Leading and managing change is their No.1 organizational challenge, according to a panel of HR, learning and talent professionals surveyed by CCL.

How can organizations tackle this challenge? How can managers become better equipped to steer their organizations and their people though change?

One crucial step is to help managers understand the process of change. Far from an academic exercise, grasping the different phases of change gives leaders a picture of what they need to do and when.

With practice (yes, the experience of leading change can be practiced), leaders can anticipate and mitigate predictable problems.

CCL breaks down the process of change into four parts:

Discover. Change begins with understanding. What is the need for change? Will it be evolutionary or revolutionary in nature? What is the scope? What is the urgency? What communities, stakeholder groups and change agents need to be taken into consideration? Who are the core team members and how do they interact? What is the level of commitment?

Missing or dismissing signals that change is needed is a predictable problem. Through the discovery process, leaders can pick up on important clues and information and pursue deeper understanding of the need and change challenges. Other predictable problems at this stage include disagreement and subjectivity around the scope and urgency of change and lack of commitment.

Decide. The vision is formed, the change terrain is mapped, priorities are set and plans are created. Tough decisions need to be made.

Predictable problems in this phase include failing to focus — one of the challenges organizations face is that there are too many things to pay attention to at once. People have to learn to step away from the change buffet. Other missteps include investing in the wrong consultant or the wrong type of intervention, and ignoring leadership and organizational readiness.

Do. Communicating and taking steps to enact the change begins. The roll-out may be slow, or fast-paced, but the transition to accepting and leveraging the change is a gradual process. Change leaders must show commitment to the change initiative and, above all, to the people who are affected by the change.

Many change initiatives and new ideas fall apart at the “do” phase, even if the “discover” and “decide” phases are undertaken with care. Emergent issues, such as a new competitive threat, an economic shift or a small problem growing into a big problem, can shake up an otherwise solid change effort.

Change also has unanticipated side effects — leaders cannot fully predict the impact the change will have or how people will react. Reactions may be positive or negative, but leaders need to prepare for irrational, emotional and political responses to change. Be aware that lack of leadership is often the cause when change efforts derail during implementation [see related article “14 Signs Your Company has a Problem with Change.”]

Discern. Change may continue and solidify, or it may fall off or fail to take hold. Change leaders must discern what is working and what isn’t in order to maintain focus, energy, resources and support to ensure change sustains over time. Learning — what has and has not been effective in the change process — and adapting are critical to success.

In this final phase, predictable pitfalls include losing focus, turnover of key people and shifting priorities. Change agents and people throughout the organization can too easily move on to something else, making seemingly successful changes vulnerable to neglect.

Of course, change is ongoing and layered; multiple changes simultaneously cycle though the four phases at different paces. But by breaking down change into a process, it becomes a bit more manageable for everyone involved. Over time, leaders and organizations can strengthen their capability for navigating change and avoid many pitfalls that cause most change efforts to fail.

Seeking Info on Change?

A new CCL white paper, Navigating Change: A Leader’s Role, describes the difference between change management and change leadership, plus five ideas change leaders need to know.

CCL offers a two-day course, Navigating Change, to help managers guide their teams through a current change. Participants work with peers and CCL experts, are immersed in a change simulation activity, learn their personal preference for change, and plan how to apply — and sustain — what they learn.

CCL also works with senior leadership teams who are seeking change resources and guidance on organizational transformation. Contact us for details.

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