7 key questions Business Leaders or Change Consultants should ask HR before change starts

19 Minutes

Depending on who you listen to, or what research you read, there are any number of reasons why organisational change management programmes fail.

Poor communication, lack of buy-in, lack of vision, active resistance, lack of preparation, lack of alignment, not led from the top, only led from the top, not aligned to culture, forgetting the end user…. The list goes on.

What is clear, is that most of those reasons link back to people. Whether they are the managers that are leading the change, or the employees that will be affected.

Getting the HR team involved from the beginning, therefore makes sense – after all, people are their thing. They are perfectly placed to understand the people who will be involved – they likely recruited them, trained them and they will certainly understand the culture that they work in.

Yet often, HR is brought into any change management plan much further down the line – well past the point when the proposed change plan has already been decided on.

Now, I may be biased, but I strongly believe that working with HR from the beginning can help to avoid some of the issues that change programmes face – if you ask them the right questions.

1) Why are you doing this?

It’s a good question, right? But one that can get overlooked from a people perspective. Yes, as business leaders or change consultants we will interrogate the data to make sure we fully understand the financial or operational reasons for it. But if one of the key reasons that change programmes fail is that people don’t understand or like the reasons for it, you need to be absolutely clear on how this will benefit the team living with the change once it has happened. What is going to be better for them afterwards? What’s going to be different?

People need to understand the ‘why’. Which means the business need a vision, a rationale and a ‘how’ that will resonate with them.

For example, let’s say we’re outsourcing first level complaints handling. The leadership team may see the why as:
• Reducing operating, labour and overhead costs
• Focusing on core competencies
• Freeing up in internal resources

The teams are likely to hear that as:
• Cutting jobs to save money

What they don’t understand is why you are doing this and What’s In It For Them…. and these are important questions to get right. What will matter to the team? What will give them the inspiration to support the change, rather than stand against it?

Discussing the why with the HR team gives you an opportunity to see these all the business reasons from a people focussed point of view. With their unique position in the organisation, they will be able to look at the question from a much wider viewpoint than some of the other leaders, who will naturally look at things from their departmental world view.

The important thing is to fully understand what success looks like – and the impact that it is likely to have on the ground. Whilst the MD or FD will no doubt be able to see the proverbial bigger picture, the HR team will be able to focus on the actual day to day impact on their people. So whilst success to IT may be to have an integrated system that runs twice as fast and can handle 20 different applications at once, for the people who actually operate the system it might be one that they are comfortable using, with a friendly interface and which doesn’t hang for 10 minutes every time that they try and do something. And that’s the bit that you need to sell.

2) What can you tell me about your Company Culture?

Organisational culture can be one of the biggest promoters or detractors of a successful change programme. Does the organisation embrace change, engage with the company vision, and fully support it? Is it a culture where everyone understands what’s happening, and can easily and openly communicate? Or is there a more suspicious, wary culture, where any change will be met with fear and an immediate negative connotation? Or are they just apathetic, receiving any proposals for change with ‘yeah, fine. It won’t work. We’ve tried it before….’

No one likes change being done to them.

So understanding the positive (or negative) impacts of the proposed change will help you to develop your communication strategy in line with the Company culture and give you an early indication of whether this change is something that people are likely to want, or how much resistance you may encounter.

We only need to look back at the last couple of months in politics to see how different things can mean different things to different people. For the previous Prime Minister and Chancellor, success was ‘growth’. And they put forward some fairly eye-catching proposals on how to get there. But what does ‘growth’ actually mean? And what exactly is in it for me? Or you?

It soon became clear that their proposals were divisive to say the least, and not only along party political lines. The markets didn’t like it, many of their own team didn’t like it, and the Opposition didn’t like it. Or at least not all of it. Or some of it.

The same thing can happen with any proposal for change. What signifies success to one person, could well be a disaster to another.

I previously worked with an organisation that had a number of regional offices, the largest of which was in Manchester – that was until a new, flagship office was opened in Glasgow. Even before the new office opened, the culture in the largest department in the Manchester office was that whenever an organisational change was proposed, they took it to mean that the Manchester office was closing (it’s still there and running very successfully). It didn’t matter what it was – ‘We’re opening a new office in Glasgow’ – ‘you’re closing Manchester’ – we’ve got a huge new client – ‘you’re closing Manchester – ‘we’ve been bought by an exciting new owner who’s focussed on growth’ – ‘you’re closing Manchester’.

Now this may seem strange, but in reality, they were a hardworking and engaged group, very passionate about what they did, and very passionate about their customers. But for anyone trying to make a change, they were definitely a challenge.

The HR team understood that they had been through a lot of change – the offices had moved a few years ago, a lot of the team members had been there for a long time and seen many changes, they knew that a lot of money had been spent on Glasgow, but also knew that the last few years had been tough for the business financially. So they were suspicious and needed special care when we were communicating with them to make sure they knew the reasons behind any change, and what the reality of any outcomes would be. If we hadn’t had this insight, then the resistance to any change could have been much, much worse.

Understanding how the company culture operates helps you to understand where the resistance is likely to emerge and begin to plan for how to overcome it.

It can even help with how external changes consultants operate – how do people feel about ‘experts’ coming in? Are they excited and ready to experience new ways of working? Or are they a threat? How should they dress? How should they communicate? What jargon is going to be seen as knowledgeable and authentic, and what will make them frankly sound like idiots? – and yes, your HR team are the perfect people to get to know about it.

3) How ready is the organisation and its people for change?

Once we have seen that a change is needed, the temptation is to get straight on with trying to get it moving. But often we don’t stop to think about the wider impact that the change may have on the business and the people who will be impacted.

Change rarely happens in isolation – what other changes are happening in the business? Are there any other changes planned? Have any just finished? Does the organisation have the right processes in place to implement the change? Are the right policies in place? Will this change programme interfere with other changes that are already happening, or that are in the pipeline?

Now these other changes may only be small – launching a new policy, changing a way of working, introducing a new widget, but they are still change, and will still have some level of impact on people. And they may well impact on the change that you are working on.

If an organisation has gone through a lot of change, however small, it can lead to apathy about change, or it could mean that they haven’t had time to embed the changes they have already made. This can seriously affect how people respond to more change coming along close behind. The HR team will be able to tell you about any changes that have impacted on their employees, and whether they are ready to go again.

On a more technical side, it’s important to fully understand who will be affected by the change. Will it trigger TUPE, Redundancies, or other consultations due to changes in role? Are there legal hoops that the business needs to jump through? How will the new normal affect how things are done? Will you need to put training in place for people to actually perform the change? Has this happened in the past? Discussing all of this with the HR team ahead of time can help you to be as prepared as possible.

4) Who should I involve?

Now your first port of call is likely to be the ‘Heads of’ when implementing change. But, in reality, the people who have the best understanding of how things actually work are those that do it on a daily basis. Talking to the teams early on may well give you a much better picture of how things really work, rather than how they should work.

The HR team are perfectly placed to give you inside information on who is most likely to champion the change, who is likely to be resistant and why. They will know who has the ability to see the bigger picture across departments, who you should talk to find out how things actually work, and who will focus ad nauseum on the tiny detail that will affect only them and their team. And you want all of those on your side. Engaging with all groups from an early stage can help you to gain more support across the board on driving your change through.

5) What tactics/ methods will best help us communicate change?

The HR team have no doubt been through change before and, as we’ve said, they will also understand the Company culture, and how well it reacts to change.
They will also be able to help you to better understand how communication works in the organisation.

Do people read emails? Or are their inboxes so full, that anything not marked as urgent will be ignored? Or are half the team not on email at all?

Are they used to having town hall meetings and welcome the chance to chat with the senior leadership team, or are they always seen as bad news or a waste of time? Will people turn up interested, terrified or instantly try and book customer meetings to ‘accidentally’ clash?
Do the teams respond well to posters, polls, suggestion boxes or carrier pigeons?

Any communication plan will only be successful if it works within the environment. Asking your HRD how they would roll out the change can give you some great insights into what’s going to work best, and what methods to avoid completely.

6) How well do your managers manage change?

A successful change management process relies on its leaders to manage the process. And those leaders will rely on their managers to fly the flag and move the plan forward.

But how ready or eager are the managers who will be involved to lead the transformation?
Will they embrace the opportunity, or be one of the obstacles that you need to overcome?
Do they understand the process of change, and the role that they must play in ensuring that it’s successful?

The HRD will understand the management teams, and how they react to change. They will know the buttons that need to be pushed in order to get them on board, and ready to support you, rather than quietly sabotaging any efforts from behind.

Understanding how well managers have managed change in the past will help you to decide how much training you need to plan in, whether it’s an introduction to the Change Curve so they can better understand their employees’ reactions, or in-depth leadership and communication training to help them get the message out.

7) What Change has worked well in the past? And what has failed?

As we’ve said before, it’s highly unlikely that this will be a change in isolation. Any organisation that has been going for more than 24 months will have gone through Covid apart from anything else.

If, as we’ve established, most change fails due to people, then talking to your HRD about what changes have worked well in the past will give you a good insight into what may work in the future. Knowing what hasn’t worked in the past, what went wrong, what the causes were and what happened next can also give you a great insight into what you are likely to be dealing with.

And there they are – my seven key questions to ask HR before you start a change programme. I’d love to know what you think….