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Taking a look at change readiness

If you’ve experienced a culture change initiative in your past, you have probably come out of it thinking ‘I wonder if it would have gone better, if we had taken more time to get people ready?’. And the answer would generally be ‘yes’, leading to the next question which would be ‘how?’

I am a strong advocate for all change programmes starting the way a good project manager will start a major project: with a lot of prep up front to make the implementation easier. More and more people are including a change readiness survey into that prep, with a view to the preparation being more appropriate to the state the organisation finds itself in. This is an excellent intent, and exactly why I have run my own change readiness survey for the last decade.
But where there are surveys, there are problems of interpretation so its best to be ready for them before you launch into yours.

It’s a Clue not a Truth
It doesn’t matter what kind of survey, from change readiness to employee engagement, there are people who will invest in them as if they are a black and white truth. Those that take this approach then advocate ‘if they answer this way then it must mean they think that way’.
I once convinced an organisation to let me interview a group of staff about ‘why’ they had answered questions the way they did in a survey that had been used for three years to develop an improvement strategy. It turned out that managers were interpreting meaning in a very different way to staff. The over-riding clue was that people weren’t happy, but why they weren’t was not as simple as had been thought.
So treat change readiness survey answers as clues and insights rather than a black and white truth.

Individual versus Organisational
When people answer a survey they do so from their own perspective and the context that they find themselves in. When people go through organisational change they do so in their own way and at their own pace. Most organisational change is not individualized i.e. the changes happen to everyone regardless of their context and how they deal with uncertainty. So there is a mismatch here i.e. Change is dealt with at the individual level but managed and implemented at the organisational.
Any readiness survey that tells you how the individual ‘feels’ about change will have a shortfall when planning at the organisational level whilst any readiness survey that is organisationally focused will not accurately reflect individual readiness.

Does this matter?
Once again it depends on what you do with it. A survey that focuses on the individual is of most use to the manager of that individual. A survey that is organisational is of most use to the change manager, the leadership and the planning team.
So when it comes to change readiness surveys don’t assume they tell you what they don’t.

Drawing the line at the right time
This might sound obvious, but who answers the questions dictates the outcomes. A survey that is only answered by managers will have a management bias. The best change readiness survey is one that is answered by everyone in the organisation but in these days of survey fatigue many companies don’t want to go there. In addition if the change is not out in the open then it is not a good move to set a hare running by surveying employees about change readiness before the change is announced. This will mean that you are very lucky if you can run the perfect survey (100% involvement and 100% perfect timing) so be aware that what you are able to run may have a degree of imperfection which you need to allow for in your interpretation.

Overall a change readiness survey is better than no change readiness survey if you set out with the right perspective on what it tells you. I use them to engage the managers in thinking about their role in making the change happen (and happen well) and to introduce the concepts of leadership through transition, and dealing with uncertainty.

Whether the organisation is ready or not the change is still coming and leaders will need to lead that change at their level with their teams, survey or not.

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