Carrying out a successful change plan begins with people

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Change always presents a challenge for an organization.  Yes, there’s strategizing and planning to consider – and budget – but since at least 80 per cent of changes fail, too often the most critical element is overlooked: the people. How can you expect a plan for change to succeed if the people who are going to execute it aren’t properly involved?

Rhona Berengut photoOri Schibi photo“Managers have embraced the term stakeholders (after years of being told ‘it’s about more than just the shareholders’) but they still don’t really understand what it means to identify the stakeholders,” says Rhona G. Berengut, co-director of the Executive Program in Leading Sustainable Strategic Change at the Schulich Executive Education Centre with colleague Ori Schibi. “A stakeholder is anybody that has an official interest in the change initiative meaning, a direct connection to the goal of the change.”

Noting that successfully leading change enables others to act, Berengut says identifying and aligning key stakeholders helps you assign key change roles that can go a long way to manage resistance. “There’s always resistance in a system – but most change initiatives create additional resistance on top of that,” says Berengut. “To successfully implement change, the change leader will need to build commitment and consensus, and not try to get things done through compliance – that’s like trying to push cooked noodles up a hill.”

There are different categories of stakeholder, she says, and it’s important to start by identifying who in the organization fits the category, rather than starting with the people and calling them a stakeholder. This will filter the people to identify who has a legitimate role, and what it is, and thereby keep the circle tight and manageable. There are specific people affected by each change initiative, including sponsors of the change, customers and the targets of the change, for example. “You start with the categories and then find the people who belong to them,” says Berengut.

As participants are identified by their interest in the change and assigned to a category, those leading the change need to consider what power those people have to enable the change or promote it? What do you need them to do? Where are these individuals now? And where do you need them to be (i.e. do you need them to advocate, participate, approve?) This type of gap analysis goes a long way to facilitating change.

Change is a solution to a problem, and people won’t buy a solution if they don’t have a problem; they need to know the answer to ‘why?’ A large part of a well-led change initiative is to explain how what was the right way to do something has become the wrong way. “You need to first explain the problem and how this will correct it, and what the change will look like when it’s finished,” says Berengut.

Only once these ideas have been effectively communicated and understood, can people move on to what comes next. “Communicate what’s in it for each member of the stakeholder group,” says Berengut. “Change can bring out a sense of loss that creates resistance. Unless you understand what people need to know, you’re just sending out noise.”

Schibi stresses the importance of communicating the solution to prevent the change effort from “backfiring”. “Sometimes, people feel left out of the loop,” he said. “People want to know that the change goes in the right direction and that they feel informed. They want to have an understanding of where it will end.”

Schibi says it’s important to plan how stakeholders will be informed early in the process – and to check back to see that they are happy with how it is being communicated. “It’s not enough just to inform them, you have to stay in touch.”

In the program, Berengut and Schibi use a popular computer simulation that allows teams of course participants to work on a change and implement the techniques discussed in class, all the while staying on budget. They say by mid-afternoon on simulation day, you can always hears cheers from team members as they find the right mix of methods and budget to achieve a successful – and sustainable – change plan.

Those cheers are echoed in participants’ comments about how much they enjoyed the program. “Exceptional, valuable knowledge on leading strategic change with practical experience to apply the theory. The simulation team exercise was very useful,” said S.A. Shao, a business excellence consultant with Apotex Inc.

“In an ever-changing retail landscape, this course provides tools from a leadership, change-management and project-management standpoint, equipping participants to lead the challenges ahead,” said H.R. Chaudhry, Manager, Retail Development with Staples Canada.

This is real MBA learning, says Berengut. I teach this same material in the Schulich School of Business MBA program.


SEEC’s Executive Program in Leading Sustainable Strategic Change starts Jan. 23, 2017. For more information, visit the program web page. You can also hear more about the program from Rhona Berengut during her next information webinar on Nov. 28, starting at noon.

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