What we're talking about

An essential role of any business owner or manager is identifying a need for change and implementing a plan – while bringing everyone in your business with you. That could be something small scale and adaptive (eg, using a new software) or something super transformational (eg, launching a whole new product or service). 

Whether it's because of internal or external factors, change is a constant feature for any small business – you need change to stay competitive, take advantage of opportunities and adapt. And while big organizations will likely bring in an external team to manage change, you probably won't have that luxury. 

Why it's important

Sensing an opportunity, deciding on a refinement in strategy or seeing a smart way to cut costs is one (vital) thing; making sure that your employees are fully on board is an altogether different challenge. People are naturally resistant to change – especially when their job security is on the line. And, post-pandemic, the idea of change fatigue has come to the fore, with a recent study by research firm Gartner showing that employees' ability to cope with change had halved from pre-pandemic levels. 

If you're leading a team, it's your role to empower employees every step of the way – managing their emotions, fully preparing them and energizing them for what's to come. Although no two change initiatives are going to be the same, creating a playbook should be a priority – especially given the high costs and risks of a failed change in approach. You might deviate from your playbook as the situation dictates, but it's still a very useful starting point. 

Things to note

• You need to be thinking ahead. Identifying what change is needed – and when – is clearly fundamental. It's a leader's job to be looking ahead and planning for where a business needs to be in one, two and five years – and what changes need to be made to get there. Some might be obvious or enforced; otherwise you might analyze what others are doing in your space or in other sectors. Clear thinking should provide justification for the change – you want to avoid your team feeling like it's a ‘me too’ plan based on industry trends or the wider economic landscape. So, opt for change that's specific to your business' needs.

• Emotions play a big role. Depending on what you opt for, change can be a serious shock to people and it can evoke a wide range of emotions. Remember, people are a few steps behind you when it comes to understanding the need for change – they don't know what you know. Business podcast Manager Tools suggests that emotions are often what cause change to happen, rather than data or facts. You can minimize the emotional reaction by sharing information widely and clearly once a decision has been reached. It's often the period when your people are speculating about upcoming change that's the hardest. 

• There are a few change models to follow. The seventies and eighties were a prime time for change management models, and there are roughly eight classic models that most organizations turn to (they're neatly summed up here). They're all general blueprints that follow roughly the same format: understand, plan, implement and communicate. There's no one-size-fits-all approach, though – you'll probably find that certain elements of different models suit your situation.  

• You want to create a culture of change. Given the agility that a small business often has, your aim should be to create a culture that's receptive to change. That means encouraging continuous input from employees on ways to improve processes, systems or products. With that kind of culture, transformational changes won't be quite as shocking. Taking your capabilities and resources into account, the aim is to zone in on the things that'll have the biggest potential benefits – not just the things that are the easiest to implement.

How to plan for change in your business

1. Get clear on the why. Consider and clarify which forces or pressures are driving change (whether that's internal or external). What are your key objectives? How will this change affect your business positively? How will it affect how people work? Gathering relevant evidence here is useful – it'll put you in a position to address concerns and questions as they inevitably come up. 

2. Decide what success will look like. At this early stage, it's still incredibly useful to decide how you'll assess the impact of the change you're making. As always with goals, you should make them specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART). Also, make sure to recognize achievement as milestones are achieved. 

3. Understand the scope. Think about how the change you're making will impact your business across the board – and by how much. It might be difficult to do this without help from other team members, but you should be considering the key departments, from marketing and sales to product, operations and HR. You should also know whether you have the resources to implement the change you want. Without clear boundaries at this stage, you can get ‘scope creep’ (when the change extends beyond what was originally agreed) and delays or unjustified resistance from your team. 

4. Identify the key players. Depending on the size of your business, you'll probably need to establish an inner team to help bring about the new direction. Think about whose buy-in you explicitly need and get them on board. You might also need external help or input in some situations. Assign key roles and responsibilities. 

5. Create a change roadmap. Working as a team, create a logical plan that details the steps necessary to make that change happen – and who in your business it'll involve. You'll want to get pretty granular with the details here – and include timelines, so you have something to work to. 

6. Think about the roadblocks. Thinking specifically about the different teams or individuals in your business who'll be affected by the change, consider the potential problems or stumbling blocks that might get in the way of adapting to new roles. For example, will people require new training, tools or systems? 

7. Communicate with your team. Based on what you know, explain what the change for the business is in the simplest possible terms, plus what it means for teams and individuals. Energize and motivate everyone for what will happen next. Because you're looking to tap into employees' emotions, visual presentations can be far more effective than things like spreadsheets. Prepare, practice and then communicate your presentation.  

8. Listen to concerns and feedback. Create space for your team to raise their thoughts and concerns both at the time of your presentation – in an open forum – but also privately. Listen to what they have to say and take on board any fears or concerns. Then, be consistent with the reassurance and reasonings you provide.

Key takeaways

• Managing change is a constant responsibility if you're running a business. No matter if it's significant or minor, you should develop a playbook. 

• Fundamentally, change is a four-step process: understanding why change is needed, planning how it'll happen, implementing it and then communicating it. 

• People are naturally averse to change – but bringing your team with you is crucial. It'll require emotional intelligence, a clear explanation and a logical roadmap. Remember to sell the benefits.

Level up

Perspective. Harvard Business Review magazine is a great resource for content on change management – this recent article is a great take on how to avoid change exhaustion

Example. This Manager Tools podcast episode features examples of how different leaders have communicated change to their teams using innovative, visual techniques. 

Tool. Collaboration platformCreately has a range of change management templates that you can use if you want to follow one of the classic strategies.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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