Some time ago, I was at a dinner party and someone I had just met asked me what I do. So I began with my usual spiel:
“I help people adapt to and accept the change they experience as employees.”
“Hmm” she said, looking puzzled. “What does that mean?”
I smiled, appreciating her curiosity. “Well, organizations go through changes and employees feel the impact of those changes. Change can involve anything from having to adjust to and accept a new leader and leadership style to a technology change that impacts the work process, to a merger with another company and the resulting layoffs, and so on.”
“Been there, done that,” she offered.
“My role in all this is to help make it easier for employees to adjust to and accept change, which usually ensures that the change is successful for the organization.”
Normally, this response would prompt the listener to subtly change the subject to something else, like the weather, but in this particular case I received more questions.
“Wow – that’s interesting. So you kind of help people cope with change. I could have used that at my last job! But what do you actually do?”
“Part of what I do involves ensuring that employees understand exactly what the change will be, why the change is happening, and what’s in it for them. The bulk of what I do involves gaining insight into how that change will introduce discomfort into the lives of those affected by it and coming up with ways to reduce that discomfort so that people are more likely to adapt to and accept the change.”
“Oh, I see.” Her face lit up. “So, good communication seems key.”
“Yes, keeping employees informed about what is coming, why it’s coming, what’s in it for them and steps they can take to make the change easier to deal with is important and essential – but it’s insufficient to help people adapt to change, and accept their new situation.”
She thought for a moment, and then said, “Hmm…I always thought Change Management was about communication. Come to think of it, I liked knowing what was going on, but I can’t say knowing made it that much easier to accept the change.”
“I agree. Knowing about change doesn’t necessarily make it easier to accept. That’s why the bigger part of what I do is focused on discovering gaps, which provides insight into why people are not likely to adapt to and accept change. This leads to methods of closing those gaps.”
“So what’s this field called?”
“It’s called Change Management. Have you heard of it?”
“Yes I have…at my workplace. So, if Change Management is more than just ensuring better communication about change, what does it involve?”
Step 1: Know your Stakeholders
“Change Management can be defined as a set of related activities involving the group of people being affected by the change – these people are called stakeholders. Stakeholders can be divided into subgroups based on the extent to which they will be affected by the implementation and success or failure of the change initiative.”
“Makes sense that you should know your affected groups first” she said. I nodded and continued.
“Once the stakeholders have been identified and grouped, the second step involves identifying gaps for each stakeholder group, between the way things work now, called current state and the way we want them to work, called future state.”
Suddenly, in a British accent, she said “So you have to Mind the Gaps,” emphasizing the last three words as she gestured quotes. I recognized that she was referring to the audio warning at subway stations in London that tell you to ‘Mind the Gap’ as you board the train.
“You’re absolutely right! Mind the Gaps!” I exclaimed laughing.
“Third, we determine the best solution(s) to help close the gaps.”
“Close the Gaps!” she asserted.
“Yup!” I smiled. “Fourth, we manage implementing those solutions to make adoption and acceptance of change easier.”
“Cross over to the future state?” she offered.
“You’ve got it!” I liked how she was following along.
She looked at me thoughtfully and counting on her fingers she said “So…first, know your stakeholders, second, mind the gaps, third, close the gaps and fourth, cross over to the future state.” She smiled, seeming proud of having grasped the four general steps of the Change Management process.
“Nice!” I said smiling and feeling like we had reached that point in the conversation when she would change the topic to something else.
She interrupted the pause and with an expression of concern said, “I don’t know many people who like change. What if leadership decides change is necessary, but people don’t like the nature of the change, for example, they don’t like the specific software that is chosen to replace an older one?”
“Good question. After leadership has decided that change is necessary, it’s very important that they engage the stakeholders who will be most affected to determine how the change will be implemented. In your example, they would engage stakeholders in determining which software is best to replace the old one.”
“That makes sense” she said, thoughtfully. “I worked in a company where they skipped this step and experienced morale issues and employees quitting their jobs.”
Steps 2 & 3: Mind and Close the Gaps
“Well, the term ‘gap’ is used to express the difference between the current state and future state. Minding the gaps involves first defining the current and future states in a structured manner, then comparing the two states to find differences or gaps. A thorough gap analysis leads to identifying strategies that can help close the gaps and then cross over to the future state.”
I could tell she was processing what I had said. “Which do you define first, the future state or current state? Seems like you’d want to know how things are now before you decide how you want them to be.”
I looked at her and smiled, appreciating her critical thinking. “You know, you should be in my field. You ask such thoughtful questions – I know you’d be good at this.”
She smiled back and I continued. “The short answer is that there is no hard and fast rule. Whether you start with future state, current state, or consider them side by side depends on the nature of the gap you’re trying to assess and the organizational circumstances. Whenever I can, however, I start the gap assessments with the end in mind.”
“Why?” She probed.
I think it was Steven Covey who, in his book ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, wrote ‘Start with the end in mind.’ I’ve discovered a lot of benefit to adopting that philosophy in Change Management. Leadership has already defined the future state to some extent by the time the organization begins trying to achieve it. Part of Change Management involves helping stakeholders further define that vision and its benefits in their context. The expectations, hope and excitement that come from imagining a better future can fuel the process of defining the current state, minding the gaps, closing the gaps, and crossing over to the future state.”
I paused again. She said “So exploring what the future state means in their context defines what’s in it for them. This must give people a reason to participate in ensuring the success of a change initiative. Am I right?”
“You’re absolutely correct! I exclaimed.
“Very interesting…” She trailed off in thought, then said “So back to gaps…tell me more.”
“Gaps can exist in up to five aspects of change, depending on the situation. If you look for these five types of gaps then you know you’ve identified a comprehensive set of gaps.”
“Five gaps only huh?” She said cheekily with a smile. “Sounds like you’ve really thought this through!”
I was caught off guard “Well…I…”
She rescued me with “I’m kidding! So tell me the five gaps.”
“Ok, let’s use an example to illustrate as I explain. Imagine that the company you work for told your team that starting next year, you will be using a new software system to track inventory.”
“Ok – got it” she said, looking amused.
“In their research, Leadership may have discovered that the trend in the industry is to use cloud-based software-as-a-service for managing inventory and decided to replace their legacy system, which they believed to be slow and clunky.”
“So, one potential gap in this example is between your leadership’s vision of the future state and its benefits and what your team understands about how they will benefit from adopting the future state. This is called an Alignment Gap, because key stakeholder perceptions are not aligned with the leadership stakeholder vision.”
“How do you know how wide this gap in alignment is?” She asked.
“The Change Management consultant needs to spend time learning the Leadership perspective and what key stakeholders who will be affected by the change understand about it. In our example, one way to accomplish this is to ask the stakeholders what they like and dislike about their current software and what they know about the benefits the future state software will provide.”
“What the consultant learns from this step can be used in a subsequent dialogue with key stakeholders to close the Alignment Gap. For example, if performing queries and generating reports is a manual and laborious task in the current state software, and this task will be easier in the future state software, this knowledge can be used in the dialogue with stakeholders to highlight what’s in it for them to buy into the future state. Another important step in closing the alignment gap is to engage stakeholders in gathering requirements for and in selecting the specific software-as-a-service to replace the legacy system. Stakeholders will select software that will eliminate many of the pain points they experience with the current software, thus establishing the answer to ‘what’s-in-it-for-me?’”
I paused, searching her face for signs of boredom, thinking I was getting too much in the weeds. “Go on.” she said surprising me with her level of interest.
“For example, in the current state, your inventory process may involve manual activities like handling paper purchase orders, making phone calls to verify orders before entering them in the system and creating reports. In the future state, all tasks might be done in the software, eliminating the manual tasks involved in the current state and eliminating the need to speak directly with vendors. The new software may also show reports in ways that employees are not accustomed to.”
“While on the surface the future state looks better from an efficiency standpoint, for the people doing the job, it may feel sterile and lacking in human contact, because people may enjoy talking with vendors. This could make the change more difficult to adopt and accept.”
“As the person responsible for reconciling orders with inventory, you need to know and feel comfortable that the future state software will handle the uniqueness of your work process while making your job easier. A comparison of current and future state processes can be followed by questions like, what aspects of the current process need to be retained. Why? How important are the unique aspects of the current process? These questions help identify general User Experience Gaps. This kind of user experience gap analysis is the starting point for technical requirements gathering, which involves determining how the new software needs to be configured or customized to deliver the desired future state.”
I paused again wondering if I was making sense and said “You haven’t touched your Tiramisu,” longing to dig into mine, as it is my favorite Italian dessert.
She didn’t say anything, but picked up her spoon, took a bite of her dessert, and looked distant, as if in deep thought.
She seemed to be processing what I had said about alignment gaps and user experience gaps. I wondered what she was thinking and attempted to break the silence with “Yup. I know…it’s deep stuff!”
She didn’t seem to hear me, and after a little thought, she said “So the process of identifying user experience gaps must set up expectations in the minds of stakeholders.”
I must have startled her with my responses, because she stepped back a little.
“Precisely!” I exclaimed, impressed with her insight. “That’s the double-edged sword! If you bother to ask stakeholders for input about how to improve their process for handling inventory, you set up expectations that the process will be improved in accordance with that input. However, not all inputs can be accommodated, so if expectations are not managed, your adoption and acceptance of the change are at risk. In many IT projects, inadequate effort to manage expectations, which are set up by engaging stakeholders to understand user experience gaps, is a fundamental reason for poor adoption and acceptance of change.”
She seemed to detect the passion in my voice and said with a smile, “Now that’s deep dude.” I got the sense she might be making fun of me, but she smiled, so I continued.
“Once user experience gaps are understood and technical requirements have been gathered, a decision may be made to deliver only a subset of the technical requirements. In this situation stakeholder expectations will have to be managed. Stakeholders will have to be shepherded through accepting that some requirements cannot be met and through accepting the methods for closing these gaps.”
“Ok, so how do you manage expectations?”
Requirement Fulfillment Gaps
“Well, the first step is to list user requirements that cannot be fulfilled. These are the third type of gaps called Requirement Fulfillment Gaps. We manage expectations by closing these gaps. Each gap can be closed either with a work-around or with the addition of resources. In either case, there is a potential for encountering knowledge and skill gaps in existing employees who have to do work-arounds or new employees who have to be trained to do the work.”
Knowledge and Skill Gaps
“Knowledge and Skill Gaps are the fourth type of gaps. They point to what people need to know and the skills they need to possess to succeed in the future state. An analysis of these gaps can determine how they can be closed, either through training, job aids and/or coaching.”
“Training, job aids and coaching can only close the knowledge and skill gaps. Knowledge and skill gaps usually result in the fifth type of gap, a Proficiency Gap. This is a gap between the level of desired performance and the current level of performance on a specific task or job. In order to determine where proficiency gaps are, it is necessary to determine performance metrics, goals and methods of monitoring and measuring performance.”
“So closing the knowledge, skill and proficiency gaps is the key to adoption?” She asked.
“Good question…let me refill your drink and I’ll tell you.” I took her wine glass and headed to the drink table, looking back, as if to reassure her that I would be back.
As I turned around to walk back to my new friend, I saw someone else about to engage her in conversation so I rushed back and said “Here you are! Now, where were we?”
She turned and smiled seeing her wine glass refilled and said “Hmm…you had just finished describing the alignment, user experience, requirements, knowledge, skills and proficiency gaps you encounter in Change Management and how to close them. Then I asked whether closing the knowledge, skill and proficiency gaps is the key to adoption.”
Step 4: Cross Over to the Future State
“Ah – right!” I was happy she was tracking.
“Not quite, while closing these gaps is necessary, it is not sufficient. The key to adoption is that the work must be positively reinforcing. Positive reinforcement can come from different aspects of doing a job. One source can be the workers themselves. This kind of positive reinforcement is also called self-reinforcement, because, simply put, workers like what they do.”
“Well, I’m paid for what I do and I LOVE it!” She interrupted. I forced a smile and continued with what I felt was a very important point regarding achieving adoption and acceptance.
“A second source of positive reinforcement is the job itself. If the job is made easier than it used to be, that difference in user experience is positively reinforcing, and can sustain desirable performance indefinitely.”
“Many technology changes are very dependent on this kind of positive reinforcement. In the example we used before, if doing inventory management is hassle free (requires less phone calls), involves handling less paperwork (avoid losing invoices etc.) and takes less time (so you feel more productive), wouldn’t you enjoy your job more?”
“Yes, but earlier you alluded to people liking phone conversations with vendors.”
“Good catch! Yes, sometimes over-engineering a job can remove positive reinforcers from the job, like human contact. However, there are ways around this, which a good Change Management consultant can find.“
“Positive reinforcement that is engineered into the job is extremely powerful and should be leveraged whenever it can be, because over time, it pays dividends, can cost less to administer than the third source of positive reinforcement, and is generally sufficient to maintain high levels of performance indefinitely, all other things being equal. But not all kinds of work can be engineered to yield positive reinforcement, so a third source of positive reinforcement needs to be used. This third source is the supervisor who is held accountable for production and quality.“
“The supervisor passes his or her accountability on to employees. In some cases, the supervisor operates in a way that establishes an unspoken threat to employees – Do it or else… The enlightened supervisor, on the other hand, passes on accountability in the form of recognition and rewards for improving performance and for maintaining proficient performance.”
“When positive reinforcement is dependent on performance, it’s called performance-based positive reinforcement. Many organizations today train their management teams to recognize and reward performance improvement and proficient performance. Performance-based positive reinforcement relies on objective measurement and consistency to be effective.”
Once a method of monitoring and measuring performance is designed, a system of rewards and recognition needs to be attached to performance improvement and goal attainment to facilitate reaching and maintaining proficiency.”
Suffice it to say, regardless of which type of positive reinforcement is experienced by employees, it is always more effective in generating discretionary effort than threat-based management.”
” So that’s it.” I said, summarizing, “Know your stakeholders, mind the gaps, close the gaps and cross over to the future state!”
“Yup” She replied. “And to close gaps, get people to understand what’s in it for them to adopt and accept change; Gather an understanding of what they need in their journey towards adoption and acceptance; Manage expectations along the way; Monitor what requirements cannot be fulfilled and devise work-arounds and/or resource solutions to close those gaps; Identify and close knowledge and skill gaps and implement a proficiency improvement plan with positive reinforcement. That’s all!”
I was impressed with how well she had listened and retained what I had said. Having run out of steam, I said “so we haven’t really talked about what you do…”
She smiled and interrupted me, “Yes we have. I’m a Change Management Consultant.” With that, my new friend walked towards the table for some coffee, looking back and smiling as she proceeded.
Copyright 2016 by Andrew Shamrao, All Rights Reserved
I would like to thank the following individuals for providing feedback on earlier drafts of this article: Mahnoor Shamrao, Lisa Heil, Dan Jarmel, Ruth Grouell, Craig LaFargue, Katrina Twaddell, Travis Peterson, Nick Raad, and Jur Strobos.