Cha-cha-changes: The key to managing change is information

As IT professionals, we must always be cognizant of the fact that change is a risk factor that must be accounted for and managed. Even if the changes are completely for the better, they will be resisted, often quite vocally. And even the smallest modification can cause a maelstrom of discontent far exceeding the magnitude of the change, if it isn't handled right.

I'm currently involved with a community of users who experienced a drastic change in one of their applications overnight. Even though they had been warned of the impending changes, and some of the users actually had input into the process, the change has been overwhelming to many of them.

As to be expected, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth and cries for things to go back to the way they were. While some have (grudingly) resigned themselves to learning the new system, others swear they will never use it, and some have embraced it for all the reasons that initiated the changes in the first place. So, was this a good rollout, a failed rollout, or something in between?

Before we answer that question, let's talk about change in general. Everyone tends to believe that people hate change. Hate may be a strong word, but people often tend to look upon change with a less than favorable attitude. Why is that? There are dozens of reasons, but here are some of the leading candidates:

Fear of the unknown, loss of control, fear of being made to look "stupid", loss of knowledge/feeling worthless because what you knew is no longer relevant, change in your routine, forced learning, bad past experiences with change, rigid thinking/lack of flexibility.

Given these reasons, you have to wonder why we attempt change at all. With all the negativity surrounding change, isn't any major change destined to fail? The answer is not necessarily. A better way to phrase the question is, "Isn't any major change subject to failure?" To that question, the answer is a resounding yes!

As IT professionals, we must always be cognizant of the fact that change is a risk factor that must be accounted for and managed. Even if the changes are completely for the better, they will be resisted, often quite vocally. And even the smallest modification can cause a maelstrom of discontent far exceeding the magnitude of the change, if it isn't handled right.

So how do we manage this change? To answer this, consider why people dislike change. One theme is fear of the unknown and a loss of knowledge. You combat this with information. Unless you have a very strong reason for surprising people with change (those situations do exist) you should precede change by providing lots of information.

Inform those to be affected why changes are being made, what they are, and how things will work differently. Don't be stingy with your information either. While there should always be executive summaries available of what you are planning to communicate, you should be ready with more verbose explanations of the change. People often calm their fears about change by garnering as much information as possible about it. Don't let people starve for this kind of information. The more you can provide, the better the outcome.

Besides providing information, you need to control your change schedule. Even people who are more accepting of change often dislike sudden change. If at all possible, make people aware of the schedule, and make it as gradual as possible. Shock and awe might work in a military campaign, but it is usually bad for change management.

Include change-affected users as much as possible in the planning stages. Not all change fits this category, but if you can get active participation in the development, you will have allies in the audience that can share their knowledge with their coworkers and thus buffer the response to change.

Lastly, communicate during the change process. Listen to and respond to comments, both good and bad. Even if you provided tons of information prior to the changes, keep information flowing and show that you are listening--even if it is just to say that you understand their concerns and you will try to help them through any issues the best way you can.

As a government IT professional, you must be prepared to deal with an enormous amount of change. From your role as a change agent in the organization, to the fact that wholesale changes are often thrust upon you due to politics and differences in administrations, you have to be prepared to manage change to achieve successful outcomes.

As far as the application change I mentioned at the start of this article, the jury is still out. It sometimes takes a while to judge the results of changes, but my gut tells me this is going to be one of those in-between roll outs.

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