Q4 and Q1 of any given year are big project months for us. In Q4, finance officers may want to spend a bit more to reduce their tax burden, business often slows with more staff out on holiday, and production lines that run 24/7 the rest of the year can finally be put on a brief pause. Q1 often ushers in a “fresh start” mentality, with new budgets, updated strategies, and more energy around the workplace in general. I usually plan for the Thanksgiving – Valentine’s Day stretch to be one of, if not the, busiest time of year for Propel, and these past months were no exception. Since I’ve been mired in project work lately, I’ve been thinking about what makes some of these transitions successful and others, well, less so. After all, change can be difficult and disruptive in any space, and we often find ourselves settling into familiar patterns and processes at work more than anywhere else. That makes sense, as familiarity can lead to efficiency and clarity of purpose. But it can also breed complacency and acceptance of suboptimal systems of work, making change a necessity. So how does an organization break through an outdated way of working without breaking their staff’s spirits (or patience)? Earning your people’s buy-in. If your users are on-board with, or even enthusiastic about the changes ahead, they’ll be assets in the transition instead of obstacles. But how do we get there?
Your staff takes their cues from your leadership team, so that team needs to be on-board first and in the biggest way. If employees see their managers resist a change or show a lack of faith in the outcome, they’ll be more inclined to keep to their old ways. After all, if their boss thinks the current system is working fine and change isn’t beneficial, why not stay on course and keep delivering to that boss in the same way? Leadership buy-in needs to be earned as well, of course. Middle-management teams should be a part of the planning process on any project from the very beginning. They know their teams better than anyone else, and likely already have some ideas about how to make their departments more efficient, as well as which kinds of changes will be most likely to be met with resistance and which ones will be quickly embraced. Including middle management in the planning phase will remind them that they’re valued and that their day-in, day-out knowledge of the workplace has real meaning to company leadership.
This is seemingly a no-brainer but very often the weakest link in a project’s foundation. While people often resist changes at first, they’re really quite adaptable once they accept the change, and especially so if they’re convinced that it will lead to their life being easier. Most folks recognize inefficiencies on their own and are happy to remove redundant steps or unnecessary obstacles to their productivity. But they’ve got to know that their initial discomfort will be worth it, that the transition is happening for a good reason. They also need to know the mechanics of what’s happening: what is changing, how is it changing, when and why, and where to go with questions or for help. Constant, clear communication from planning to implementation to follow-up is possibly the most important piece of earning your staff’s buy-in on a big change at work.
Finally, a project’s not over when the systems are done migrating and new processes are in-place. It’s only really over when every stakeholder and participant is comfortable and effective in their new habits. This requires an open line to consistent and capable post-project support. Folks will have questions, they’ll forget new steps, they’ll expose a wrench in the gears that all the planning in the world didn’t predict. That’s natural and it shouldn’t be a roadblock or even a point of stress for an organization. If everyone knows where to go for help, how to contact a support team, and are confident that that team can see them through an obstacle, they’ll take such hiccups in stride and may even improve upon the successes of the project. Ensuring that key support staff are a part of the process from the beginning can make all the difference in the home stretch.
The observations above are specifically pulled from my experience with IT projects, usually infrastructure overhauls or systems migrations. But IT is a part of pretty much any big change at any organization, so I’ve taken part in projects of all shapes and sizes and I believe all this applies to any one of them. The overall theme that emerges is that everyone needs to be involved in a big transition from the start to ensure its success. Leaders spend a lot of time thinking about why a process improvement is worth the friction of change before taking the plunge. They should spend as much time bringing their staff to the same conclusion.