Change management: why you need behavioural science in your change management processes

Published by Nick Murphy on

Why you need behavioural science in your change management processes

Table of contents

I’d always considered change management as something of a dark art. Shrouded in mysterious ways that the likes of me could never grasp. Vague concepts of change and hints of psychology abounded but fundamentally always seemed to boil down to: tell people what you’re going to do and then do it. Change would just happen by virtue of this communication process backed up by people seeing it happen. A slightly modern twist on the ‘build it and they shall come’ trope.

It wasn’t until I started researching the behavioural sciences that the veil began to lift on the vagaries and mysteries of change management. It wasn’t a dark art all, it was a complex discipline, with methods, procedures and necessities and most importantly: evidence about how people respond to change.

Without a clear problem statement your change programme is just a sock blowing in the wind

The component most often overlooked by teams involved in ‘change management’ is clearly defining your problem statement. And by that I mean really deeply asking questions about what problem you experience today that you expect to resolve through a change management process. Do you want to:

  • Save money
  • Invest in new services
  • Take advantage of new opportunities
  • Address customer feedback
  • Etc

The list of possible problem statements is long but incredibly important to define. Without a set of clearly defined problem statements you can’t take stock of your progress. It should be like a mantra, something you can return to at any time to refocus your efforts and attention, or that holds yourself to the standard you set out. It should also help you clearly articulate what you don’t intend to achieve with your change programme. Taking on too much is the downfall of many a change management process.

Alongside this should be an identification of the realities of change: not all outcomes of a change process can be known in advance. There will be unintended consequences or spill-over effects: some of these will be merely noteworthy, others may be transformative; some may require you to go back to the drawing board on your change management process.

close up of colleagues making plans on laptop and tablet in office

Research, research and research some more

The next critical stage in your process of change management is research (did I say research, research, and more research?). Those who don’t learn the lessons of the past are doomed to recreate them. That’s the old saying and it holds true in change management as equally as it does in any other area of our lives. Essentially you need to try to find other people who’ve attempted the same change as you’re about to embark on and try to learn from their mistakes. This could be:

  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Surveys
  • Academic/industry literature research

As much as we like to think that what we’re doing in the here and now is unique to us, the reality is it’s not; other people have tried to implement the same system, or tried to build similar products and services, and people like to talk.

A lesson from Marks & Spencer’s ‘Sparks’ loyalty programme

I recently attended a talk by Marks & Spencer who embarked on a wholesale change to their Sparks loyalty programme after some fairly major technical problems with their original one. They understood from their problem statements that they needed more control over their technical environment than they could achieve by outsourcing. They sought the help of professional services organisations who’d helped other companies embark on a similar process. This led to a wholesale reimagining of their technology strategy. 

Group of design team working as a team in office, designing and planning

Identify barriers and then strategies to overcome them – not people’s opinions about the programme

Research is about avoiding pitfalls, and also about gathering intelligence that can help you. Never underestimate how important it is to speak to those who will be most affected by the change. Don’t ask them leading questions – understand the barriers they face in their roles and document them. Triage those barriers and select only the ones you think are necessary to be changed to achieve your objects. Be disciplined, don’t take on too much.

Design is art informed by science

After your research you need to design your change. This is the most exciting and often most daunting part. But designing your change helps you think about the solutions you have and how to bring them together. You should have a written plan that details when and who will support your change management process as it evolves.

When you’re ready to start, start! But watch closely, your work is just beginning…

Finally, you’re ready to start the process of change. Be ready – communicate, communicate, communicate. There is rarely such a thing as too little communication, but that should be tempered by ensuring it’s the right type of communication. Once you start. it’s time to hold off the questions, it’s not time to redesign your change process after you’ve begun.

As your change management process evolves, you should be able to monitor and measure the change as it begins to gather pace in your organisation. Continue to observe and document feedback – and understand how your organisation is reacting to the change. Friction is to be expected – it is almost a necessity of change, but needs to be constructive. Every point of friction is an opportunity to restate the value of your change management proces

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