How to Manage Change in Small Business: The Proven 6-Step Process
Business owners often ask me how to get their people to change. Generally it’s expressed through some kind of frustrated version of, “I keep asking them to do things differently. I even showed them how much extra money we could make. But they still don’t seem to want to do anything differently”
Change management is a pretty heavily studied and highly discussed area. I could write a novel regurgitating the extensively researched and peer-reviewed work of John Kotter. But to save us all the trouble, what I want to outline here is my quick-and-effective strategy for tackling this common challenge. While it may not be scientifically proven, it’s definitely battle-tested to get results.
To approach change in your business, you need to have some tools to deal with the inevitable resistance. Then you need a process to guide your people so that they not only adopt your decision, but (ideally) become evangelists for it.
The most common objections to change and how to deal with them
People will often have strong reactions to a proposed change. Start by getting prepared to answer these two objections throughout the process:
Change Objection 1: “I don’t think I can fit this in, I’m already too busy.”
When someone raises concerns about their lack of time, they may or may not be warranted. The best way to deal with this protest is to ask them to, “just give it a try.” Have an idea of how much time you expect it will require and concede that if it doesn’t work, “we’ll go back through your workload and look–task by task–to see what we can delegate, automate or stop doing.”
Change Objection 2 “Can we change these 20 things about this, I don’t like it.”
Ideas are great. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But the only way to find out if something will pan out is to give it a try. Explain that that’s what this proposed change is about; giving an idea a try. Offer, “if after a couple of weeks you still think we should change these things, we can try your ideas out then.”
The proven 5-step change management process
Now you’re equip to manage the initial push back to your proposed change. It’s time to build out the plan to give your idea a try. Here’s how to develop and guide your people through the new way of doing things:
1 – Engage influencers early
Every business has them, they’re highly social, people listen to them, and they can bolster (or sewer) your change effort lighting fast. Identify these people and get them involved in designing the solution. Make sure you’re not just giving lip service; genuinely involve them and listen hard. They’re often high performers and people who will add huge value to the planning process. They’ll be able to shed light on your blind spots and avoid some major misses.
2 – Communicate fast, often, and early
Once you’ve made a bit of progress with your change plan and have an idea of what the outcome will look like, seek out the people who the change will affect and fill them in.
Start with why the change is happening because, as Simon Sinek has made abundantly clear, that’s what makes people care and take action. Make the ‘why’ relevant to the person you’re talking to. How they can they make more money, gain career opportunities, or contribute to the team? Let them ask questions, give feedback, and tell them when the change is planned for.
Remember, change is hard because it breeds uncertainty. Your brain’s job is to keep you safe; at homeostasis. A person’s mind–subconsciously or overtly–will battle against any idea or individual that threatens its comfortable, consistent, safe existence. As best-selling neuroscience and achievement author author, John Assaraf notes in this interview, our reaction to change circumvents any logical interpretation. Instead, our reaction to change originates straight from our innate survival instincts.
Reassure your people with certainty amid change. Show them they can trust you and there are no big surprises in their job (that you can control).
3 – Test iteratively
Don’t just roll out your change in fell swoop. Even if it’s just a tiny process change, test it with a core group of influencers first. Identify bugs or areas of opportunity and correct them. Then, expand the change to a broader group. If you roll out a large-scale change that has even small issues, it’s just going to drag the process out, increase distrust, and reduce buy-in. Don’t make your job (or theirs) harder.
4- Build anticipation for launch
Brand your change and make it fun. It might seem cheesy but in my experience, some of the easiest changes to swallow have been ‘branded’ and fun. I once saw a VP of Commercial Sales brand a new lead capture program as “No Lead Left Behind”. It was a hit and it helped people remember what they were supposed to do.
If you can transform work into play through gamifying your efforts, your people will be literally signing up for the change.
5 – Follow up frequently, quickly, and with rigor
People will take action if you give them a why. Sometimes that ‘why’ is that they are accountable to someone. For more on this idea of accountability, check out my post on effective strategy execution.
In this context, you can build and enforce accountability by scheduling follow ups after the change happens. Be transparent and make sure everyone knows it’s planned and on their calendar. Ask specific questions about their experience of and thought on the change and genuinely look for feedback.
Not only will this provide accountability to execute the change, but it will provide you with valuable and varied insights on how you can improve your idea.
6 – Reward
Find the people who are doing the best job of adapting to the change and reward them publicly. For more insights and guidance on how to decide on the right rewards, check out my post on developing effective incentives.
PhDs and business gurus have long written on change management. But you’re in the trenches executing it. These tools and tactics bridge the gap between theory and practice. With the right weapons in your arsenal, planning and implementing change doesn’t need to feel like going to battle. Know what to say in the face of objections and follow this proven process to lead your people through this stress-inducing experience to victory.