How can you ensure a quick and easy culture change? (Hint: You can’t.)

In March 2016, my organization embarked on an agency-wide database migration from one CRM to another. My colleagues remain enthusiastically on board and happy about the move from a clunky system to something shiny and new. But just because you are excited about change, doesn’t make the change any easier.

Senior leadership: Your first allies

We decided to implement a new CRM to strengthen and further the organization’s work, vision and mission. To implement such a decision, we needed the support and understanding of those who hold responsibility for the organization’s work, vision, and mission. Our Executive Director, Chief Operating Officer, Deputy Director, and other senior managers drove the decision to find a new tool, and they were early adopters.

If your leaders are not on board, you need to start there. Ask them questions: Do they need more information? What is their vision for the organization’s future, and can they meet it with the existing way of doing business? Do they have a financial concern about this step?

The support of even one key leader will give you the traction you need to set the process in motion. (Note: Your leaders need not love databases as much as you do. They just need to understand how a central repository of information will benefit the organization.)

Set realistic expectations

Throughout the migration and implementation, I reminded my colleagues of the three stages of a database migration: Oh yes! Oh no! Ok. Here are some variations of my messages to staff:

  • Preparation will include time-consuming grunt work, such as you reviewing and updating spreadsheets.
  • The migration will take longer than we think. And then longer than that.
  • We will enjoy improved systems, but not perfect systems.
  • It will take time, practice, and some false starts, to effectively integrate the new process into your workflow.

Share information repeatedly and in different ways

People process information in different ways so I share information in different ways. The database is an agenda item at our staff meetings, program meetings, and special-project meetings. It might be a three-minute announcement or a 15-minute presentation, but it is there. Sometimes I just sit in on meetings. (I like to think that if I am visible and available, images of happy database work will subconsciously flash through their minds.) I include articles in the in-house newsletter and send all-staff emails scattered throughout the year.

Meet people where they are. (Where else would you find them?!)

My colleagues, like yours, are passionate, talented and very busy people. Most importantly, they are…people. Obvious point, I understand. Yet those of us who oversee change of any kind—and technology change in particular—can lose sight of this. Assume their best intentions and assume their crazy schedules. Take their time seriously, ask relevant questions, and learn what will make it worthwhile for them to use the tool.

This does not require that I meet with everyone individually. I have colleagues who needed only a launch date and a few instruction sheets to become regular and skilled users; others needed individual support. I also have colleagues who are still using old systems. Note that even those using old systems are not (necessarily) resisting change. They have not yet found a way in. Why is this? What are their barriers? What would need to happen to help them use the system? It is my responsibility to help them figure this out and address it.

Training and support

Training and support is a key part of meeting people where they are and to building their competence and independence. I offer a variety of training options to meet different learning styles. There are group trainings (some mandatory, some optional), and I make myself available for 1:1 support. Documentation and cheat sheets support those who learn best in this way.

In addition, I established weekly office hours. I reserve a small conference room so people know where to find me. I have the conference line open in case off-site staff want to drop in virtually (and am prepared to share a screen if needed). People stop by with how-to questions, to confirm they are doing the right thing, or with policy questions or suggestions.

The long view

We moved to a new CRM to create a central repository of institutional information and knowledge. This central repository means every staff member can easily find information they need without having to track it down with calls and emails and other time-consuming efforts. It means we can run cross-organizational reports on our work, and use that information to make strategic decisions. Because we can do this more easily, we can more effectively spend time on serving our mission. My colleagues get this, and so will yours.

But our colleagues are also busy juggling responsibilities, and it takes time to learn something new—for some more than others. That is the way it is. To build a sustainable new system requires us to ensure the tools meet our colleagues’ work needs, and it means building people’s confidence, expertise, and understanding of how the tools can do this. This is going to take time. How long should you expect? It will vary, but best to think years not months. Set realistic expectations for yourself too!

Ilene Weismehl
IT Director
Urban Teachers