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How to Manage Change During a Crisis

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Organizations are today being forced to adapt and change to an unprecedented degree.

In a crisis like Covid-19, change gets very complex: leaders are faced with keeping the business running and building for the future while keeping their workforce engaged and productive; managers are having to react more rapidly to threats as well as opportunities; and employees are having to be more flexible and collaborative as well as wrestle with personal challenges – from chaotic home working to unplanned career transitions. 

The key to addressing these challenges and supporting a business through change is to build relevant capabilities for managing change.

Key capabilities for managing planned change

Managers must have capabilities in planning, designing, implementing and sustaining change. They also need to be able to facilitate change in their operational areas, and importantly be able to engage organizational members (and other stakeholders) in order to build commitment and ownership of the change/s, so that benefits can be achieved and embedded into daily operations. 

This requires a mix of capabilities such as change management, communication and stakeholder agility.

Change management

The principles and practice of change management must be an integral part of management capabilities. Effective change management goes beyond managing the technical tasks and involves managing the people side of transformations. It also encompasses capabilities in the following areas:

  • Analytical skills. In order to understand change, interpret the outside world, set objectives, and align strategies and tactics with objectives. This also requires an ability to discern trends in the face of complexity and ambiguity.

  • Project management. For the planning and implementation of change/s project management skills are needed which comprise the activities of planning, setting clear, measurable objectives for the change, and evaluating their achievement by using clearly defined success measures or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), as well as monitoring and control to keep the project focused and on track through to its completion so that all intended potential benefits are delivered and risks identified and managed. Such project management skills enable the effective delivery and implementation of change through various teams. These skills will also provide managers with the ability to prioritize workloads and relevant projects in order to meet specific deadlines.

  • Systems thinking. As an approach to problem-solving, systems thinking sees complex entities as a series of components with each part interacting with, and influencing, the rest. Systems thinking can be applied to managing change in organizations since it views the components of the organization, that is, the various divisions, units and teams, as continually interacting with and affecting each other. Systems thinking skills will help managers to view the organization as a whole system that is sustained by how well its parts are aligned to the overall purpose of the enterprise.

  • Design Thinking. The need for a frictionless, connected stakeholder experience of change in organizations requires the capability of design thinking, a people-centric, structured and creative approach to problem-solving. Building a design thinking capability will enable managers to explore the expectations of organizational members and discover, and positively expand upon, the drivers that motivate members to engage with organizational change/s.

  • Creative agility. Managers need to be constantly seeking new ways to manage people and change, particularly in response to the global forces for change. This means the ability to think ‘outside the box’, transforming problems into results, which requires innovation and creative thinking.

Managers need a mix of change management capabilities to be able to design, plan, implement, sustain and engage organizational members with transformations.

Communication skills

During change employees are likely to be exposed to conflicting information and feel anxious or confused about what is happening. Organizations need to have a clear and focused approach in order to connect with their workforce and effectively lead them during periods of uncertainty. An inclusive communication strategy needs to be put into action, based on a clear understanding of audiences (internal/external), message to be communicated, and frequency and channels of communication (digital/print).

The ability to communicate with people needs to be a core capability for change of managers and leaders.  They need to be equipped and prepared to have conversations with the staff, partners, clients, and other stakeholders.

Effective communication can help managers to promote awareness and an understanding of why change is necessary, as well as provide opportunities for organizational members to voice their ideas, hopes and concerns.  To ensure high-quality communication during organizational transformations managers need to be aware of the different types of communication, ranging from those that provide the greatest amount of information to those that provide the least. Managers thus need to ensure that clear, consistent messages are communicated and that opportunities are given for dialogue and feedback.

Stakeholder agility

Managers need to be able to build and maintain relationships with internal and external stakeholders. This requires stakeholder agility, which means being able to engage and build rapport and support with stakeholders, and being able to deal with multiple stakeholders in a variety of ways. Identifying stakeholders (including staff, suppliers, customers, lenders, board of directors, investors, government agencies, and the media) is critical to minimise the negative impact, maintain control, and secure the support of the organization to move forward quickly and convey confidence. Identifying and partnering with stakeholders is critical for organizations, given that the top priority at the moment is to implement changes to protect jobs and find new ways to serve customers. Equally important is to research ways to reach out to and collaborate with stakeholders by leveraging alternative channels and online tools.

Capabilities for the workforce

The capabilities that organizational members need to survive and thrive in the changing workplace are very different from those they needed in the past.

One reason for this is that, driven by the forces of change, economies are shifting from an age of production to an age of imagination. In the past, organizational success relied mainly on deploying precisely calibrated skills to efficiently construct products or deliver services at scale.

Increasingly, success now depends on innovation, entrepreneurship, and other forms of creativity that rely not just on skills but also on less quantifiable capabilities such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence and collaboration. This means that organizations need to think about what their workers should be learning (cultivating capabilities and engaging in unseen and future problems), how they should be learning (in the flow of work and motivated by rewards), and where they should be looking to apply what they learn (future opportunities both inside and outside the organization).

The most effective organizations will employ an approach to capability building for change that considers each of these elements not only for short-term business needs but also for the long-term needs of the business and its internal and external stakeholders, including the communities in which they operate. This means ensuring that people have the capabilities they need.

Implications for leaders and managers

There a number of practical implications for managers and leaders for building capability for change:

  • Encourage learning from failure
    Hold catchup/review sessions not only at the end of a transformation but also at intervals during its implementation and ask individuals and teams affected by the changes: What is going well? What isn't going well? What do we have to start doing and/or do differently?

  • Conduct a capability audit
    Conduct a capability audit in order to find out if the organization has the ability to deliver transformation and realize benefits from it. The audit should provide a framework for critically evaluating the skills, experience and knowledge that will be needed to implement and sustain change.

  • Ensure that there is capacity as well as capability
    Capability is also linked to capacity. Even if an individual has the required skills and knowledge, is there capacity in the manager’s role to carry out the change?