The change you didn’t choose – and how to handle it 

Week 5 of lockdown and the long-term impact of the current situation is starting to become evident to organisations across all sectors. For all leaders, there is a realisation that they have entered a change process packed full of threat and possible opportunity. This was not a change anyone chose, but it is a change that requires significant management. Observing the developing situation with colleagues and clients, this is a change management process with some familiar but many unfamiliar aspects.

Thrown into the wilderness

  • Leaders usually start a major change process with a vision and an argument for change. This drives the first stage of the process – to ‘unfreeze’ the organisation. Leaders will have taken time to plan and resource the work required, and the early stages of change are usually associated with the leader’s agenda and personal drive.
  • But here the actions behind the current change process are external – not driven by the leader. The change has been forced on everyone, including the most senior. The impact of the current situation may mean your own leadership ambitions are unobtainable, your pet projects no longer economic and the future end state for the business rather bleak.
  • Here the unfreezing of the organisation has taken place without clarity of destination. When change is forced on individuals and groups, resistance can be high, unless, of course, the change is about survival. That is the current change management argument in play today in many cases and staff will rally behind a survival agenda for a period but not indefinitely.
  • Survival is dealing with an existential threat and it has galvanised quick action from leaders and staff. However, the result of the change or the desired future is still unclear in most organisations. To sustain yourself and your organisation through this unsettling ‘wilderness’ period, everyone will need to see an emerging picture of what the new normal might be.
  • Leaders now need to take control of the longer-term change agenda. This will include making the current transition state as ‘safe’ as possible for staff, building the resilience of the business and starting to set a path to a new future. For some leaders managing this change may be career-defining, building their reputation and their profile. For others, this may be a time when they realise that their ambitions for the business are now unsustainable and they rightly decide to move on.

But some of the normal change management rules still apply

Whatever the longer-term direction for your business as it navigates a path out of lockdown, leaders need not forget the enduring lessons of change management:

  • Communication is at the heart of successful change management – it needs to be regular and targeted to inform and to engage.
  • Avoid over-promising and under-delivering. Keep your promises to staff small and practical – and evidence their delivery
  • Encourage support within and between the teams that you lead. This a particularly frightening and stressful time for many – the wilderness has rarely looked so threatening
  • And, most important, demonstrate that you are listening to your staff, that you value their feedback to inform your change actions and plans.
  • Resilient organisations survive and thrive through change. So as a leader, your actions to build all the elements of a sustainable business are the foundation of the more planned changes ahead.