Change Management in IT Systems Implementation Projects
One of Digital Mind's core promises to ourselves and to our customers is that we will always bring a project to a successful conclusion, even if it becomes unprofitable for our company. It's a question of honor. Whether it's fortunate or not, I've also participated in such projects. But when I look at the projects that were concluded on time and within budget, I see that they share some common traits. Most important is the use of change management practices. So today I'll share my thoughts and experience with change management. I'll try to define what it is, and identify why it does or doesn't work in practice.
Why is Change Management Important?
For more than 9 years my daily tasks revolve around reinventing and changing various business processes and implementing IT systems for our customers, when they switch electronic document management and business process automation. They are usually projects in Baltic States, spanning both public and private sectors. The duration of these projects - from few weeks to complex project programs that take years to implement. Usually our customers are looking to raise effectiveness, quality and transparency of their business. However lately it's often also a question of compliance (i.e. GDPR). Certainly, the chosen technology solution is important, but more often than not the success or failure of these projects is determined by the human aspect. Yes, technology is less important than whether those involved will change their approach, mindset and habits. Therefore change management is (or should be) one of the most important parts of the project.
With change management I understand a conscious, structured and purposeful effort to achieve that all involved employees are fully informed, equipped and supported to face the change and thrive afterwards.The change itself consists of three distinct changes:
- The Old Order - life as it is now;
- The Change – time when project to change processes and implement new system is happening;
- The New Order– life after change.
How successful the intended new order will be, depends on how successfully the change will be implemented.
Why is it important? Change management in organizations is connected with a certain paradox. For an organization to be able to thrive in in long term it has to periodically reinvent itself, but at the same time it is inevitable that every effort to change something will meet resistance. We live in an era of technology where technology related projects are an everyday part of life for most organizations. So I will afford myself an assumption that almost every reader has experienced implementation of at least one significant IT system and will therefore be able to relate with the impact change management can bring to this process. For more insight into this topic I recommend this evergreen article from HBR: Reinvent Your Business Before It’s Too Late.
3 Essential Challenges
When implementing a new IT system which will be used by a significant share of employees, an organization has to solve a number of issues. Today I'l mention only three of the most common challenges, that are typical "customers" of change management:
- Inertness and passivity from involved parties. The idea behind change has to be force-fed to those that it will benefit the most. It's almost impossible to find any initiative or willingness to take responsibility in such environment.
- Extensive and complex system of involved parties. Not always what's identified in an organizational chart reflects true centers of influence and catalysts for success or failure. If nobody objects openly, it does not mean that everything is proceeding smoothly and is acceptable to everyone. On the contrary, there is high probability that either not all interested parties are involved, or they lack understanding about what's going on. While it is sometimes possible to draw the map of interested parties at the beginning of the project, more often than not the real truth reveals itself only when the new order is about to come into effect.
- Interpretation of information and existence of multiple versions about the upcoming change. This usually takes place in casual conversations between employees. Just like in the thriving "fake news" industry, small fragments of the whole picture are taken out of the context and shared with the different spin. And as every communications professional will tell you, it takes several good (or true) stories to cancel one bad (or false). This leads to a mood that is averse to change and wastes a lot emotions and time.
If these challenges do not receive attention and resources they deserve, it is more than likely that at least one of the three project dimensions - quality, time and budget - will suffer. Unfortunately it is mostly quality that is sacrificed to stay within budget, while deadlines are also often missed.
5 Phases of Change Management
I believe that every event can be divided and structured in certain phases - whether it's human live, realization of an innovative idea, project, deal, creation of artwork or any other. Change management is not an exception, it's a process with specific phases, and specific conditions have to be met to move along them. I will cover the process of change management in another article, while today I want to look into what are the emotional highs and lows that people affected by change go through.
From a perspective of somebody that is implementing the change, those affected go through several emotional states during the project:
It starts with unawareness or refusal to accept that the new order is here to stay. Instead of accepting the new reality, emotions and time is being spent to keep the "status quo". This is often because of lack of understanding about what, why, and how is going to happen, and how it will impact the specific employee. It's not always possible to find the right approach to ease any anxiety for every individual. This can lead to denial, resistance, and ingenious reasons why " our department cannot do this right now or why this solution will not work for us" .
When employees start to understand that the new order is here to stay, beings the awareness phase. It can lead to stress and sometimes even panic, that can have many internal or external manifestations. To maximize the value for organization, change often brings along redistribution of duties and responsibilities that affect specific employees. It is vital to make sure that they are informed and agree to the new roles.
Moment when all involved parties reconcile with the new order is the braking point. For this to happen, most of the initial concerns have to be overcome. They might be concerns about what's going to happen to me, how this particular process will work or how exactly to use this new system.
When users start to see even the smallest practical benefits from the new order, they gain motivation and affirmation that it was all worth it. Verifiable results bring along approval. At this point light at the end of the tunnel begins to shine brighter and previous opposition can easily become loud proponents of the new order. This is also the moment that proves the longevity of the suggestions from the unawareness and awareness phases - often what was once uncertain or unacceptable is now completely normal. When the new order is accepted, the torrent of questions ceases, it slowly becomes self-evident. In truth, at this point the new order becomes the old order and starts to await the next change.
In the future posts I will share more about the change management process itself. I'll also tackle most common mistakes and ideas how to avoid them, as well as how to make sure that change management is included in the scope of the project.
Edgars Stafeckis is Digital Mind partner and consultant who has spent more than 9 years selling complex IT solutions, consulting their implementation, and managing these projects.