Ten Key Principles for successful Change Management

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated July 2017


PRINCIPLE 1. Gather as much intelligence as you can before you intervene

There are two main purposes of an intervention - information gathering/relationship building or adoption - most interventions are largely one or the other - some may be both. If you intervene without first building relationship or insight you are flying blind and unlikely to succeed.

PRINCIPLE 2. Make appropriate interventions relative to the person's adoption attitude

For example, asking an outright opponent of the change to become a champion is not likely to be a very useful intervention. You need to know when to use 'light touch' interventions (e.g. opinion/advice seeking) - particularly with those who are negative or with whom you have little relationship. Somebody once said "never accidently make an enemy" - in change management this applies also and extends into never carelessly annoy an opponent either!

PRINCIPLE 3. Be very careful with email

Because email requires little effort and has large potential reach it is very tempting to misuse it. Email has 3 potential uses in change management - 1) showing senior support, 2) communicating progress/success and 3) reinforcing messages which have already been conveyed face to face. Extend its use beyond these at your peril! Once something is committed to email it is also impossible to take it back.

PRINCIPLE 4. Build on supporters rather than attempting to neutralise opponents

A key question in any change management strategy is whether you start by neutralising your opponents or by exploiting the enthusiasm of your supporters (assuming you have supporters!) Research shows it is generally better to start with your supporters although are situations where you may have a vocal powerful opponent whom you simply cannot ignore. In this case you would need to divide your efforts between working on both supporters and opponents at the same time.

PRINCIPLE 5. Intervene with those you can influence

There is no point intervening with someone who is not "influencible" by you. Your influence on another person really depends on 3 things - their relationship with you, your credibility and their openness to the change you are promoting. Note that no matter how good your relationship and your credibility if the person is simply not open to the change then you are wasting your time and theirs trying to change their minds. I think I have a good relationship with my wife but she is still not open to me influencing her about the joys of football!

PRINCIPLE 6. Intervene first with those who have power to influence others

Change Management is a great example of organizational 'osmosis'. You influence people and they influence and are influenced by others. There are two main ways people have power to influence others - their authority/seniority and their reputation. Often there are people not at the top of organisations who have great reputations and social connectedness and who act as the eyes and ears of the top executives. You need to turn both types of power-brokers (seniors and reputationals) into your champions - partnering with you to promote the change.

PRINCIPLE 7. Don't neglect indirect interventions

Some people may not be open to any direct intervention from you (as per point 5) but this does not mean you cannot influence them. You just need to use indirect interventions such as working with their team, their boss and their peers. So you can influence others who have influence over them and through the power of osmosis they can also be influenced (as per point 6).

PRINCIPLE 8. Never stop nurturing 

People are never generally in a fixed attitude towards a change - they are either warming up or cooling down. They are never standing still. So if you get somebody 'on board' and then neglect them don't be surprised if their enthusiasm and commitment wanes. They might even turn into an opponent!

PRINCIPLE 9. Be patient

Adoption is often rather slow to start with and nothing much visible seems to be happening. Don't let this side-track you into thrashing about switching strategies and trying lots of different things. If you are confident you are doing the right things then stick with them even if the initial results take a while to appear. However if after a few months you are still not seeing the leading indicators of change emerging then this is the time to review your strategy and try something different.

PRINCIPLE 10. Be creative

Change Management methodologies are all well and good but don't be seduced into thinking you have to do everything by the book. Sometimes an unconventional move like having a blazing argument, sending a funny card or hiring a clown can totally unlock a situation. So always be aware that the killer intervention you need next might be one which has not yet been invented and definitely not in your change management play book!

One of the best ways to experience these principles live is playing a Change Management Simulation Game such as COHORT with your colleagues in teams.

These principles are explained in much more detail (and I have added 2 more principles) in my book A Systematic Guide to Change Management in Organizational Teams.

This article was orginally published in my bioteams blog in February 2013.

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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