Your business or department is growing, and your old processes are outdated and ready for an upgrade. To minimize loss in talent, experience, and productivity, don't start at Step One. Start at Step Zero.
Here are three great questions to ask your team before you begin the change management process.
The change from old to new is famously loaded with anxiety for stakeholders, even a change that’s long overdue. A combination of lack of details and negative precedent from previous changes can fatigue those stakeholders. At best, this will give them impression that this is a shifting of resources; at worst, they could perceive it as a threat. But as a leader, you have a chance to allay any deep concerns the stakeholders may have.
These are a few questions that will, at least initially, help motivate and engage the team members who are most directly affected by whatever new changes are being developed:
How do you feel about the current process?
You should have already done your homework on whatever system or process is being changed: when and why it was adopted; how long it's been a part of the infrastructure of your organization; and how it interacts with other departments. Now you are asking this question of the people using it every day.
This will give your stakeholders the opportunity to tell you in their own words what, if any, changes need to be made. Pay close attention: You can learn the depth of knowledge they do or do not have, as well as what problems they have had in the past. This will be useful information later when pitching improvements in detail and getting buy-in. It can tell you a lot about the department you’re working with too, plus it will give you tools that will be useful through the change. The ability to explain and address the stakeholders concerns directly though the course of the change will be invaluable.
What do you expect the benefits and challenges to be?
This should help get the level of the room, and by that I mean determine who is immediately on board and who’s going to drag the process down. There are no wrong answers on the part of the associates, only chances to enlighten and inform. Change is rarely sudden, and you might have a groundswell of concern bordering on fear if rumors have already been circulated.
The people to look closely for are the early adopters and the skeptics, and you should address both extremes with caution: They can each contribute and hinder momentum in their own way.
The enthusiasm generated by the early adopters can be contagious. However, you do not want the early adopters to have any greater affect than the associates who are showing a lot of reluctance, because you don’t want to single anyone out for reward or penalty this early in the process.
More importantly, if you are too eager to see early progress and paying too much attention the overly enthusiastic, it could give the impression you aren’t listening to everyone. That you are favoring the select few who took an instant shine to the new ideas. Still, don’t be afraid to capitalize on positive emotion. Just be careful. You might even be able to rely on the early adopters to help find the silver lining when the unexpected occurs.
The skeptics may have practical experience with previous changes or improvements that will be very useful. Winning them over is a challenge worth taking, since they’re probably more experienced than much of the rest of the staff. Of course, the majority will be hovering somewhere between unwillingness and skepticism. They’re likely waiting to see how change is affecting them and taking their own ownership of the change. They’ll be swayed toward skepticism or enthusiasm but will at all times be looking for leadership.
Keep in mind that regardless of whether they’re moving to one extreme or hovering around the middle you’ll want your entire team to be comfortable with giving good feedback to avoid what might be, to everyone else, a bad course of action.
What haven’t I asked?
The virtue in this question is its simplicity. Where the first two questions gathered information, the last is a statement of inexperience to the stakeholders. By telling them, “I clearly don’t know everything,” you’re giving them the opportunity to take on some leadership, to educate and own the change process. This is empowering.
If asked with honesty and confidence, you open the door to input that could mean the life or death of your project. This will also give you a very good chance to start working on moving the hesitant toward a more eager acceptance of the new system.
There are many variations to these questions, of course. But my experiences have only reinforced the idea that stakeholder engagement is critical to success. The most effective change involves listening to and dealing with the anxiety. Remember, the associate who has the smallest voice individually frequently makes the greatest contribution to effective change at the ground level.
When change is managed well, it can streamline your processes and invigorate the people doing the work. These three questions will give you the opportunity to perform both fulfilling tasks at once.