THE BLOG
04/02/2013 03:15 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Effective Change Management: The Five Critical Steps

You wouldn't blink if someone told you they needed to do a better job managing their company's "budgeting" process or "manufacturing" process or "new-product-development" process, would you? But managing a "change process"? Sounds like "consultant-speak," right? Wrong.

Given the need to make a significant change in your business, especially one that will affect people and/or require their involvement and commitment to be successful, you really need to think of change as a process, too. Fact is, time-honored principles and practices of so-called "change management" do exist. And they can mean the difference between a change effort that improves your business and fires people up and one that bogs you down, fails to achieve its objectives and damages your company's morale to boot.

So, let's look at these principles, these "steps," in effectively managing change, one by one.

Step One: The Status Quo Is Not an Option

First, as a leader, you need to demonstrate to all who need to get behind the change, that the status quo is unsustainable. Ironically, this is easier when there's a crisis at hand than when only you and a few other leaders see the rationale for change. But if you're the first one to see that you have a quality problem or that a key product line needs to be significantly modified to suit the tastes of a rapidly-changing market, then you need to marshal the right facts and arguments to make your case. This is a must. You can't escape it. But that alone isn't enough.

Step Two: Create a Compelling Vision of the Future

Along with the first step, you need to create in the minds of those you want to enlist a very compelling picture -- a vision -- of how much better it's going to be once you succeed in making this change. In other words, you need to give people something to change for. So, the upside of fixing the quality problem or effectively up-grading the key product line is the integrity involved in adhering to your heritage of quality and the excitement of winning in the marketplace through constant innovation. And so on.

Step Three: Build a Change Coalition

So far, you've established that "business-as-usual" is not an option, and you've dramatized the new and better state that the required change will lead to. Now you need to get some help. You need to establish a coalition, or team, of folks who buy your rationale for change and agree to lead it with you. This is not always easy. Executives can sometimes look at the same data and come to different conclusions, and the pages of the business press are full stories about executives who have parted ways over disagreement on business strategy.

Be that as it may, your job as a change agent is to win over a "coalition" to help you move your change program forward. This heightens the critical importance of building your case solidly in steps one and two.

If you are a CEO, your coalition would typically be drawn first from your leadership team. But don't forget to look more broadly to thought-leaders, key influencers and subject experts elsewhere in the company. If you have a quality problem, support from your plant manager will be key. And key influencers within marketing and product development will need to be on board if you're going to successfully update that major product line.

Step Four: Mobilize Commitment

With a solid case for change and a strong core team beside you to help lead it, you're now ready to go out and enlist more broad organizational support. And this is best done, not just through formal authority or "top-down," so to speak. True, you need to make the case, and you and your team need to "get the ball rolling." But if this change is going to be successful, it's going to need more arms and legs than you and your core team could ever supply alone.

So you need to provide opportunities for a broad range of individuals to actually get "in the trenches" with you to make change happen. You also need to structure this involvement to ensure that, pretty quickly, they can achieve some small "wins" that indicate success and motivate them to continue to move this new change program forward.

The guiding principle behind this kind of approach is that people on the front lines know their jobs better than you do. So if you're an appliance maker, and your quality problem is "too many dents in new refrigerators," your fork-lift drivers are probably better equipped to help you solve that problem than your VP of marketing. So involve them, and let them tell you, specifically, how the work they do needs to be changed to improve product quality. Once they do and you approve, you have just turbo-charged your change program with the strongest force there is: personal ownership through meaningful involvement.

Step Five: Cheerlead

Once these early "wins" start to happen, you need to cheerlead as if the change depended upon it -- because it does! You need to celebrate and praise what's being done that's helping to "move the needle" and identify and discourage what isn't. Use every opportunity -- chance face-to-face meetings, formal speeches, internal newsletters and other company communications channels, etc., etc. -- to reinforce the kind of behavior that supports your change program.

One last point: it's usually best if you orchestrate and plan all of this beforehand, not make it up as you go along. Just follow the five-step framework above and at least think it through in broad strokes before you start. That's what we mean by managing change vs. letting change manage you!

Ray Gagnon is Principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with long-standing practices in Change Management and GE Work-Out, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.