I recently received a letter from a reader requesting advice on how to go about leading change initiatives within an organization. After reading the request, I began thinking of several initiatives I’ve been part of that were received well by the organization’s members and how we, as an organization, went about leading such change.
One particular initiative stood out: our implementation of high-performance CPR. As you can imagine, when the initiative was introduced, some employees were skeptical. Why was the training necessary when they were already well-versed in CPR?
So how did we go about implementing this initiative? First, every organization must have a change management plan—in place regardless if an initiative is being implemented or not—and organizational leaders must be ready to lead change. A change management plan must be part of the organization’s culture; its components include researching improvement opportunities; routinely diagnosing underperforming processes; gathering and analyzing outcome data; and finally implementing new initiatives.
We use the following activities on an ongoing basis to detect when change is needed and employ an implementation framework that deals specifically with implementing change. Kurt Lewin’s three-stage change management model—unfreeze, change, and refreeze—made our high-performance CPR initiative, as well as others our organization undertook, easy to implement. This model approaches change management in the following manner.
Unfreeze: Preparing for Change
When preparing for change, organizational leaders must continually seek out areas for potential improvement, evaluate organizational activities, and begin to prepare to address underperforming business activities. Identifying improvement opportunities is a key responsibility of leaders. This can be done by observing how internal stakeholders work with activities assigned to them, asking questions, and/or working alongside stakeholders as they perform their tasks. Leaders may also choose to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of key processes or systems by conducting the activity themselves.
After evaluating a process, system, or activity and acknowledging an improvement is required, it is during this step of Lewin’s model where the leader and/or change agents begin to prepare the organization’s stakeholders for change. It is also during this step that employee resistance to change must be anticipated.
Resistance may be active or passive. Active resistance is when stakeholders are committed to stopping the initiative at all costs. This may even include sabotage. Passive resistance is more subtle. Resisters may be ambivalent or not willing to commit to the change 100%. If resistance is identified, leaders must use the opportunity to demonstrate why the change is necessary and take time to discuss how it will benefit the organization. The key is to make every effort to determine the root cause of the resistance rather than getting upset at the employees.
According to leadership expert Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, resistance to change arises from threats to traditional norms. Here are some reason stakeholders resist change:
They may not understand the change being proposed and have insufficient information about its benefits;
They may feel change is not needed because current processes, activities, and systems work just fine;
Some may resist change as a result of not knowing what will be expected of them once the change has been implemented;
They may feel left out and not given an opportunity to share their opinion about the proposed change;
They may feel they won’t have the required skill set.
Resistance will always be present at some level throughout a change initiative, but it’s how the resistance is handled that will determine the success of the initiative. Including stakeholders early may reduce the likelihood of resistance. After clearly articulating why the change is necessary, leaders must make every effort to seek input, feedback, and buy-in from those who will be impacted. This must be a top priority. Not reaching out for feedback and input will create a perception that change is being forced upon members, rather than undertaken in partnership. If there is no buy-in from the organization’s members, there is a high probability the initiative will fail.
Change: Effective Execution
During the second stage of Lewin’s model, organizational leaders must have a plan and ensure the change is executed effectively.
Ensure the initiative is clearly articulated and provide as much detail as possible as to what will be required. If the initiative is large and requires a lot of resources, introducing it in phases may be beneficial. Leaders must be prepared to answer questions about new processes, systems, activities, etc. In addition, they need to ensure the resources for a successful transition are available. Furthermore, it is vital for the leader or change agent to be available during the implementation phase, take charge, and remove barriers that may impede implementation. It will be the leader’s responsibility to celebrate employees as they move through the change process and begin to embrace the new. Supporting employees must be a priority for every leader.
Refreeze: Controlling the Change
In the third and final stage, organizational leaders must make sure the change “sticks” and becomes part of the organization’s routine business activities. Controlling the change and ensuring it doesn’t move in an unanticipated direction or employees don’t revert back to old ways requires close and continuous monitoring. In addition, during this step leaders must ensure employees have embraced the change and continue to support it. If additional change is required, it can be done incrementally as employees become comfortable.
Highlighting positive outcomes as a result of the change is important for the entire organization. It will demonstrate the change was good and continue to develop healthy relationships between management and stakeholders. This will build trust, reduce anxiety, and minimize resistance when future change initiatives are introduced.
Following a change management framework will ensure change initiatives remain on track and stakeholder concerns are addressed throughout the process. As the organizational leader or change agent, it is important to become familiar with all phases of a change initiative and what to expect throughout the process. Identifying that a change is needed, providing needed tools and guidance throughout the implementation, and making sure the change is controlled to achieve its goals are essential components to effective change management.
Orlando J. Dominguez, Jr., MBA, RPM, is assistant chief of EMS for Brevard County Fire Rescue in Rockledge, Fla. He has more than 30 years of EMS experience and has served as a firefighter-paramedic, flight paramedic, field training officer, EMS educator, and division chief. He has authored two books, including EMS Supervisor: Principles and Practice, and is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt. Follow him at @ems_officer.