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How to handle stakeholders nervous about change

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In our 21st century world, everything happens quickly and no-one can afford to stand still. Continuous change isn’t just an option, but rather a fact of life. Managing this change properly is one of the biggest challenges facing any organisation.

If you do not control change, it will control you. That means you have to analyse it, understand it and then plan for it. By being proactive and taking the right steps, a challenge can be turned into an opportunity.

Triggers to an organisation for this process of change can be large or small, internal or external. Examples of internal drivers for change can include new staff, conflict, a drop-in turnover or profit, motivation of employees or an audit of available resources. External triggers might be Brexit, the economy, the media, supply chain, technology, government policies and funding.

Change management has developed significantly over the last 20 years and the public sector in the UK is currently delivering a number of large, high-profile programmes such as One Public Estate and the Government Hubs programmes. Most organisations now recognise the benefits of managing change, and they put in place formal programmes as a delivery vehicle and mechanism for the change implementation process.

Delivering benefits is the primary reason why organisations undertake change and implement programmes. A benefit is a positive and measurable impact to change. The first step in the process should be to understand the business case and the benefits that change will bring. Other matters to consider include how those benefits can be maximised and how the organisation can continue to work as normal throughout the change process.

Benefits-driven change requires proactive management throughout the entire life cycle. During the change, the organisation needs to monitor performance indicators that can reliably predict benefits delivery.

Change management programmes across organisations are constantly evolving. They tend to be broader, seek softer outcomes and take more of an overview than their equivalents at a project or portfolio level. Projects are generally designed for specific one-off deliverables that are defined in advance, with pre-agreed budgets and timescales.

One potential obstacle to the review process is resistance from employees and others as generally people are suspicious of change and nervous about what it may bring.

The best way of dealing with this is to engage staff members and stakeholders who may be affected by the review and bring them on the journey. Simply presenting them with a fait accompli and expecting them to accept it is far less likely to achieve satisfactory results. 

The ideal approach is to agree a clear communications and stakeholder engagement plan at the outset. You need to identify exactly who you need to bring onboard and how best to interact with them. It could be online, via workshops, through focused events or face-to-face, for instance. 

Plans also should not be set in stone. While it makes sense with change management to follow a carefully thought-out route, the strategy needs to be flexible enough to cope with any unexpected developments that have to be factored in during the process. These could be technological, political or involve the introduction of new statutory legislation. Other unplanned external events may also have an impact.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to change management. A programme put in place by a high-tech company will, for instance, be very different to that used by a local authority. The important thing in all cases is to match the scale and speed of the strategy with the outputs the organisation is trying to achieve.

Ideally, change management is a process rather than an event. It makes sense to continuously monitor the performance of an organisation and make adjustments as the need to do so is identified. Gateway reviews are often used to benchmark a change initiative against an agreed cost, programme, design, specification and end user requirements at the end of each programme tranche.

There is still a lot for us to learn about the best way of managing change. It’s hugely important, but it’s still evolving as a discipline, with new research constantly providing greater insights into the most important elements of a strategy to achieve success.

If there is one major issue that needs to be addressed, it is that too many organisations still see it as a hindrance rather than as a way to achieve real and tangible improvements. Change management is an important tool for business and it’s here to stay. Far better, then, to abandon suspicion of it and instead embrace it as a lifelong friend.

Image: oatawa/


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  1. Dan Brett
    Dan Brett 12 December 2019, 03:16 PM

    Language is such a key factor in achieving a successful change. Too often change resistance is a product of misunderstanding what's being asked. For example, when delivering change in a "blue light" environment, staff can be more familiar (and comfortable) in a command and control structure. Change managers shouldn't dismiss the power of local staff leaders in delivering change messages opposed to an external project team. Sometimes a few words from an Inspector or Group Manager can deliver better outcomes than a well constructed process flow. There's no substitute for appropriate planning but delivering it in the style that's suitable for the audience is essential. Too often in these situations audience bewilderment translates into bravado, and change is resisted. Identifying the correct language, setting and delivery method can help avoid these issues and achieve better outcomes.

  2. Richard Cairnes
    Richard Cairnes 12 December 2019, 10:19 PM

    Thanks for the comment Dan Brett and its great to hear about your experience in the 'blue lights' sector. It would be interesting to hear how this compares to other industry sectors? I agree, understanding organisational culture, language and practice is key in working out the best approach to communicating change, particularly when there are some tough messages to deliver.