CXO

Helping your clients accept change

It's inevitable. As soon as you feel comfortable doing your job, someone comes along and changes it. As a consultant, you're often the agent of change. How can you help a client's employees overcome resistance to change and make your primary job easier?


For 2,000 IT staffers, it was the equivalent of a midlife crisis.

Asked by the business managers to use out-of-the-box software solutions instead of creating proprietary wares, one company's IT department was to assume a new role. Instead of just programming, the IT department would act as a support unit and IT consultant to the business.

"One of the greatest challenges is that this was a very mature IT group, in age and experience. There were many people who only wrote code, and that whole area of their job was going away," explained Jeanenne LaMarsh, CEO of LaMarsh and Associates .

The Chicago-based change-consulting firm has worked for 36 months to make the transition run smoothly for the company and anticipates it will take more time for the process to be completed.

"This one was particularly difficult because they were so very, very good at developing internally," LaMarsh said.

Implementing any type of change—hardware, software, processes, or people—can be difficult for an IT consultant if there is dissent within an organization. Here are some guidelines that several consultants suggest to help a client loosen resistance to your recommended changes.

Agree on a desired state
The first step to break down opposition to change is to determine with the client what the end result or "desired state" should look like. For LaMarsh, the presence of an outside IT consulting group added to the roadblocks her client faced in the change process. To deal with the employees’ resistance, LaMarsh mediated among the IT department, the company, and the IT consultants.

In this case, the IT department perceived that it would have to learn a new skill set, and that its overall contribution would be diminished. The business unit would have to juggle two IT resources: its IT staff and its new IT vendors, while the IT consultants' mode of operation—get in, find a solution, get out—differed significantly from how the company did business internally.

LaMarsh had the three groups agree on a desired state, or the ideal organizational outlook. LaMarsh kept the group together in a room for a day and asked each party: What does the desired state look like in terms of structure? How do its workflow processes operate? What kinds of skills do people need? And what kinds of culture does it have?

The answers provided each group with goals to concentrate on, and LaMarsh asked the parties to include how they would ideally work with the other two groups. "If you do all that in context, relative to each other, there is greater commonality," said LaMarsh.

Present supporting research
The organization's "desired state" can guide a consultant in making technology and process recommendations. To justify such changes, the consultant should be able to demonstrate the favorable outcome of the changes and how they relate to the organization's desired state by presenting white papers, case studies, anecdotal evidence, or other types of research.

For one major PC manufacturer, it was witnessing a stream of consumers attempting to purchase computers online that convinced the company it should change its e-commerce offering. Phil Terry, CEO of Creative Good, an e-commerce consulting firm in New York, said he invites clients' high-level executives, along with sales, customer support, and production, to witness between six and eight one-on-one "sessions" between a customer and a moderator.

The sessions are more open-ended than focus groups or usability tests because they allow customers to create their own purchasing scenarios, with minor guidance from the facilitator. The results of the customer sessions are combined with previous market research, analysis, and organizational insights and interviews. Then Terry and his team recommend a strategy for improvement.

For Terry and clients, including Gateway Inc., Circuit City, Travelocity, and Liz Claiborne, the research—in combination with what the company experienced in the customer labs—serves as a change vehicle for the client. The evidence answers why the client should change and how the implementation would enable the company's desired state.

"They are usually so impacted by that research, and by the [customer session], that they walk away ready to make changes and also, frankly, with far less infighting," Terry said.

Focus on business benefit of change
Armed with an organization's goals and research that demonstrates how your technology suggestion could successfully be implemented, your next hurdle in convincing a reluctant group is to focus on how the change will affect the company or IT department's bottom line.

Susan Snedaker, principal consultant of Virtual Team, a business and IT consulting firm in Tucson, AZ, found that one technology-phobic client, a long-time brick-and-mortar company, was leery of how e-commerce could be used in its industry. Snedaker presented its business leaders with a report she compiled on how the company's competitors were using technology and the Web to gain greater distribution and market share.

"We researched their market niche and said, 'This is how the competitive environment is changing, and here's how this tech solution is going to improve your competitive advantage as well,'" Snedaker said.

Because the company had initially been resistant to the Web, it was not completely aware of how its competitors were using it to gain market advantage. The research documentation provided Snedaker and her team the vehicle it needed to further implement its technology changes.

"With IT people who have a depth of detailed knowledge of the technology, they talk about the features," said Snedaker. "They'll say it's got all these bells and whistles, but they don't get to what the benefit of those features are for that group of people."

Present a detailed change plan
Resistance to change by a client can also be the result of either a fear or misunderstanding of how the change would be implemented. For consultants, offering a detailed change plan for the client serves as the "how" portion of your recommendation.

What you want to show the client, according to Snedaker, is that a map exists of how to reach the desired state. "A bridge from point A to point B," she said. In many cases, because point B can be so far off in the distance, Snedaker recommends a change plan that has several phases so as not to overwhelm a client and its business.

For example, Snedaker’s brick-and-mortar client had a three-phase change plan that eased the company's tension over making its technological and process changes.

The first phase was for the company to outsource its Web site to larger servers that offered better firewalls and improved security. Snedaker showed this solution was cheaper than doing it all in-house.

The second phase was to build a bare-bones e-commerce offering that addressed the company's goals but could be expanded later. The third phase was an evaluation segment that included a customer survey to determine which additional features would be added to the Web site, most of which have now been added incrementally throughout the year.

The change plan should list all the steps to attain the client's desired state as well as a section where the consultant plans to teach the staff or managers how to operate the technology themselves—the "knowledge transfer." This is to reduce future reliance on you, the consultant, and ease anxiety among the staff by passing on critical information about the new technology and process.

Anticipate pockets of resistance
Once the desired state, the research, the business benefit, and the change plan are in place, the final step is to anticipate and discuss resistance.

LaMarsh has her clients sketch what she calls a key roles map, which looks similar to an organizational chart but identifies what the new roles for each group would be, and outlines potential reasons for the resistance in each group.

If your client—the person who sponsors the engagement—is the person most resistant to the proposed change, you can craft a key roles map on your own to work through as many of the anticipated issues as possible. Then, present the key roles map to the client as part of the change plan.

"You're looking for the target populations that are going to be affected, for the change agents who are going to do all the work on the change, and for the leadership who is going to be the sponsor," LaMarsh said. "You're looking at not only the IT people but also IT's customers and the operational areas that will be impacted by this technology."

If your sponsor is agreeable, but it appears that the affected parties may resist, you and the sponsor can work on the key roles map together.

Once you bring the change recommendations to the management or staff level with your sponsor, having a discussion full of what Snedaker calls, "yes, but" conversations helps air organizational fears, and can also bring to light critical information of which you were previously unaware.

"It is anticipating who is going to respond in what manner, and having an open dialogue where you encourage that kind of discussion of 'yes but,' while also tempering the one or two people that seem inevitable in any group that say, 'this will never work,'" Snedaker said.

In those discussions, Snedaker recommends that consultants focus on the "what" and "how" of the change and not individual or group positions.

"Focus on the outcome," said Snedaker, and in dealing with strong resistors, ask them, "Then how we are going to get there?"

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