I am often asked ‘When is the right time to prepare an organisation for change?’. This normally comes up when an CEO has announced a change, or leaders have gone though my ‘Leading through transition seminar” seminar (then realising what is involved, they ask for their teams to go through my ‘Dealing with uncertainty seminar’ seminar). Normally the driver is that change is here and happening.
My answer is generally ‘Yesterday’
The best time to prepare your people for change, is before change itself. That might not sound sensible but let”s think it through.
When you are in the midst of change your brain starts to behave differently. Change is normally something to worry about. If you are an employee you aren’t in control of it, probably don’t know what is happening exactly and are unlikely to know what is happening to you as a result of the change.
Your brain simplifies all this complexity and goes back to your caveman past and treats it like a threat. More importantly it treats it like an unknown threat. With unknown outcomes your brain will keep going back to the problem to see if you can solve it (you know this; thats why you wake up at night or can”t sleep for thinking about it). In addition your brain narrows in and focuses on the threat. In doing so it simplifies your attention and you tend to miss things. This makes sense when dealing with a threat because you cant be distracted when a threat is at hand (early cavemen probably learnt this the hard way). That”s also why its easier for leaders to say ‘business as usual’ than it is for the workforce to act that way.
So how attentive to new learning are you going to be?
But if you learn how to cope with change when you aren’t worrying about it, then it is far easier to go back to the knowledge/tools/processes/practices etc, because you will have learned that this is the way to deal with the unknown threat. It makes it easier for the leader too as they can gather the team together and say ‘remember that stuff we learnt a few months ago? Lets all dig it out and apply it to now’.
The normal situation that I come across is that the CEO/GM has announced that change is coming but doesn’t yet know what the change will be (structure, owners, system etc). So they decide to leave the training of people until the answer is know.Why does this happen? I find that managers tend to prefer certainty. They get promoted for creating it and like to be seen to know the answers, so its not surprising that they want to wait ‘till things are known’ (this is the case with change communication too and I’ve blogged on that before).
The problem with that approach is that people have been going through the emotional side of change for the weeks and months between knowing that change is coming, and then knowing how the change will be implemented. That’s weeks and months of the unknown. Through that time they will go through the roller-coaster of emotional change and their brains will be trying to deal with the problem (the threat) without any tools or capability.
Then someone comes along and tells them what they’ve been going through, and whilst that is a relief (and believe me when I tell you that the most immediate affect of my dealing with uncertainty seminar when delivered during change, is that of relief), its is still a harder job to consider your personal ‘coping’ mechanisms because you are in the change and that is your focus.
Whether you are in change now, thinking about going in to change, or change is on the horizon, prepare your people for change as soon as you can. Thats the right time.