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The long and winding road to lasting change

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Change: a constant factor

Change is a fact of life. New software, processes, and system updates cause minor upheavals on a daily basis. And that’s to say nothing of the digital transformation. Without learning about the psychology behind change processes, without clear communication, and without investing in human, “warm”, contacts, such projects are doomed to fail. Those are the steadfast beliefs of Ericka Petrignani, associate partner with Passionned Group. With her refined stakeholder approach, she’s helped many organizations out of a tight spot. What’s the “secret sauce” she uses in change projects?

Resistance to change (is futile)

People don’t like change. “Everything should stay the way it is,” is the familiar chorus of people who resist change. But hoping for a stagnant work environment that never changes is wishful thinking (although such an environment is doomed to fail in the long run). Some consultants apply the model of the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to change processes. They believe that, as with grief, employees go through several stages before accepting change: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But this theory isn’t exactly scientific.

Human contact: worth its weight in gold

Change management isn’t an exact science. When it comes to change, it’s easy to end up speaking different languages, in Ericka’s experience. “Just consider the term ‘change’. Change is a typical IT term from the ITIL handbooks. A change is an addition, adjustment, or removal of anything that can affect IT Services. Change management is the process of planning, executing, and documenting changes structurally.” This cold, technical IT jargon has nothing to do with the everyday reality that Ericka experiences as a change manager and implementation expert. She cherishes the ‘warm contact’ between people, especially in this internet age. “To bring about lasting, sustainable change, this human contact is worth its weight in gold, and really, essential.”

Stakeholders have goals, interests, and needs

Ericka has successfully applied her stakeholder approach with various organizations in the Netherlands, like UWV and MN Insurances, but also big multinationals like USG People and NBCUniversal (now part of Comcast). This stakeholder approach finds the balance between the goals, interests, and needs of various groups of stakeholders in the organization’s internal and external environment. Interestingly, Ericka’s first clients are vastly different in terms of company culture, atmosphere, and workplace than her later clients: proof that she’s a jack of all trades.

Offshoring in India

“That’s true,” she admits. “At NBCUniversal, a media conglomerate that includes the world-famous Universal Studios, I had to focus on the hard aspects of change and leadership. I was responsible for testing and implementing a worldwide tool for the Collections and Cash Allocations process, in the framework of the Global Finance Transition Program. After a pilot phase, the tool was implemented world-wide in a timely fashion. At the same time, we migrated dozens of financial systems. And I also handled the further development of the tool and the offshoring to India. That meant I was responsible for managing the various vendors and Indian development teams on the one hand, and communicating with end-users in various departments in different countries on the other hand. In other words: my hard skills were put to the test.”

Callouses on the soul

That confrontation with the hard sides of organizations may put callouses on the soul, so what characteristics should a successful change manager possess? “My strength is connecting people and creating a base of support. By involving people in change projects, the process of implementing tools and processes goes much more smoothly. A successful change manager has strong analytical and communicative skills and has a lot of empathy. That allows them to steer both the hard and soft sides of change. Technological know-how is a boon, of course. It’s essential to be able to embody the organization’s mission, vision, and strategy, as well as the needs and wants of end-users. By investing in ‘warm’ face-to-face conversations and clear communication, you can involve employees and management in the change process.”

Your truth isn’t always the only truth

But doesn’t every organization have its share of recalcitrants and even saboteurs? “It’s important to keep an eye on the non-conforming people in the organization. These outliers with strong opinions can actually become your most important ambassadors once convinced, because they’re usually very invested and involved. Ignore them at your peril. That’s why I always take the time for individual conversations as a change manager. You have to be open to divergent opinions. Your truth isn’t always the only truth, and you don’t always know best. But you can’t get carried away. At some point debate has to end and work has to begin.”

Like a chameleon

People skills are crucial for any successful change manager, according to Ericka. “When I walk into a meeting, I can pick out the dominant “red” types and the more submissive “yellow” types fairly easily.” She’s referring to the so-called DISC theory that divides personality types into colors. DISC stands for “Dominant, Influence, Steadiness, Compliant” and was developed by Dr. William Moulton Marston at Harvard University. Although it’s definitely not airtight, the theory has a certain appeal. When Ericka filled in the test, her personality proved to be very evenly divided across the various colors. That might explain how she is able to easily move through and communicate with all levels of organizations. “I’m a kind of chameleon. Depending on my environment and the type of communication needed, I can change color and adapt to my current environment and company. And I intuitively know what buttons to push to connect to a certain person.”

Management by wandering around

When taking a new assignment or entering a new type of industry, Ericka follows the principle of management by wandering around. She makes as many contacts as possible, anywhere and everywhere, from the workplace to the boardroom. “You have to gather enough details to get a feel for the business. As a professional, you have to be able to read the company within two to three weeks. It’s important to know what you don’t know, too. Most organizations have a blind spot for this. A new pair of eyes from an outside source forces managers to think about these things.”

Degrees are no guarantee

Should a successful change and implementation manager have the right degrees and certificates, aside from the right personality? Ericka, who is certified for Business Information Management (BiSL), and is also a certified Scrum Master, mentions some caveats. “A degree doesn’t tell the whole story. There are legions of people who went to university and got a degree or a whole bunch of certificates, but can’t connect to the workplace, or don’t have any passion. They miss the mark. Clients are mostly interested in certain types of project leaders, not just a person with the right degrees and certificates.”

Selective use of tools

“To be an effective change manager, you don’t have to own Prince 2, ITIL, and all kinds of outlandish certificates that software vendors hand out these days. Of course I also use methods like Agile working, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, information-driven working, and LeSS and Lean, but I mostly use them selectively. What works for one department can have the opposite affect in another department. As a professional, I’m used to getting to grips with a topic quickly, so I don’t have to follow a separate training course for every subject. By using the right mix of management models and tools at the right time, in the right organizational level, you can achieve much better results than blindly applying prescribed methods from a standard toolbox. The exact contents can be filled in later. As a change manager, the first priority is making sure that people can understand each other.”

Universally applicable

Ericka’s unconventional approach and refreshing outlook explains why clients are so happy to work with her. “I don’t come from the world of Business Intelligence and data-driven working.” That may make her a bit of an odd duck for Passionned Group, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “When I talk about intelligent organizations, I’m mostly talking about the emotional intelligence and soft skills of employees. How fast can you learn? What do you need to do your work correctly? When do you shut down? These are all relevant questions to eliminating resistance to change. My expertise on the soft side, and what I can bring to an organization, is not bound to any industry and is universally applicable. From that perspective, it’s strange that change management isn’t seen as a serious field by the public at large. Our in-company training courses aim to change that.” As a teaser, she offers six practical tips, and shares some of her experiences.

Six practical tips

Successful change management, according to Ericka, isn’t just dependent on the change manager’s people skills, empathy, and passion. Human behavior in the workplace remains difficult to predict. “Not every organization has a sense of urgency,” in her experience. “At NBCUniversal, for example, everything was about cash flow. As long as the business was financially healthy (relatively speaking), many people aren’t eager to jump on a new financial system. It takes a lot of convincing to make the project successful. A lot of time has to be invested in aligning the various company cultures, operating companies, and financial managers.”

Storytelling and visualization

Once the sense of urgency is there, you have to create a base of support. You can do that by telling a shared story, using storytelling. Visualization is an important tool. A customer journey can be effectively visualized, for example. Although the scope of a project is usually defined with the client beforehand, Ericka regularly experiences opportunistic managers who try to widen the scope during the change project by co-opting its momentum. ‘As long as we’re doing this, we can do that too,’ they try to argue. Setting the project’s boundaries is very important, because you don’t want to change too many things at the same time. The scope can be safeguarded by asking questions like: Is this side path relevant? What’s going to topple if we don’t undertake this partial project right now, too?

Aftercare

A good change manager, according to Ericka, should provide aftercare, just like a hospital, by returning to the workplace to see if the change is lasting and sustainable, and if the agreements are being held up. “Even better is to assign a Chief Change Manager, or even a Chief Happiness Officer, in the organization. This officer will be permanently responsible for guiding change processes and the well-being of employees. But for many organizations, that’s probably still a bridge too far.”

Conclusion

The road to sustainable, lasting change is long and winding. No change project in any organization goes off completely without a hitch. The change manager’s job is to hit the right notes, create a base of support, and safeguard the scope of the project.

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