5-second summary
  • Any major change within an organization will create a certain amount of disruption.
  • Organizations may be resistant to make changes over fear of “sunk costs” related to prior investments.
  • People may have emotional investments in old habits, software, and workflows.
  • The change – and the reason for it – needs to be communicated clearly, honestly, and frequently.

If there’s one word that describes the process of making big changes to big-deal processes, systems, or workflows, that word might be “chaos.” But here’s the good news: an effective change management process – which is your plan to organize that chaos – can yield lasting, positive results. 

“Change management is about managing the chaos of changing humans from one habit to another,” says Kim Perkins, an organizational psychologist who has a doctorate in positive organizational technology.  

Whether you’re planning a migration to the cloud or reorganizing your corporate structure, Perkins says that creating a human-centered plan for change management will help you increase buy-in and head off potential problems before they arise. 

We asked Perkins to share some of her best insights on effective (and less stressful) organizational change management.

What is a change management process?

A change management process is a structured set of steps for moving from the old to the new. It takes into account all the people, processes, and systems that will be impacted by a transition. Whenever an organization plans to make a switch – to a different system, type of software, org structure, or even culture – they may enter into a process of change management.

For example, a cloud migration might impact legal, security teams, and end users. Working with stakeholders in advance of and during the change can minimize disruption throughout the organization.

pro tip

Change can be daunting, but proper planning helps. The change management plays from the Atlassian Playbook can help head off disruption during your team’s next big change.

5 critical steps in the change management process

Do you have to be a manager to be a changemaker?

Perkins has worked with many organizations that thought they could just tell everyone to stop using one tool and start using a different one. “It sounds really easy,” says Perkins. “All everybody has to do is click a button. And it’s actually one of the hardest things to get people to do.”

That’s why, when Perkins consults with an organization trying to make a change, she uses a human-centered approach that can be broken down into five steps.

1. Get clarity on the intended result of the change

Sometimes you know exactly what you need to do – move your software system to the cloud, or use a more secure chat platform. But Perkins often sees clients that want a particular but non-specific result and haven’t figured out what that actually looks like. 

For instance, a client might say they want “everyone to be more innovative.” In that case, Perkins would push them to dive deeper. “Does it really need to be everybody? And when you say ‘be more innovative,’ what is it that you want them to do? How would you know if you walked in one day and saw people being more innovative? Who would be doing what?”

2. Identify your supporters and skeptics

Once you’ve identified your end goal, it’s time to wrangle your champions. These are the people who will be cheerleaders for the change and encourage others to get on board. 

“When you find them,” says Perkins, “you want to load them up with resources and empower them to go off and carry the banner.” 

You’ll also want to identify the people who will oppose or block your change plan. Your level of engagement with these folks depends on their power within the organization. For instance, if the head of IT opposes your big IT change, you could be in for a difficult road. 

But Perkins warns that leaders often spend too much time thinking about the people that will oppose a plan. There will always be opposition, but the skeptics can be more than offset by effective champions.

3. Acknowledge the loss

Moving to something new always involves the loss of something old. That means letting go of emotional attachment to familiar ways of working or a sunk-cost mindset.

Perkins worked with a film studio that had made several unsuccessful attempts to transition their team from AOL to a more secure messaging service. “When we’re stressed, we do the thing that we know works,” says Perkins. “So if AOL has worked for me for the last 10 years, I’m going to go there when I need a quick answer from a colleague.” 

To ease the transition, Perkins encouraged the company to take the loss of AOL seriously. They put a big poster of the AOL running man in the lobby and asked everyone to write their screen name on it, along with a little goodbye.  

“Everybody had a great time with it, with the screen name they’d made up when they were 12. People took pictures with it,” says Perkins. It became a cultural moment.

Of course, it doesn’t always need to be a huge process, says Perkins. “It can be taking a moment in a meeting to give some applause to Fred, who wrote our old software system in 1997.”

4. Offer an honest explanation

Once team members have processed the loss, they’re ready to think about the future. 

Leaders need to be open and honest, says Perkins, and “realistic with your team that it sucks to have to make a change.” Then explain the undeniable forces that are requiring it. 

Perkins cautions that a lack of explanation often leads employees to believe the worst – that the change is based on ego or one person’s whim. 

Taking the time to describe the market forces acting on team members will help them envision the possibilities for the future. “When you can see and feel it for yourself, that’s when the real change happens. And that’s when people get on board,” says Perkins.

5. Implement the change

By the time you’ve gotten buy-in, implementation can be relatively straightforward. Some companies hire a change management consultant who specializes in the specific technology or corporate structure you’re moving to – they can help with the actual mechanics of implementation.  

“The most important thing you can do as a leader is walk your talk,” says Perkins. Implementation is about you and your champions engaging fully and visibly in the change. 

“So if somebody messages you on [an old tool], respond on the new tool you want everyone to use. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many people don’t do this,” says Perkins. “Your example will go a long way.”

The challenge of change: Why is change management so hard?

Workplace overwhelm: how to protect your team from change fatigue

This can come as a shock to leaders – especially new ones – but it’s not a given that people will get on board with a requested (or even a mandated) change. Employees are especially apt to resist changes that they see as based on a leader’s ego, a whim, or the latest fad. And resistance to a particular change isn’t always immediately obvious. 

Ever heard of slow walking? 

“It’s a way that people combat initiatives they don’t agree with but don’t feel they have the political power to actively oppose,” says Perkins. It’s a common problem among organizations that have a history of making lots of changes that didn’t work. 

Employees sometimes see new change plans as short-term problems that will blow over if they wait long enough. They verbally cooperate with a change initiative but never quite get around to making the change. 

If you’re dealing with a history of unsuccessful changes, it’s important to acknowledge the past and approach the new normal with a change management process that addresses employees’ resistance and accounts for change fatigue

A leader’s own resistance can stall change as well. 

Particularly in situations where organizations are trying to make cultural changes, the path is long, and not everyone will get on board. A leader has to be prepared to say goodbye to people who won’t adapt to change. “If you let high-profile saboteurs linger, then everybody’s going to decide you’re not interested in this after all. And they won’t do it,” says Perkins. “That’s a hard choice for a lot of people. But if you’re not willing to make that choice, you’re not ready for a cultural change.”

4 (more) things to remember about change management

The secret to people management? Less managing, more peopling

When you’re beginning a change management process, keep these four principles in mind. 

  1. You can’t please everyone. “Not everybody is going to like this, and that’s okay,” says Perkins. “People get really, really focused on the people who are going to oppose this or that. Spend your time instead on who’s going to be in favor of it and why you’re doing it.”
  2. Change takes time. “When leaders talk about change, they need to talk about it over and over and over,” says Perkins. “If you’re sick of talking about this, that’s probably the right amount.” Making change takes cognitive effort, and we’re more likely to engage in that effort if we’ve had the time to wrap our minds around it and learn its benefits.
  3. Visibility is critical. Most people will do what they see everyone else doing. “People often approach change as if you have to go in and convince everyone, and it’s not like that at all. Research says most people – 80% – are going to be fence-sitters. They don’t really care one way or the other. But they won’t do it if they don’t feel like everybody’s doing it.”
  4. Leadership comes from the top. “If the leaders at the top aren’t doing it, it’s not going to get done,” says Perkins. If employees think it’s a rule they have to follow but management doesn’t, they’ll resist every time.

Out with the old: How to support change in your organization

The most effective way to support change in your organization is to remember that change is a team effort – and then develop processes that help achieve the buy-in you need. 

“Any change is going to have a wide variety of people involved in it, because no change can happen from just one person making a decision,” says Perkins. “Other people have to care, to have input, to carry it out and convert people. Even if you’re doing something as simple as changing from one piece of software to another, it’s gonna have to be a team approach. Legislating it doesn’t work.”

Organize the chaos: 5 steps to effective change management