Innovation plays a key role in every organization. Who doesn’t like new ideas, new possibilities, and improved results? Continuous change is a critical ingredient for every business. So why is it that the overwhelming majority of change programs fail to achieve their desired result?
While implementing a new system or process may seem like an easy problem to solve with the right team, putting new capabilities in motion and changing how you do business is harder than simply coordinating a new software release. Initiatives that at first appear easily implemented and effective often aren’t always adopted in full. Time-consuming efforts can often miss their intended mark, overlooking the most important component of any change — the human element. Human habits don’t change as easily as software.
The trouble comes from a variety of factors — inadequate communication before, during, and after changes are implemented; unanticipated human-workflow changes; and lack of persistent reinforcement to adapt to new capabilities and systems can all sink even the most well-intended investments that once seemed brilliant on a business case or requirements document. In their efforts to enact swift changes, leaders forget to make necessary provisions for these change efforts to take root within the “human organism” that is their business.
Consider a company looking to increase the efficiency of its customer support system by deploying a new chatbot. The bot is intended to field calls for common issues and provide easy resolutions to customers so that the firm’s human support staff can focus on addressing the more complex customer-reported issues. On the surface, this appears to be a homerun idea for any company that deals with large amounts of customer interaction. The goal in mind is to make a more efficient use of human resources (often referred to as “Knowledge Workers”), provide speedier service for customers, and increase overall satisfaction statistics within customer service and sales processes.
In this company’s attempt to implement the new system quickly, a few unintended consequences arise. Given the deployment of an online chatbot to address simple inquiries, the daily interactions for customer-service representatives with customers over the phone now seem to focus on the more complex issues, as customers naturally expect them to resolve higher-level complaints. Workers used to dealing with simple problems are now expected to offer more knowledge at first interaction than what the new tech already provides.
The standard for soft skills has risen dramatically, as has the required knowledge of a first-line customer representative. The organization was so focused on all the tasks required to deploy the chatbot into service that it neglected to train their customer-service representatives to deal with more complex issue resolution, leaving them unequipped to deal with the changing requirements of their job and causing increased friction in customer interactions.
By the time these challenges present themselves, the damage is already done. While the chatbot is deemed to be a huge technological success by decreasing call volumes in a measurable manner, the overall customer satisfaction ratings of the firm have deteriorated. People take chatbot interactions for granted but are easily disgruntled when their follow-on conversation with a live agent requires them to repeat the same information over the phone, only to discover the agent is ill-equipped to offer the next-level support they need.
What began as a no-brainer idea wasn’t correctly thought out by the company and was implemented too quickly for everyone to be on the same page.
The root cause for this outcome is a known pattern. Investment in technology programs require an equivalent investment in proper change management and adoption. This is why every initiative in an organization should be classified as a “Change” investment instead of a “Technology” investment. After all, you are looking at ways to change the way you do business of which technology is a component or an enabler of change versus the actual change itself.
Change initiatives require detailed planning and implementation considerations for the lives and routines of those impacted. This includes first-line and second-line employees, their management, their operations and IT support staff, and, most importantly, their customers. It requires detailed before and after interaction maps and flows, training, announcements, persistent communications, documentation, branding efforts, measurements of effectiveness, failure scenarios, pivot avenues, and Plans B & C — all to manage the change in a proactive manner versus dealing with obstacles in a less-desirably reactive manner.
For any change to be successful, habits must change — and that takes more than a memo from the higher-ups about a scheduled software release. When idea people think up solutions, change policies, or introduce new procedures, they must also consider that change itself is a continuum. It has no release date. It is something that needs to be carefully managed on an ongoing basis.
Once this change is adopted successfully, another one will inevitably come; hence, change management should be an integrated part of your business operations, and not just a task on a project plan.
Why Change Meets Resistance
The human element of a technology solution is the most neglected component of change, yet it is the most important piece of any successful transformation. Businesses are too often tempted to look for technology to solve every problem instead of embracing the planning, commitment, and level of effort involved in enacting lasting changes.
People are creatures of habit. This is especially true for line employees, and line employees are often the ones that interact with your customers — they are your brand experience.
Line employees like to stick to familiar routines, and although quite a few departments in your organization are constantly looking for ways to make these routines more efficient, any change is by definition disruptive to these employees’ comfort zone. Who has time or interest in attending training sessions on a new system when performance and compensation are directly attached to how quickly employees respond to customer calls using the current system?
The typical stance most organizations face from their line employees sounds something like this: “If I attend that training session about a new system, then the metrics that affect how good I am at my job today will be negatively affected; therefore, the upcoming change you want to train me on is of no interest to me today.” What’s more, they are not necessarily wrong. Ask yourself this: “Have I properly incentivized employees to embrace change, or have I assumed that they will adapt because I told them to?”
Rebellion against change isn’t always a conscious decision; however, it is still an impediment in the way of change. Resistance is to be expected and is a natural outcome that needs to be managed. Always consider changes through the eyes of the people most affected by it, and always tailor your communications and incentive systems to optimize their experience and achieve maximum benefit.
Taking Ownership of Change Through Communication
The antidote to this uncertainty surrounding a company’s change efforts is clarity in communication. Employees at every level of the business must understand the C-suite’s reasoning behind these changes and not be left feeling like higher-ups are out of touch. In the words of Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey, “I accept change, but I want to navigate it gently.”
Leaders looking to implement positive changes must communicate their vision, enticing workers to share in a common interest, rather than enforcing an unpopular demand from above. This communication will demonstrate a leader’s understanding of the potential changes to workflows and routines and the plan for adapting to the change.
Training for new initiatives becomes a collaborative effort instead of a directive. Understanding potential resistance, planning for organizational changes caused by new ideas, and communicating why the goal matters to every employee makes for a smoother transition, putting leaders and workers on the same page through change efforts on any scale.
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