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Change Management: Learning the Hard Way

Chris Compston
Nov 16, 2020 · 13 min read

Introducing new process and team structure at a large scale, and continuously operating, organizations are always going to be a challenge. The number of people involved can range in the hundreds to thousands. Managers capable of change management at this scale are going to be more successful in ensuring the process is smooth, but of course, there are still challenges whenever people are involved.

Change is a hard but necessary state of growing organisations. And that is all organisations — it is very rare for a business to be able to stand still, if it is not growing then it is shrinking, often rapidly. Change is a necessity and how the organisation handles change will prove how successful it can be in the future.

While change is generally hard to implement at large scale it is inherently Agile by nature; “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.” and “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.“

At the operational level, change; adapting to new situations or understanding, continuous learning and iteration of team processes, for Agile product development teams should be the norm. But without an understanding of where new process and structure can be beneficial to the team they will always be defensive to larger scale operational change, even if they accept it is required for progress.

Introducing change at scale

A year ago, September 2019, I joined Farfetch as a Product Operations Lead. The initial few months were spent understanding how the business operated, attempting to learn how the visible and invisible leadership worked. Soon after the Director of Product Design tasked our small team (only 2 people at the time) with bringing structure to the design function.

The Product Design function in this particularly area of the organisation was approximately 50 people. The impact reach of the change was anywhere between 100–300 people depending on the team, initiatives and business partners, with impact reducing outwards the further away people are.

We introduced Design Flow in March 2020, perfectly timed with the Europe wide pandemic lockdown. This was an intense and challenging learning period for us all. Probably not the ideal time to introduce new process, but when is?

Design Flow introduced structure and process standardisation across multiple teams with designers that worked, for the most part, independently of each other. Design leadership were too far away from the work to ensure consistency and quality across channels and we just didn’t know how design was impacting either our customers or the business.

New forcing functions, at the start and end of the design process, supported our understanding of why the work was important but also our awareness of when design work could be stopped. Standards were introduced allowing designers to have real conversations around the complexity of the problem they were attempting to solve and to improve their focus by limiting work in progress.

Rituals that supported the cross-channel alignment of future work, reinforced the quality of ongoing work and provided leadership the visibility of completed work across our area were key components of the change.

It has been hard but coming up to the end of the year, for the most part these components are now in place. Design Flow is an ongoing change project that is evolving organically by itself but we need more time to tell if it has been truly successful. It isn’t just a box ticking exercise, the change has to be valuable.

Learning the hard way

While I’d been involved with, and in some cases initiated, change programmes at other organisations these were either with smaller Product and Design functions or as part of a larger team. As a consultant I’d talk about the need for change and what that might look like, but in many cases the internal client leadership would drive the process.

Here is everything I learnt, or at least remembered to write down, over the past 12 months. The hope is that this will support any large scale change management you may take on or be part of.

Setting up for success

Connect to the big picture
People need to know how the change connects to the strategic direction, not everyone has the same view of the organisation. From an operational standpoint what does the change achieve? This has to be visualised to fully communicate why the change is valuable to the business and people should be taken through the narrative.

Everything takes 2–3 times longer than expected
When we introduced Design Flow at beginning of March I genuinely expected the initial changes to take no longer than 3 months. In some cases 9 months later we are still trying to get the change over the line. Most of the components of the change are there, but the actual value is not fully realised yet.

Audit, Define, Communicate, Operationalise …
This was a basic change process introduced to me by one of our Product Directors Anita Grummels. It supported us while we tried to understand the current problems and challenges, defining what could be done differently, communicating that at various levels and then putting them into operational. Although we tried to follow this, for me the framework was applied too loosely and with more consideration on my part it would have been more succesful.

… Optimise, Elevate, Celebrate
Following on from the above the next three additions to the process, when the change had taken hold, allowed us to consider the future. As written about at the beginning of this article, change is a constant. Optimising the change, elevating to higher levels or across a broader landscape and celebrating in the success should be ongoing.

Understand the current state of play
It might seem quite obvious but understanding what is actually happening in the organisation before embarking on any kind of change plan is quite important to knowing what, and how, change is required. If that discovery work has been completed upfront by another team or external consultants then it has to be done again by the people in charge of making the change. This is the only way they’ll fully understand the challenges with the current structure and processes and build the right relationships.

Idiosyncrasy overcomes complexity
Even the most complex procedures and processes become natural and even easy, requiring low cognitive load, when done regularly. When complex procedures are learnt there is an element of achievement and recognition that people struggle to let go of. If the change is to replace these processes and interactions then people will need further convincing of the value.

Keeping it Lean
When defining a change strategy it is worthwhile following a Lean experimental approach. Identifying problems with research and discovery, aligning them to the strategy, writing ‘How Might We … ?’ statements, considering potential solutions to solve the problem, writing hypothesis statements and considering minimal viable change solutions to experiment with.

Trials only help if set up with the right team and focus
If following an experimental approach then trials are a great way to test whether new processes can be adopted by a smaller set of people early on and whether they’re actionable and valuable before scaling. However, trials only work with close coaching, with the right team of people and with the right focus.

Celebrate success, even the small things
It makes people feel good to know things are going well! There is always going to be challenges and these will take the majority of focus for the change team. However highlighting the good and celebrating success will diffuse tension and get things back on track even when challenges might threaten to derail.

Communication is a priority

Planning change communication
Defining a consistent way to communicate the change is fundamental. Not knowing what level of detail or content is required for different levels across the organisation can result in frustration and misunderstanding. Spend the right amount of time mapping the different players, from those that will have accountability for change or anyone with direct actions to take, to those with only a high level interest in the change programme. As Mike Gyi suggested to me — create different communication groups of how often, in what channels and with what level of detail each group requires.

Communicating asynchronously
Consider the asynchronous and synchronous communication options that are available. In many cases there won’t be a need for video calls or personal meetings to convey a message. Knowledge base services, documentation hubs or promoting offline feedback through message or digital collaboration tools can work particularly well.

Show first, document second
Supporting documentation is obviously useful for both asynchronous communication and as an ongoing reference point for the change process. However it can often be forgotten, ignored or too detached from the reality on the ground. Taking people through the change with real life examples, having open conversation about what it means for them will resonate and mean the change is more successful.

Quickly identify the missing communication links
The communication of change is vital to its success. Not just the change that is taking place but the value of the change and why it is beneficial to the people having to make it. If there are missing communication links from the top down then the change will not take hold, the people impacted won’t understand the value or how to operate with the new process.

Actions need to be 100% clear
If there are actions required by other people they have to be super clear. Everyone needs to know what is expected of them, when it should happen and be supported to make it happen.

Clearly explain what isn’t changing
Something we noticed early on in the change process, but only due to initial feedback, was the clear explanation of what was not changing and why. There were too many early conversations to explain that some of the procedures and rituals designers had with their product development teams would not change.

Silence can be corrosive, but doesn’t mean theres no action
We have all been there, silence is a powerful tool. It’s hard to know how to react when there is wall of silence and sometimes you wish there was heated argument instead. But silence doesn’t mean there is no action happening and it might just mean that people don’t know how or where they should be communicating.

Broken records are corrosive too, they wear people down
With silence it is very easy to fall into the trap of filling it with more and more words. More communication, more sessions, remote meetings, workshops, documentation, presentations. It can be tiring, if the value of the change isn’t communicated early and effectively then people won’t even know why they’re being bombarded with more communication or how to respond.

Working with people

Identify those people accountable
With large scale change there will be people that need to be accountable for its success. Those people need to be identified quickly as they may not have been involved in the discovery or planning stages of the project. They will need to be given plenty of time and brought on the same journey the change team has been through. It needs to be very clear what they’re accountable for, why it is important and what the timeline looks like.

Co-creation is key to adoption
One of the most impactful opportunities we missed was the chance to co-create the change with the people that were to be involved in implementing it. Co-creation may have resulted in the same or similar changes but the broader adoption would have been more effective.

Delegation is key — “Who is your second?”
Everyone is busy, that is just a fact of business. When actions need to be taken as part of the change process it is worth suggesting that people delegate authority to others in their team. It gives emerging leaders some accountability while easing the pressure to act across multiple teams.

Identify early adopters, make them heroes
As with anything new there will be people in the team that are more excited, bought in and eager to be involved than others. These are the early adopters, the ones that can be ambassadors to the change at various operational levels. They should be identified quickly and elevated as this will catalyse the change and bring the next round of followers.

Find and elevate change ambassadors
Something we found valuable but introduced far too late was change ambassadors. Identify people in the teams who are closer to the work where the change will have the most impact. These people and their voices within the teams can be powerful. It is also a fantastic way to communicate across a large function.

Trust and believe in the people
This should be a value exchange; teams need to trust and believe in the people making the change and believe that it is the right thing to do. In turn the people making the changes have to trust and believe in the teams ability. In a high trust environment people can have healthy conversations on what is and isn’t going well. I’m also reminded here of the Retrospective Prime Directive.

Being aware of grief curves
We were introduced to the “Kubler-Ross Change Curve” about halfway through this change project. It was super interesting to map various people and their roles to the curve and understanding how best to communicate with them at a given time. I wish we’d done this sooner and had a more thorough plan as these grief curves were seen returning multiple times.

Identifying learning styles
There are seven types of learning styles and with more complex change it would be good to understand the people required to make the change and how they prefer to learn. Some people learn best through listening to presentations or videos, while others need to take physical action or visually co-create to fully understand the changes being suggested. This could have formed part of our communication plan had we been more thoughtful at the beginning.

Keep moving forward

Momentum is key
Just keep going, even when the change has been implemented it doesn’t mean the change process has been completed. When it becomes harder, find out why and double down on the issues. When value is misunderstood make it clearer, sometimes if it is the right thing to do it has to be pushed through.

Let terminology grow
We introduced ‘Starting Conditions’ as part of the Design Flow change, but soon after a Product Manager and the team they were working with called them the ‘Golden Questions’. This resonated with that team, they created a Slack emoji to coincide with their conversations and it proved successful for that change. They are now the top team for producing concise and actionable starting conditions and teaching others as they go.

Change becomes organic
As with the above example there is a balancing act between imposing change and letting it grow organically. Letting it go and gently nudging people in the right direction to realise the full intended value is much harder than I expected. While we evangelise a learning by failure approach in our product development process it is actually quite hard to do that with change management as people can very quickly revert back to previous known and more comfortable ways.

Forcing the change

YAPP triangle
This is something I’d never heard of but shared by Justin Stach and explained here by David Rinnert. The YAPP triangle directs how you should act depending on which two corners of the triangle are chosen. Changes might have to be imposed to make sure loops are closed and the team can move onto the next phase of the change.

Being the benevolent dictator
Sometimes, just sometimes, the change team might know better and there will be times when change has to be imposed dictatorially. It could be the case that people aren’t aware of business pressure, financial budgets, changes to the organisation or have the right level of experience. Sometimes change just has to be forced through because the value is known, just not by all.

Air cover is vital
There will be levels of leadership who are ultimately accountable for the outcomes any change is planning to achieve. They will need to provide great direction and support to the change team. While most of the time they will be acting at a higher level to protect the team they should also be brought in at certain times to backup the value of change and the message being communicated.

Looking forward

Learn change management
It might seem like an obvious point but if you are new to change management then look for a training programme. There are different frameworks available so choose something that fits the need and the organisational conditions. Two that have been shared with me by Bruno Torres Boeger are Prosci and Human Change Management Institute.

Build a change framework
These frameworks and the associated training will hopefully put the team in a strong position to manage the change. However, change is constant and there will be need for more in the future. All organisations work in different ways; different people, culture built over years if not decades, various communication channels and visible and invisible leadership structures. Because of this it may be valuable to spend time building a change management framework specific to the organisation that fully utilises the cultural and working conditions.

It can’t be done alone
Medium to large scale change really does require a team of people. One person cannot enact change that affects that many people, even with the right leadership in place or the buy in from multiple levels of management, in a timeframe that allows the change to take hold and show value. Elevate current team members, give them the right support and allow them to be 100% focused on the change. If those people aren’t ready or lack experience then hire new people specifically for the change management team or specialist consultants to support the effort.

Change is challenging

The introduction of Design Flow was much harder than I anticipated but I’ve learnt a considerable amount over the last 12 months that will be valuable in the future. It required my full focus and effort to ensure long lasting change could take hold and ultimately prove valuable to the organisation.

As with anything there were people involved at every stage and with people comes challenge, we are human after all. Plans needed to be deeply considered, communication to be focused and clear, teams to continually collaborate, the right amount of time given and leadership to support the change on an ongoing basis.

Yet… all of that is exciting! Once the challenges have been overcome and the change takes place, showing true value and with feedback coming from people and teams, it makes it all worthwhile on an individual level. The hope is that the change is also successful on the organisational level.

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Looking for more? For articles on design, product development, Agile and Lean follow me on Twitter @ndxcc.

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