6 steps to implement Sustainable Change in your organization

    We at Zarghami & Zimmermann Corporate Consulting Group have a combined professional experience of 100+ years in change management and know that corporations – especially enterprises – often struggle with implementing change. This may be due to acquisitions, mergers, fast growth, compatibility, new market requirements, or other circumstances that lead to or require change. Often it is met with resistance, and this might cause internal (and sometimes even external) conflict that can obstruct productivity and performance. In fast-moving and global markets, it is undoubtedly necessary to be dynamic and adaptive, but how do you respond to the challenges that come with it in a sustainable way and in alignment with your entire organization?

    Our experts studied these issues and have determined these six essential best practices that we believe will help you draft your roadmap to achieve sustainable change.

    1. Expect resistance

    Research in human behavior shows that people feel safer and more secure if they can find a certain level of predictability in their personal as well as professional lives. Therefore, they prefer to establish and follow some structure and rules, but this can be difficult to modify once they make it into their comfort zone. Hence, resistance to change is a natural response and can be understood as a protection mechanism, so you should expect resistance to happen.

    Resistance to change happens out of emotions, whether based on facts or not. As a manager or an organization, show empathy and allow your teams to express their doubts to help them increase trust and reduce anxiety. Listen carefully and be grateful for the valuable feedback that you will receive from their responses. Try not to fight resistance but to understand the origin of it. It may arise from a perceived lack of resources or skills, fears of the unknown or lack of trust, misalignment in culture, or lack of information; the reasons for resistance are varied, but they all are approachable. Become curious and you will find the answers to solutions directly in the problem.

    It’s important to understand that you will encounter resistance and it will impact your undertaking, but also that you can prepare for it. Include it into your plans and timelines. Have change managers that can interact not only as champions but also as ambassadors. Provide resources and information and frequently align your project among all relevant parties. In the following, we will discuss some further steps to approach change projects in your organization to help you build your solution for your unique project.

    2. Culture is key

    Whether at a macro level (due to national and international differences) or at a very personal level (developed throughout one’s lifetime experiences), every person’s culture responds differently to change. Some people and groups have developed a high-risk tolerance, whereas others have been taught to be more conservative. For some cultures, change and adoption is even part of their world view; others seek security and stability and try to hold onto known concepts. Hence, you will find that some people actively seek change to feel motivated (or at least they will feel comfortable with being flexible), while others resist it for diverse (yet valid) reasons.

    It is important not to let those differences and nuances lead to serious, obstructive conflicts within the organization, but instead to understand and talk about them openly so that people feel heard and understood – and become able to open up to ideas. But do approach this in an organic way. For example: Don’t try to force change on a group of individuals whose culture (national, organizational, personal) may be resistant to this change. Instead, find different ways to convince and motivate them. Don’t forget also that resistance is not always related to someone’s unwillingness but sometimes due to the (most likely unconscious) ignorance of circumstances of the party that tries to implement change.

    Most people have the same goals – being valuable to the company and progressing their career – though they might manifest differently. And it’s precisely these differences that can explain people’s decision-making processes around success. Learn about those differences; try to understand people’s responses and determine how to find solutions based on different needs. A general basic understanding of cultural diversity and a certain level of cultural competencies can be trained, and both are helpful to avoid conflicts that might be caused through misunderstandings. If, in your organization, you find yourself being confronted with exactly these cross-cultural challenges, start with cross-cultural training and coaching; bringing disparate groups together can be crucial for the success of the change process.

    Another word regarding culture: Just like existing culture influences thinking and processes in an organization, implementing change and creating something new will form a new culture in itself. Any culture, including organizational culture, is not something that can be forced upon people; it is created and develops organically with time. If your organization is at a stage at which change processes are happening, invite the teams to actively participate in building a culture in which everyone can feel comfortable, rather than trying to decide on a culture that you as a manager or an organization want to see.

    3. The adoption matrix

    The Harvard Business Review recently released an article about different responses of employees to digitalization in corporations. In this article, they categorized people into four types by assessing their extent of belief that the transformation matters and their level of confidence in their own ability to learn. While the used example relates to technological change in an organization, we believe that any change comes with a similar set of challenges and that, therefore, the presented matrix can be helpful for any organization going through change.

    The four types of responses are: frustration, inspiration, oppression, and indifference (see Graphic 1).

    Graphic 1) The Adoption Matrix: adapted from Tsedal Neeley and Paul Leonardi, “Developing a Digital Mindset – How to lead your organization into the age of data, algorithms, and AI”, HBR (May-June 2022 issue).

    This matrix can help you understand your teams by using quantified data to make decisions on how to respond as a manager or an organization. This will result in a deeper insight into human behavior and needs as well as challenging yourself as a manager or an organization when evaluating your planned undertaking.

    Even when mastering step number 1, and cultural differences are less of a challenge in your organization, you will always have individuals at different levels as shown in this matrix.

    On that, there are two main challenges that you need to address:

    • Are your teams convinced of the change?
    • Are they confident of their own abilities?

    If the answer to either or both is “no” then this needs to be resolved before you start implementing more advanced steps such as novel technology, processes, guidelines, and so on.

    If your teams are not convinced of the benefits of the change, explore the following questions, and adapt your plans where necessary:

    Did you clearly explain the “why?”

    Sometimes it’s just as simple as this: If people do not understand why change is necessary, they will resist it. Make sure you express clear reasons but also, they are very well understood to your teams. Having a clear “why” might still not have everyone agree on the benefit but, without understanding the reasons for the need for change in the first place, you very likely will not succeed to your satisfaction.

    Do people have valid reasons to resist?

    Often, organizations or managers have an idea that might be very valid for the business but does not take into account the possibilities and resources that are available. The teams in your organization have much more detailed knowledge about the processes and requirements to keep them running. Make sure to include in-house experts in your change management to ensure that you don’t obstruct your own project. Do you have the resources to fulfill your mission? Do you have the right experts that are needed to execute your mission, or do you need external support? Might the planned change block any technical processes? Did you consider legal matters? There are so many reasons why even your best intentions for change might not be executable the way you planned. Listen to your teams and thoroughly evaluate their concerns before proceeding with your mission.

    What other reasons would your teams have for not believing in the benefits of the change?

    Make sure you align the vision and mission of your senior leadership with your teams and understand why misalignment happens. In our experience, implementing change without aligning teams and departments in the first place is set up for failure. Get advisors and experts on board to consult you in relevant areas.

    The other axis of the matrix concerns the confidence of the affected individuals regarding their own abilities. If you find your teams lack confidence in being able to execute change, find out why. Do they need training on specific technologies or processes? Do you have the right experts in your teams? Do you have the resources in place that your teams would need to implement change? Are they lacking trust in their own abilities or in the ability to collaborate with other teams or management? Make sure you provide the individuals in your teams with the appropriate resources, knowledge, and soft skills through training and coaching to ensure the success of your mission.

    Taking into account the above, your organization should move your teams from oppressed, frustrated, or indifferent stages to inspired champions who will show a high level of confidence in their own abilities to help make this change happen for the benefit of the organization. Use your champions to drive the change!

    4. Trust on all levels

    Trust is the foundation of relationships, and even more, it’s the reason for people to do what they do. We are doing things the way we do them because we trust they work that way. We always work with the same people because we trust them out of experience. When there are changes being made, we need to gain that trust again, with new processes and possibly new colleagues and management. And that can be a difficult process. How to trust something or someone that interrupts our well known and comfort zone supporting routine? Trust is not just to be claimed, it must be earned. And it is earned by proven success.

    There are two sides that play into trust of employees when it comes to significant changes in the organization, the process side, and people side. If you want to implement changes that impact well established processes, be sure to provide enough reason for your teams to at least be curious and not block with resistance. Help them to give the new process a chance to convince them. For changes to be accepted, you need to help your employees to be open and curious, that way the new process has a chance to earn trust in your teams.

    How can you approach this?

    Provide the purpose of the change, explain what is supposed to be achieved by implementing it and how.

    How will it impact the business and why is this important? Provide data and facts and connect the change with organizational KPIs, market research and other supporting information. Invite experts of your teams to help assess, develop, and implement the new process and define clear roles and responsibilities. If you can reasonably well explain why and how this change will positively impact certain aspects of their work, most employees will give it a chance.

    What works for processes, works for people. Significant changes in organizations usually bring in new managers or colleagues, they might cause changes in existing positions and responsibilities or reorganization of whole teams and departments. And while some decisions just have to be made, make sure that for most of the role changes you are able to provide purpose and direction. Show patience and ask everyone in the teams, new and existing members, to be patient as well. Help them to get to know each other and invite everyone to exchange experiences.

    Especially when new colleagues are being introduced into a team, mistrust, and fear of being replaced is commonly observed. Therefore, sometimes people won’t be helpful in onboarding those new members and keep information to themselves to stay irreplaceable. Also, the enemy is often seen in the new team members even though the decision has been made at a different level. Be as open as possible with everyone in the team and give proper feedback on the spot. Hostility in teams should not be allowed and followed up with consequences. However, you can help avoid hostile environments in the first place by including everyone in the team and being as open as you can with any information regarding the changes in the organization.

    Often, organizational changes result in new managers for some teams, whole departments or even the whole organization. This might cause some fears in employees because they cannot anticipate what to expect. Building trust in a new manager when I was having a trustful relationship with the previous one can be difficult. Will I lose status that I earned over the years, will my new manager be honest, what will they change in my role, what in my responsibility? To provide the foundation for trust in a relationship, you need to fulfill the practical/informational aspect as well as the emotional one. Being reliable with information, timelines, and resources is one important part, however, to fully gain trust with someone, you furthermore must be authentic and show empathy, you have to truly care and make that visible. And again, be patient and ask for patience, relationships are built slowly.

    Team Building events and most importantly effective communication can help to establish trust on all levels in your organization.

    5. Communicate change

    Most organizations understand the value of communication, but yet are not managing it effectively to help change. Common mistakes that we observe are: opening the dialogue on the impending change too late so that people don’t have time to prepare, on a mental level as well as on a practical level – surprises can lead to mistrust; not explaining the purpose and goals clear enough which raises mistrust in both, the change itself and the leadership team who asks for its execution; not explaining the timeline and the affiliated expectations which leads to unpredictability and ambiguity which again increases mistrust; missing to announce clear roles and responsibilities which can lead to confusion and decrease in trust between the impacted teams; not providing all necessary information and resources which can feel unprepared but also dishonest – would you trust in that case?

    One aspect of good communication, besides the support of successful project management, is that your teams will feel that they are being involved and that their voices are heard and their expertise matters. However, be careful with oversharing. It is important to know (and manage) when and how much to share what with who. Oversharing and especially trying to involve too many parties in the decision-making process can overwhelm people and cause too many unnecessary meetings and discussions that confuse more than they are productive. Well defined roles and responsibilities and a good and well-prepared change plan can help to define how to share information, progress and decisions most effectively.

    Build a communication team which is part of the project team. Have a communication plan and review your decisions on a frequent basis. Be as transparent as possible with your employees. Communicate that unforeseen obstacles might come across and mistakes will be made, but that collaboration on all levels will help go through this process together. Show understanding for the discomfort and fear that some might be experiencing and be empathetic with those who have to manage some change in themselves while facing the change in the organization.

    6. Create a change-culture.

    Change never ends. It is a lifelong process that is necessary to survive as an organization, like evolutionary change for living beings. Of course, big undertakings like in mergers and acquisitions will have a finite timeline, however that does not mean that they are static once completed. If organizations want to stay competitive, they do not wait until a reorganization has become necessary, but they will constantly adjust to their changing markets, resources, customer requests and other challenges. Creating a dynamic environment that allows for changes will help prepare your staff to adjust easier even when bigger transformations are on the horizon. It helps to reduce stress and anxiety due to unstructured and unpredictable workplaces.

    Build a change team in your organization. Operational excellence and project management with market knowledge and professional development expertise. Have them assess your organization on a frequent basis and compare the organizational performance with the market. Let them create sustainable and achievable change plans. Involve your employees and reward innovative ideas. Consistently communicate relevant information and happenings and empower your teams to contribute to the organization’s growth.

    Help create an adaptive environment and a growth mindset in your teams, and change will become part of their routine. This is how you can overcome resistance and you will be set up for success whenever the next bigger change project needs to be introduced.

    If you follow all the above suggestions, we are convinced that change in your organization will encounter less resistance and it will be more likely to succeed. Start early enough to be able to execute your undertaking smoothly, and if you already find yourself in the change process it is never too late to outline the sail and correct the direction.