was more than generous with her knowledge and helped me create training plans and job aids, and a whole group of wonderful HR Business Partners who shared their feedback and wisdom on how the aforementioned training and communication plans would be received by their client groups.
It truly took a small village!
Step Five: Enable action by removing barriers
Prior to the launch of our new HRIS, I created short, upbeat introduction videos with simple walkthroughs of the system, highlighting its features and ease of use so that our employees could start to become familiar with the platform before they were going to be required to use it.
I intentionally kept these videos high level and light because the point wasn’t to provide training at this stage, it was to remove the mystery and fear of the unknown to help build confidence in their ability to navigate the system.
Step Six: Generate short-term wins
Throughout the process, our HRIS implementation and project management teams identified critical deliverables for every step of the system build-out.
When those deliverables were met, my job was to make sure those wins were broadcast to the company as milestones, however small, to be celebrated as we progressed along on our journey
Step Seven: Sustain acceleration
As the system launch got closer, I coordinated and led training sessions for our managers.
At this point they had received a steady cadence of company newsletter updates informing them of the benefits of the new system and watched the introduction videos I created, so the layout of the platform was no longer a concern.
Now it was time to get hands-on, learn the system, and perform certain business processes themselves (which by the way was very exciting in itself because we hadn’t had a system with this kind of self-service capability before).
The managers were getting trained up on tasks they’d now not only be empowered to manage, they were also going to be responsible for them. This leveling up of their skills and accountability helped the continued momentum of where we were going.
Step Eight: Institute change
The time had finally arrived. Our shiny new HRIS was launched and ready for the whole company to use.
Now because we had an effective change management plan, our employees were armed with resources, tools, and knowledge well before their first login.
There was still one more giant step in the strategy, however. Sustaining the change. Moving to the new HRIS wasn’t a one-and-done event.
We needed people to know that this system was to be their go-to resource for all people data matters going forward. To keep things fun and encourage use, we gamified the initial login to the system by offering prizes to the first group of people who went in to verify the accuracy of their personal data.
We also hosted trivia and other events to test and reinforce people’s knowledge shortly after launch.
Finally, we slowly sunsetted the other platforms that were previously performing functions that our new system now handled and provided a library of resources to help guide people towards the HRIS and the new way to manage those tasks from now on.
We also created a ticketing system to deal with any issues people were experiencing and this helps us track usage metrics and identify any areas that need tweaking as we chug along.
Key Skills To Become A Change Leader
Now that you’ve read through my experience in creating a successful change management plan, you’re probably thinking of your own organization’s initiatives and how you can be the change-leading superhero they need.
Consider leaning into these key skills as you embark on your change leadership endeavors to ensure you’re set up for maximum wins.
- Communication skills. Clear and persuasive communication is essential. You need to be able to articulate the reasons for change, the impact of the change and its benefits to the business, and the steps involved in a way that resonates with your team and stakeholders. And don’t be afraid to over-communicate! I’ve yet to have anyone complain to me about being too informed.
- Emotional intelligence. Empathy and understanding emotions are important. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your employees and think about what actions your company could take to get you excited about a transition. Let that help to guide you. Remember that change can trigger various emotions in people, and an effective change leader knows how to navigate these with grace.
- Problem-solving. With change comes challenges. A change agent needs strong problem-solving skills to address obstacles and remove barriers. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your networks and SMEs (remember your village!) to help find creative solutions to anything you may be struggling with. You aren’t expected to have all of the answers but you should know where to go to find them.
- Strategic thinking. A change leader needs to be able to see and understand the big picture and create a change plan that aligns with the organization's goals and cultural principles. In essence, you need to be able to demonstrate why the change makes sense for the company and how it benefits and enhances the employee experience.
- Listening skills. Active listening helps you understand concerns, gather insights, and involve employees in the change process. Truly hearing and acknowledging the concerns of your teams and stakeholders will help you create a plan that addresses those concerns and will instill confidence that the organization has their back and will be with them for the ride, every step of the way. Here are some tips for active listening when gathering feedback:
- Set clear objectives to let people know what you are looking for feedback on. This will help them provide focused and relevant input.
- Listen with the intent to learn. Pay attention to what the other person is saying without interrupting them. Ask clarifying questions if needed.
- Ask open-ended questions to encourage detailed responses rather than just yes or no answers. For example, “Can you tell me more about your experience using this system for onboarding new employees?”.
- If possible, follow up after implementing changes to let people know their feedback was helpful and taken seriously.
Honing Your strategy
Change management is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You’ll need to determine what strategy works best for your organization’s goals and company culture and be willing to be flexible and shift course where needed.
And don’t worry if you’re new to all of this. With experience, some trial and error, and actively seeking opportunities for continuous learning and improvement, you’ll become much more adept at leading change efforts.
Remember that as HR leaders we play a meaningful role in organizational growth. With well-designed change plans that consider the needs and well-being of your employees, you’ll find that people will eagerly embrace the transitions that help further your company’s evolution.
Some further resources:
- How to Become an Effective Change Leader
- How to Build Emotional Intelligence And Be A Better Leader
- 13 Best Communication Courses
- How To Listen Better, A Look At The Different Levels Of Listening
- Improving HR Processes: A 4-Step Process
You can reach out to me in the comments or find me over in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders generously sharing knowledge to help you progress in your career and create impact at your organization.