Challenges of leading change unexpectedly.

When you ask operational managers and employees what they remember from previous change projects, you get a pretty good picture of how their organisations typically behave during these. A common opinion is that the introduction of the change was done way too quickly. This feeling is especially common among operational managers, who often receive information about the change at the same time as their teams.

They feel that they’ve been pretty much forced into a period in which they’re expected to lead change work. Their time is then characterised by confusion over their own role in the change and by constant firefighting of the associated issues that inevitably arise. Everything seems to happen at the same time. To illustrate the nature of this change trap, we call this phenomenon ‘the Ketchup Effect’.

The Ketchup Effect

The mistake that many corporate executives (and many internal project organisations) make is to believe that it’s possible to go straight from development to implementation in the organisation. External consultants hired to build a new solution mainly focus on just that step, with less consideration of what happens after the solution has been implemented. It is fine—that’s what they are hired for. Nevertheless, we see too often that the human needs of the target group to actually change their behaviours are disregarded in the preparations and plans.

In the worst-case-scenario, operational managers, who lead the day-to-day work, are not involved in the process before the so-called ‘roll-out’.

The ketchup effect can be prevented by engaging and involving middle managers and key people before pressing the ‘go’ button. Giving these people an important role in the implementation, making them ‘Change Ambassadors’, will ensure commitment.

Allow time for operational managers to prepare for how the implementation should take place in their own group. If you allow those who will actually lead the change work to plan and give them the leeway to act on their own, both the personal commitment and the likelihood of success increases.

Practical tips for the change communicator

To give the operational leaders the time they need, you should communicate clearly around plans and expectations in advance, and provide support materials. Don’t forget to listen actively. There is nothing more soul-destroying than the message “comply” and “do as we say”.

Your main role is to support based on real needs rather than to control. Make sure the target audience understands the change story: why change is needed and what the change is all about. Provide inspiring material for information and dialogue, which operational managers and other change agents can in turn use and adapt to their own conditions.

Change communication checklist

  • Talk directly to the operational leaders to understand the practical pre-conditions: motivation, expectations, current workload, other active change initiatives, etc. 
  • Adjust your support to real needs and even make (or propose) changes to time plans if they seem unrealistic. The plans become easier to implement, and you build trust by listening and showing empathy. 
  • Manage expectations by sharing the overall communication strategy and plans, not just the ‘change story’. Also make clear what is expected of leaders to drive and contribute to change. 
  • Provide an introductory communication package that will work for them in practice (covering the why, what, when, and how), e.g. checklists for what questions they should think about and templates for how they can prepare and engage their teams in the change work. 
  • Prepare and maintain Q&A in an easily accessible hub. 
  • Train and rehearse! Allocate time for change ambassadors and managers to practice introducing the change. Unfortunately, this is an often-overlooked aspect of the change work. When we’ve had the opportunity to rehearse with operational leaders, the results have been great.

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