The past year-plus has been littered with sudden changes, and in tech that has meant a variety of things. For example, IT departments have had to navigate work-from-home mandates, fundamentally changing where and how teams work together. At the same time, some organizations may be dealing with other pressures such as organizational restructuring including downsizing or an overhaul of IT infrastructure with new AMS and support partners and the mandate to go digital – all with the overarching and constant sense of anxiety that comes along with a global pandemic.
In this environment, change management has never been more important. After all, one of the most crucial components of effective change management is the ability to be sensitive to changes that impact people and to reduce anxiety and uncertainty so your teams are comfortable with new ways of working and can move forward smoothly without missing a beat. How this is executed varies on a number of factors, such as the size of an organization and the systems and/or processes undergoing transformation, but there are some best practices that apply in most situations.
First things first - identify your agents of change
An engaged executive sponsor of change is vital. Anytime there's an IT organizational shift of any significance, you need a leader who has the insight and empathy to understand the impact on their teams and who can remain active, visible and inspire individuals to trust in the new direction that has been set. This executive sponsor needs to be an individual who has the vision and leadership skills to champion the change within the organization, whether it’s revamping IT strategy, pivoting to a new AMS partner, moving business-critical systems to a public cloud environment or championing a digital strategy.
As well as the aptitude to visualize where key investments in digital technology, cloud migration and security should be made over the next five years, change management leaders within an organization also need executive presence and an approachable personality. They need the ability to influence the full complement of affected individuals including executive peers, business leaders and IT professionals. Effective change leadership at a business inspires teams to be confident and comfortable in the vision with the desire to follow it.
When it comes to change management in technology, I typically like to see the CIO as the executive sponsor, and sometimes also the CTO. It’s often beneficial to have the CFO on board as well because the business owners also have to embrace the change. The business side of the house needs to hit their numbers, service their clients and keep the organization running – they can’t afford for this to be impacted by technology changes that disrupt system stability and performance.
Three change management best practices to embrace
Again, how change management manifests itself can vary from workplace to workplace, but there are three helpful best practices I find useful in almost every situation:
1. Lead with transparency
When an IT organization goes through a major change, a senior executive should communicate not only with the other executives sponsoring the change, but also the tech professionals and business users who will ultimately be affected. It’s important that they explain the key factors that went into the decision driving the change, including the financial and business implications. It's also important that they give people as much information as possible — anxiety levels lower when people have the details, know what the identified risks are, and how the decision came about. If executives make a major decision without offering their teams this transparency, the perception can often become that leaders don't know what it's really like in the trenches and how this change impacts their work. But teams can be surprised by how much their executives actually do know about what goes on in the trenches and the technical implications of change. Full transparency among all who will be affected by the change gives the initiative a much better chance at succeeding.
2. Host a meeting of the minds
In addition to being transparent about why the change makes sense for the business, executives should take the lead and facilitate a forum where affected teams can discuss the nitty-gritty details as well. Hosting a session detailing the tech implications of the change and allowing team members to ask any questions they may have is key. This is not to say that it might not get contentious — I’ve been involved in many a meeting where engineers will bring their tough questions and natural skepticism to a technology change coupled with concern because they weren't told about it until it was already in motion. But once fellow engineers get up and walk through the changes at a technical level, the room relaxes, and anxiety is alleviated. This type of interaction helps build trust and acceptance among the most important change makers — the technical team members and end business users. And open discourse with those impacted by the change means better understanding of the most common concerns teams may experience during the transition period and how to best alleviate them to ensure success.
3. Even though it’s business, make it personal
To me, personal interaction is also vitally important, particularly when an organization is in the transition phase of change. When teams start working through change — especially technical teams — it can sometimes be too easy to hide behind a computer screen where people may feel more comfortable to be part of the problem and not part of the solution. I find it most helpful to steer individuals to have conversations to get to know the other persons involved in the change. I like to propel these connections forward in weekly or bi-weekly in-person meetings. This has shifted to Zoom and other modes of communication in the current environment, but these regular interactions can be very effective because your teams form more personal relationships that will help to broker success. At the end of the day, it’s about personal connections and building trust between teams and executives willing to provide that extra encouragement and support to ensure the new vision and change is embraced.
When a business undertakes an organizational or technological change that fundamentally changes its processes, support or infrastructure, there can be disbelief, concern, and anxiety that builds within the organization. Now more than ever, it’s on executives to provide a more holistic support system to employees as they react to change. People in general seem to be more emotional right now due to the continued fallout from the pandemic, and they’re more risk-averse because they see so much change and risk in their personal lives. That makes these best practices even more important now — people are dealing with this personal disruption at the same time as perhaps a paradigm shift in technology and their work lives, and executive change management leaders need to take all of this into account.