May 23, 2016

Change Is a People Thing

These days, it’s clear that nothing stays the same. Whether your laptop is headed toward retirement or your organization is in the process of replacing every mission-critical business system you have, there is always something that requires learning, adapting and—hopefully—growth.

In most cases, we make technology changes in order to better carry out our missions. A more robust CRM can yield powerful analytic data; a sharp, user-friendly website draws in support; replacing ancient hardware may not only boost processing speed but also keep morale from seeping out of people’s souls while they wait for their email to load.

People Approach Change Differently

Regardless of the type of change that you might be leading in your organization, it’s vitally important to remember that not everyone deals with transition in the same way. You’ve probably known people who have tons of energy and are always keen to jump into the next big thing. And you’ve probably known people who might as well have “But we’ve always done it this way!” tattooed on their forehead. Understanding and working with those differences is key to successful change management.

It is important to think beyond whether someone is a trailblazing innovator or a change resistant drag. Most people can add value from wherever they are in their comfort level with change.

Which of the following best describes you?

Spectrum from change adventurers, risk neutral, and steady-goers

Steady & Consistent – I appreciate routine and the structure it provides. It gives us a foundation from which we can deal with all the unexpected things that are going to happen anyway. I prefer to focus on improving the systems and processes already in place than think up new approaches.

Risk Neutral – I’m okay with whatever direction is best for the organization, though I want to be sure we’re going to do things in a smart way. I may not be the first person to suggest shaking things up, but I am happy to contribute when it makes sense.

Change Adventurer – The world is full of possibilities and I think we should always be looking for new ways to improve our work. We should be willing to try anything that could help us achieve our mission. Also, I get bored with same-old same-old.

Where Are You Along the Spectrum?

It’s useful for people to understand where they might fall on this spectrum when it comes to innovation at work. Most of us will default to a particular spot in this range, but deviate in one direction or another depending on circumstance. Even the most adventurous of forward-thinkers may run low on energy if they’re experiencing upheaval or transition in their personal lives. And when steady people have fully mastered a certain role, they may be more open to taking on something new.

It’s also useful to think about the overall profile of your organization, as a culmination of the individuals on this spectrum. If you’re working through a major organizational change right now—be it a restructuring or the implementation of new systems—you’re probably dealing with some strife and of conflict within your team. Consider an exercise in which you have everyone line up according to where they see themselves on a spectrum based on the categories described above. Where do most people fall? What does that say about your organization?

Having a heavy concentration at either end says something about your organization’s overall approach to change. If you’re too attached to consistency, you may be missing opportunities to take your mission-delivery to the next level. On the other hand, if everyone on the team operates with full-speed ahead gusto at all times, organizations can end up with more chaotic activity than actual productivity. While many organizations will take on a profile in one direction or the other, it’s good to have a mix of personalities on this spectrum—to balance each other out and ensure that innovation happens effectively.

Aligning Your Team’s Strengths

In addition to thinking about this in terms of the organization’s direction and capacity, it’s a powerful thing to have your staff think about where they stand and what that means for them. It’s even more powerful when people can see where others stand; light bulbs can go off when you realize that one person’s resistance to change might be rooted not in fear but in a passion for high quality work. By physically carrying out this exercise, it also creates empathy, particularly for those that tend to be in their own spot on the spectrum. It can be lonely and challenging if you naturally prefer a slow and steady approach to change and you work in a building of constant innovators. And it’s incredibly frustrating to see opportunities passing by if you’re a change adventurer in an organization where everything gets bogged down in deliberation and non-decision.

Understanding individuals’ tendencies with regard to change allows you to align their strengths with different roles needed in a technology project and be intentional about securing buy-in. Make sure that both your change adventurers and your steady-goers are engaged when evaluating systems. One will help push for innovative opportunities so that you don’t end up with tools that are obsolete by the time you get them implemented. The other will catch potential pitfalls that might lead to disaster down the road. Get your risk-neutral folks to help demonstrate the possibilities and carry out testing to show the change resisters that things are going to be okay.

Innovation is critical for all of us. At times, failure to change can simply mean failure overall. Having a strong understanding of what that means to everyone on your team will make all the difference in how difficult it is to make those transitions.

Photo credit: James Cridland

Smita Vadakekalam
Smita Vadakekalam is VP of Services at Heller Consulting. She has worked with hundreds of nonprofits helping with strategy and implementation of technology projects. Smita is a member, volunteer and serves on a committee with the Association of Change Management Professionals. Smita is also a Prosci certified change practitioner .
Sandi Reinardy
Sandi Reinardy is the Managing Director of Gift & Constituent Records at the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. She has managed both projects and teams for over fifteen years and in that time learned to expand her own comfort zone with change. She still tends to take things slow, but some of her very best friends are change adventurers all the way.