When it comes to transformation, it's easy to focus solely on technology. Which makes sense: it’s exciting to dabble with new tech and imagine its impact on your current processes. But if change is an iceberg, technology is the small portion visible above water. The hidden bulk of the challenge is everything adjacent to implementation of new technology: realigning processes, clarifying priorities, and updating best practices. This is change management.

Change management is vital to successful implementation. But if neglected it becomes a massive stumbling block to getting anything done in an organization, no matter how big or small. If you get it right, adapting to new ideas is faster and less painful. If you don't master the fundamentals of change management, both the cost and risk of long-term failure rise. This is true whether you're trying to change something small or pursuing big picture digital transformation; change management is always the foundation.

What is change management?

Change management means managing change as a whole, not merely a new process or tell. Strategically, it is the indirect orchestration of all the parts that are relevant to the implementation. 

For our discussion today, we'll use the example of an organization that wants to implement a new accounting application. This is mid-sized business, with distributed teams across more than one location. It's an expensive investment, made to help drive three several business outcomes:

  • Reduced cost of operations
  • Faster settlement of accounts
  • Better visibility into financial operations

As you think about what it means to implement a new tool in your organization successfully, you can probably start to think about some best—and worst-case change management scenarios that might emerge.

Good outcomes

  • An organization that can help users get trained on a new application and be effective fast.
  • An organization that communicates changes with suppliers and customers early to avoid problems down the road.

Bad outcomes

  • The finance team becomes worried about their future in the firm, productivity suffers
  • The new tool doesn't integrate with another tool, slowing the pace of implementation.

So, what exactly goes into change management?

As you can see with each of these, the technology itself is almost secondary. The failure (or success) of the implementation is driven by something adjacent. At a program level, change management covers:

Organizational alignment

Getting everybody agreed and moving in the right direction is everything. From consensus around the investment to an agreement about a long-term plan, making sure the change effort is aligned with broader business goals. In most organizations, this is required even to get the purchase made. But regardless, keeping teams committed from start to finish is absolutely foundational.

In our example, this means making sure that it's not just finance and operations who get involved. Since the accounting system impacts HR, sales, and compliance, they need to be included. Ideally, they're stakeholders from the start.

Continuous communication

To keep people aligned, they must be informed. This means communicating change across teams, making sure to include everybody who might be affected. This can also include suppliers, vendors, partners – anyone that might be impacted by the change. And communication must be ongoing, from the first announcement through a cadence of regular updates across the process.

For our example, this means understanding the impact on payers and payees, internally and externally. It means understanding how the new system might delay operations and keeping people informed. And the same cross-functional group we discussed earlier should take the lead in communicating across their teams.

Process design

Sometimes new tools introduce new processes (or vice versa). Whether it's handoffs, checkpoints, or approvals, you need to make sure you've carefully mapped out human processes alongside your technology workflows. This ensures you spot potential issues early and address them appropriately.

Infrastructure optimization

If you're putting new digital tools in place, what is the impact on your existing infrastructure? How will new applications be hosted, managed, monitored, and secured? Your IT staff is probably already thinking big picture—if they're not, they should be.

For our new accounting tool, we need to understand where it's being hosted. Are we moving to the cloud? Who will manage the environment? Can we use existing tools and controls?

Education and advocacy

Part of this communication is informational, but it's also educational. Users need to be trained on new products and processes. They must be given education resources that are easy to access and consume. And they must all be tied to specific business outcomes. Scenario training is excellent for this–it better captures real-world workflows. No matter how you deliver user education–in person, web-based, or trainer the trainer, it's got to be an essential part of any rollout.

Our new accounting system isn't exactly the same as the last one. It has a lot of new features that will let the team be productive–if they're adequately trained. At the same time, some staff are worried. Some of their job duties are being eliminated through automation. They're concerned about their future in the organization and need to be assured.

Acquiring new skills

Oftentimes, change brings the need for new skill sets. Sometimes you can leverage existing team members and retrain. But if you must do additional hiring to ensure a project can be implemented and sustained, it has to be part of the plan.

Luckily, our experts already have the skills they need to be successful.

Ultimately, change management is solving a big picture problem by comprehensively managing small details. This means understanding how deep and wide the implications of each change will be.

Forget answers, buy process: 5 Steps to success

If you could guarantee successful change management no matter how complex or unque the circumstances of a given business, you'd have a winning product that would make you unbelievably wealthy. Unfortunately, each organization experiences change at their own pace, working against distinct choices and challenges. That means there's no easy or universal answer. But a consistently and carefully applied process can make all the difference.

How can you do that?

1. Start early

If change management thinking is about seeing the big picture, ideally, it should be the lens from the start. But regardless of how a particular decision was made, big picture thinking needs to start as early as possible. You already know everything inevitably takes longer than planned, so operate accordingly.

Starting earlier also ensures you're better prepared for the unexpected when it's time to implement. You've already anticipated potential hidden costs, identified critical teams, and created new roles. Your preparedness ensures that as additional details emerge, you have the bandwidth to deal with them.

For our example, ideally, the change management perspective has been leveraged from the moment the organization started to evaluate the need for a new tool. This would ensure we can assess benefits, costs, and complications—and start planning for them. Since finance and accounting touch nearly every piece of the business—we've got our work cut out for us.

2. Build consensus

Part of starting early is the ability to build consensus. We talked about the need for organizational alignment earlier—that's a direct product of consensus-building. As that big picture comes into focus, we can see the scope and scale of agreement needed.

Some stakeholders will agree quickly, at least upfront. Others will raise objections directly or prove less than cooperative across the process. Being able to predict where this resistance will come from enables you to deploy extra time (and diplomacy) to convince more difficult stakeholders of your cause.

It's also essential to create a shared framework for measuring progress. This might be a set of purely quantitative KPI or at least a standard qualitative structure for evaluating success. This is especially important for keeping that consensus going—progress is everything. The more you can socialize goals (and let everybody know how well things are going), the more unified efforts will be.

3. Identify and empower champions

While change management is a collective effort, individual contributions can have an outsized effect on how well things go. It's important to find champions for the cause, who are willing to spend time and attention advocating for change. Don't worry about top-down or bottom-up; the secret is enlisting a cross-section of contributors. For our implementation, we want to make sure we're working with critical roles in finance, accounting, revenue, compliance, and HR.

But simply asking for their help isn't enough. If they're to play a pivotal role in the change, they need the time and space to do so. This might mean temporarily shifting their duties. The goal is to leverage their time now to save time and speed success across the entire process. By forming specialized, cross-functional "special operations" teams, you can bring together the diverse expertise you need to succeed.

It's also not enough to simply put them to work. You need to work to create rapid feedback loops that capture information and turn that into learning. From there, you can hopefully make different (or better) decisions as you go.

4. Overcommunicate

Additionally, the lessons gathered in the process should be fed directly into the strategy you've already established, enabling the consistent communication that you need. If you don't already have an organizational culture that likes to communicate, now's as good a time as any other to start. It doesn't need to be formal or elaborate—a weekly email update might be enough.

The communication must be multidimensional and multidirectional. This means from the boardroom to the mailroom, across all branches and functions. Make the change a regular topic in meetings to ensure the project stays on everybody's radars.

5. Build on every win

Change management is a series of victories and setbacks. The trick is to make the most of your successes and learn from your failures.

But it's not just about collective intelligence; it's about building morale. Your organization has probably tried and failed at "big things" before. Those memories will inevitably color the mood of your current efforts. Celebrating the small wins, where and win they occur, can help shift that long-term narrative. And they're also critical to helping the project keep moving, from idea to pilot to wide-scale success.

For our new accounting system, that means highlighting fundamental wins such as a new entity structure, an updated vendor list, or a new report early on. Every positive step makes a difference.

Change management doesn't mean being naïve or ignoring failures. A change management perspective recognizes the enormity and complexity of the task at hand. But it also realizes that change, even 'big' change, is always incremental. That means taking one step forward and hoping the next step goes the same way.

The ultimate measure: how do we know when it works?

No matter which metrics or KPIs you choose, change management isn't always easy to measure. You'll know you've been successful when the decisions you make have the intended impact. And, just as importantly, when those decisions become the foundation of the next big step forward, you'll know that change management, as both a lens and a lever, is successful.

Remember, it's about the process. Even as you stumble at one point of a single implementation, your change management muscles get stronger. And, the next time you work to implement something new, your chances of success get stronger, too.

Revisiting our goals

In our example, we had an organization looking to drive key business outcomes via technology.

  • Reduced cost of operations
  • Faster settlement of accounts
  • Better visibility into financial operations

Successful change management would have helped them achieve these goals because:

  • Better trained staff would be working faster
  • Early communication would have gotten partners, payers, and payees ready for the change earlier
  • Alignment across the organization would have created a natural demand for better metrics and measurements

Without change management, the software installation itself might have succeeded, but that alone wouldn't have been enough.

How Kintone Can Help

At Kintone, we know that technology is just the tip of the iceberg. Change is always more significant and more complicated than merely designing a new application or moving to a new infrastructure. That's why we do what we, helping organizations get the most of their technology today and tomorrow. Sometimes that means focusing on API integration and other details.

But it also means looking beyond the technology at the issues and constraints impacting your organization. Whether you need to replace an accounting system or develop a plan for becoming truly cloud-native, our experts can help your experts build a plan. And, most importantly, we can help you manage change along the way.

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