I was talking to my friend Jacinda recently, and a story she told me summed up so much about what is wrong with the way many businesses manage crucial changes.
Her change management story starts, like many others, in 2020 with COVID-19 and its impacts on the business she works in: a large print company. Faced with a rapid decrease in demand, the company was forced to make some tough, fast decisions. Many of which turned out to be costly mistakes.
Under sudden financial pressure, the company had to lay-off staff and same up with a plan that involved shutting down an entire press line to make this happen.
Unfortunately, changes were rushed through with minimal consultation and the leadership team had missed a few key considerations that meant their predictions on capacity of the remaining operational lines were a long way off the reality. The operators who could see the issue from the start weren’t consulted, and didn’t actively speak up for fear it would affect their chances of keeping their jobs.
Fast forward a couple of months
Given everything else that was going on nobody had really noticed that the press department productivity had slipped dramatically. The remaining staff were growing increasingly disgruntled at the extra workload the cutbacks had created. At first, the unrest was largely put down to the general impact of COVID-19 and the effect it was having on the business as a whole.
The impact on people in the team was so much, that even in a time where there were few other jobs available, some started leaving.
With that unrest becoming increasingly obvious across the business, an employee survey was launched – the first formal feedback in the company’s history.
Once asked directly for feedback, several people in the team now started to speak up about the issues that were being created by the decision to use the newer press. And once the business was aware of this, they acted reasonably quickly to change that decision. Unfortunately, the damage that had been done to their relationship with many of their staff would be irreparable. While trying to deal with a difficult situation, they’d made it many times worse. People who might otherwise have felt grateful to still have a job were disgruntled and worn down.
Rewind: what could have been done differently?
There’s no two ways about it, the company had to make some tough calls, but things could have gone a lot better. It was asking the people at the coalface that eventually solved the problem. So what if they’d done that right at the start?
What if instead of starting by telling the employees “times are tough, we’re going to make changes” they started with “times are tough, we need to make some changes. What do you think we need to do?”
Then used that feedback to come up with a set of changes and cuts, and again went back to their employees and asked for feedback on those changes. And then again, as those changes start to roll out, ask employees for feedback on how they were doing.
This would have given a much better outcome. Painful cuts would still have been made, people would still have lost their jobs, but the ones still in work would have been happier, and productivity would have been higher.
Open source change management for better (and quicker) results
This approach is increasingly being referred to as “open source change management”. By opening up the process and putting more trust in the hands of the people who are most affected, you create an element of trust and shared ownership. It also encourages you to share information more frequently and openly, giving people more certainty and understanding around the decisions that are being made.
Leaders often fear that asking for feedback like this can slow changes down. However, the opposite is often true. As long as you have a way of managing that feedback efficiently, regular check-ins with your people before, during and after implementing large changes will get you to a better result, faster.
Moreover, if you make feedback a regular habit in your business, even when times are more stable, it will increase people’s openness to giving feedback when you need it the most.