We’re living in a world that’s constantly changing. TikTok is in, TV is out. Eggs are good for you, cereal isn’t. Or is it the other way around? There are so many changes going on, it’s no wonder we can’t keep track. And that holds true in the business world, too. Organizations that plan for changes are more successful at making them happen (and making them stick), so it’s well worth your time to invest in a strategy.

What does change management mean?

Change management is the process, communication techniques, and tools used to manage the people side of change to achieve a business outcome. At its core, change management is about helping people in your organization adapt to change and making the changes stick.

What kind of changes benefit from using change management?

Any change your business wants to implement could benefit from a change management process. Without employee buy-in, even the best changes are doomed to fail. So to be successful, businesses need to focus just as much on the human side as the workflow side of change. Consider these two types of change management:

  • Individual change management
  • This is a model that looks at change from an individual’s point of view. It's critical to do so because organizational change only happens when individual employees succeed at changing. For example, how valuable is a shiny new technology if no one uses it correctly, or great new initiatives if no one adopts them? In this model, managing change at the individual level creates the building blocks for bigger organizational strategies.

  • Organizational change management
  • This is a process that helps leadership smooth the way for organizational transformation. It takes a higher-level approach to change management for big things like mergers and acquisitions, organizational reporting structures, and restructuring of departments. Although the focus is on the business as a whole, the process works to help employees understand, commit to, and accept changes in their company.

"Leaders often equate accepting change to liking the change, but that’s not true at all,” says Dana Otto, Zendesk senior manager, change management. "You can accept a change without liking it. As long as you’re willing to try the new way, that’s what matters.”

6 essential steps in the change management process

Getting change management right isn’t just about blazing a new path, it’s also about listening to your employees and stakeholders. They’re the ones who will ultimately make your change fly or fail, so it pays to get them involved in your planning. Managing change takes time, and instilling a sense of urgency in your team is crucial throughout the process. Here are the essential steps to take:

1. Define the change.

What is your business trying to change? What do things look like now, and what would success look like? Which people will be impacted by the change, and how big of a change are you considering? Before you dive into making changes in your organization, it’s crucial to carefully consider exactly what it is you want to change, and communicate that strategy to all involved.

2. Get the numbers.

Once you have your change goal defined, dig into your data. Take a benchmark of the current state. Be honest, don’t pad the numbers to look better. After all, that’s why you’re changing things in the first place. Capture the benchmark so you can see if things have improved once the change is made. That way, you can share the data with employees so they understand how the change is impacting their outcomes and the whole organization.

Let’s say your agents are having to toggle between multiple screens while helping customers, and that leads to mistakes. Your leadership wants to implement a change plan to unify your data in a customer relationship management (CRM) tool, putting the information your agents need on a single screen. You lead them through the process of change, providing training and transparency, but some agents still liked it better “the old way.” Because you took a benchmark, you can share the number of mistakes that were made before, and show that only half as many mistakes are being made now. This helps your team understand the value their hard work is bringing to the business and that the change was worth making.

hands giving high fives

3. Find your change agents.

Even the best leadership can’t make a change process happen alone. Define your sponsors and stakeholders. Who needs to be involved in the change plan? Look across your organization and gather representatives for a change advisory board so they can give you valuable insights about how people are feeling, the potential roadblocks to change, and more. Remember, this group can and should include people at all levels, not just the leadership. Work through your change plan with this team and encourage them to communicate updates to employees, help with implementation, and set up training sessions.

4. Map out your plan.

Now that you’ve done the groundwork, it’s time to start a change roadmap. What things need to happen to get you from where you are now to the future state? Where are the gaps? Work with your stakeholders to define the strategy, resources, tools, and timelines your organization needs to consider for this project. Decide at what points in your process you will communicate with your employees. Even if you think the change will be perceived negatively or met with resistance, don’t leave your employees in the dark once you’ve made a decision.

5. Communication.

Make sure your communications are empathetic and honest, and keep in mind that communication isn’t one way. Your communication plan should have a constant feedback loop with employees and stakeholders through various channels. This might include team meetings, town halls, pulse surveys, email updates, or formal communications. Be as open as possible, but be careful not to share too much information about a potential change before you make a decision. It can actually instill doubt and fear in your employees, or fuel rumors that spread throughout the company and derail effective change.

Every interaction a leader has with their team either builds trust or hurts it, so make sure you take that into account during times of change. Your communication strategy needs to include asking employees for feedback, in surveys or in town hall questions, and make sure to respond. “They’re sharing their open and honest feedback with you, so make sure they know it means something—if you aren’t going to respond to people, don’t survey them,” says Rachel Breitbach, senior advisor of change agility, program management, and organizational strategy at FarWell.

6. Celebrate success.

After the change has been implemented, it’s time to celebrate the team’s hard work. It’s easy to overlook this step in your rush to focus on what’s next for your business, but it’s important to your team’s morale. Celebrations don’t have to be big and fancy. It could be a catered lunch, a public thank you, or a gift card to those who participated in the change. Negative energy can do a lot of damage, and it’s demoralizing when you don’t feel valued. The point is to make sure they know you value their willingness to give the new way a try. A simple gesture can boost morale and spread positive energy through an organization. That reinforces the behaviors you’re looking for in adopting change.

Change is hard.

Often, it’s not finding a new technology or process that’s the biggest challenge for your business—it’s digging through the layers of company culture, legacy protocols, hierarchies, and biases that build up over time. Helping people move through change is one of the most important things a leader can do. If you don’t account for the human side of organizational change, you’re leaving success up to chance.

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