A guide to change planning during coronavirus – The role for change practitioners

A guide to change planning during coronavirus – The role for change practitioners

“When disaster strikes, it tears the curtain away from the festering problems that we have beneath them,”


Most of the world is now shrouded in a thick cloud that is the coronavirus.  It is shaping a lot of our daily lives, from shopping, travelling, visiting friends, work, economy and not the least health.  Some businesses are going under whilst others struck with sudden increased demand.  Chaos and panic abound.  There will certainly be significant levels of economic and therefore industry impacts resulting from the virus.  As a result of the sudden shifts in business decisions, what is the role of the change practitioner?  With the right tools, data and approach, the change practitioner can be the lynch-pin to enable the organisation to plan effectively through the impacts of the virus.

Let’s outline some of the current landscape and what a lot of businesses are undergoing.

Offshore staffing changes

Many companies are impacted by quarantine decisions.  In certain countries such as the Philippines there is a significant presence of offshore operations.  To rapidly contain the spread of the virus the Philippines government on Monday has ordered community quarantines covering half of the population leading to business shutdowns.  What this means is that many companies have suddenly found themselves in the position of having to rapidly ramp up their onshore operations to deal with customer call volumes. 

Even those who have other offshore operations not in the Philippines will be wise to review their business continuity planning in the event that their business partners are impacted.

Work from home

To protect employees from the spread of the virus a significant number of companies have asked all of their employees to work from home where possible.  This also leads to a significant shift in the ways of working for these organisations, especially if the core skills of leading and managing workforce virtually are new skill sets.  To read more about how to deal with the impacts of the virus go to our article Managing Change During the Cornoavirus.

Restricted travel

Most companies have also implemented restrictions on travel.  Some countries have even implemented international travel quarantines, essentially reducing the majority of inflows of visitors.

Resource ramp-up

For those companies who need to ramp up onshore operations, this presents challenges in terms of the speed of resource ramp-up to meet customer demands.  Challenges include the availability of technical equipment such as headsets and laptops, as well as finding the talent pool when there is restricted travelling.

Other companies are significantly benefiting from the current situation, for example, digital retailers such as Amazon, Ebay or medical equipment providers and suppliers.

Resource ramp down and cost containment

A lot of retailers are hard hit by the sudden slow-down of retail foot traffic.  Airlines have drastically cut flights and travel agencies are hit by the lack of travel bookings.  Some have started to lay off staff in anticipation of continuing downturn in customer numbers.  Even for those who have not yet laid off staff, there is focus on cost containment amidst cost challenges from declining revenue.

Business continuity plans

Most of the businesses negatively impacted by the virus in a significant way are resorting to their business continuity plan.  This means that the chain of command may be different from business-as-usual and decision making may be faster or slower depending on the nature of the decision.  This also means that any business plans in place may change.  Focus and resources may be shifted leading to significant change for employees.

Business replanning implications

Given significant disturbances to business-as-usual activities, what are the options in terms of existing change initiatives?  Most organizations will be in the middle of reviewing or re-planning existing focus areas including change initiatives.  The following are some of the likely scenarios. 

  • Prioritise or re-prioritise existing initiatives
  • Defer existing initiatives as needed
  • Resource planning: Subject matter expert or business representative availability given any business continuity challenges, project resources (increased or decreased demand)
  • Scenario planning: Some companies are modelling various scenarios of the impact of the virus on the business in order to make arrangements from a risk and mitigation perspective

The role of the change practitioner

Impacts of changing plans

Given most large organizations are already undergoing various change initiatives to stay competitive, the changes caused by the coronavirus adds to the volume and pace of existing planned set of changes.  The project management office, as well as other planning teams will benefit significantly from access to change impact information and data to make balanced decisions on any business replanning activities.

Some of these include:

  • Initiatives and impacts from a business unit perspective
  • Geographic differences in planned initiative impacts
  • Planned customer impacts
  • Visualisation of any existing black-out periods and other periods of high customer volumes or high employee workload periods (e.g. quarter-ends for Finance and peak customer policy renewal/purchasing periods)
  • Stakeholder group impact, e.g. customer-facing vs. non-customer facing staff
  • Hot spot analysis of team capacity impacts on top of existing planned initiatives
  • Impacts on customer segments
  • Impacts on partners and suppliers

Example of data visualisation from The Change Compass

Model likely scenarios of moving initiatives

The other area in which the change practitioner may add significant value in the business replanning exercise is in helping to articulate and visualise the impact of moving initiatives.  As outlined previously, these could be the result of re-sequencing, re-prioritisation or scenario planning to better manage risk exposure for the organisation.

In modelling the impacts of various scenarios, key call outs include:

  • Resourcing and capacity challenges
  • Change volume hotspots
  • Change velocity against existing business change capacity
  • Feasibility of allowing embedment of change between initiatives
  • Advantages or disadvantages of any change release ‘packaging’

Plan restructuring exercises

Often restructuring exercises are lead by senior managers with the guidance of human resource partners from a people and HR policy perspective.  However, the value of the change practitioner is in designing the restructuring as a project, containing scoped phases and planned according to a sequence of logical steps based on sound change principles.  After all, restructuring exerts the highest impact on individuals more than other changes.

Restructuring is no different than other change initiatives.  There needs to be clear articulation of the reasons or the ‘why’ behind the restructuring, logical articulation of how decisions are made, clear detailing of impacts to the organisations and people overall, and a series of planned steps in which to engage impacted stakeholders to support them through the change.

Adjusting change approaches to fit in with virtual working

With the sudden switch to working from home or virtual working, some employees may not be familiar or comfortable with this way of working.  Existing change initiatives may have been designed with face-to-face sessions such as town halls, training sessions etc.  With the virtual working environment change practitioners need to readjust the change approach and think through ways of driving effective change virtually.

These include such as:

  • Effective virtual facilitation
  • Ability to use technology to aid engagement
  • More frequent communications than previously planned
  • Allowing more implementation time due to the challenges of virtual working

Continuous engagement of employees during this change

In order to proactively engage the employee during this time of change, follow core change principles.  For example, engage early and continuous to outline the direction of the organisation, and check-in continuously to gage employee sentiments to assess their change journey.  Adjust and pivot as needed to provide any additional support.  Share any wins such as examples of effective virtual working tips and employee profiles.  Share stories of how effective teams have overcome the potential challenges of social isolation and still deliver solid business outcomes.

Managing change during coronavirus

Managing change during coronavirus

The world is now watching and experiencing an emerging coronavirus pandemic.  There is widespread anticipation and fear in many parts of the world, especially those with higher rates of infection.   This poses an interesting scenario of testing the capability of organisations in managing change during coronavirus.  And in fact …. the virus itself is a change that forces organisations to work and organise itself differently.

The change caused by coronavirus is vast.  Travel bookings are cancelled and prohibited.  Employees in highly infected areas are told to work from home.  Expatriates are sent home and many face forced quarantine.  In Australia, Australian evacuees from Wuhan in China (where the virus was first spread to humans) are placed in Christmas Island detention centres.  In many parts of the world, cities have become ghost towns.  Soccer stadiums lay empty.  Some countries have even closed borders to countries infected with high rates of the virus.  In Hong Kong office staff are working from home, along with their partners.  And often within close proximity of where their children are playing, which can be challenging.

No doubt about it – the coronavirus is one of the tests of an organisation’s ability to undergo change.  Some are more prepared than others.

So how does an organisation manage the changes inflicted by coronavirus?

Change leadership

Most companies follow the usual approaches of sending out notifications on company policies and any restrictions such as business travel and working from home policies.  However, in this time of uncertainty leaders need to stand out and help navigate through the various changes caused by the virus. 

This means communicating early and frequently about what is happening and relaying any useful information as needed such as travel and technology needs.  Leaders need to gage any employee sentiments and concerns about what is happening around them.  Promote discussions as needed to sense-check any employee concerns and offer support.

Effective change leaders also need to proactive interpret what the changes mean to the team and assess the various impacts of the change.  Does it make sense for all team members to work from home?  Are there any connectivity issues?  Does the team have the skills to work virtually?  How are the team’s deliverables going to be impacted by the virus in terms of potential increases or decreases in workload? What other teams might benefit from the support of the team in the current environment?

Rules of engagement

With any significant changes in ways of working and operating there needs to be clear rules of engagement set for employees.

For example:

  • To support virtual working what are the ground rules if any in terms of responsiveness and virtual engagement?  Does there need to be regular individual checking throughout the meeting to ensure everyone has a chance to speak?

  • Are there meeting rules that are required to ensure the team remains cohesive and engaged?  Does there need to be a separate minute taker, time keeper, etc.?

  • Do individual expectations need to be reset within a changed workplace?  How does everyone show their work output within a virtual environment?  And what is the expectation on virtual collaboration?

  • Are there rules of expectations for those who are sick or have a cold/flu in terms of not being in the workplace?

  • How is performance evaluated within a virtual working situation?

Agile organisations can easily bend and flex according to changing industry pressures and customer requirements.  If business volumes drop, what are the ways in which the organisation can scale down as needed to stay afloat?  This is more than just about business continuity plans as it is about the flexibility of the operating model and ways of working to undergo rapid change.

Using virtual tools for collaboration

When the previous epidemic SARS hit back in 2003 working virtually was less prevalent.  Now, equipped with a range of technological tools, organizations can easily make things work much more effectively in a virtual environment. 

The trick is not to assume that one magical tool will meet all of your needs.  Instead, use different tools for different purposes.  Here are some digital tools that may help:

  • Telecommunications:  Google Hangout, Skype, Zoom

  • Project tracking: Basecamp, Trello, Jira

  • Online discussion boards: Microsoft Teams, Slack, Yammer

  • Virtual collaboration: Draw.io, Google Docs

  • Visual graphics: Canva

Working virtually can also mean that some of the body languages cannot be seen and therefore using visual aids is more critical in a virtual working environment more than in a face-to-face situation.  Using visual aids helps to make communication even clearer and easier to follow for the audience. 

Draw.io is worth mentioning as it is free and also super easy to use.  There is a range of different templates that are ready to use.  A team can use this to start brainstorming ideas, work through a logic tree, fill in a flow-chart, develop a project approach, define a timeline, etc.

Balancing planned initiatives

Most organisations are already balancing multiple changes at any given time prior to the arrival of coronavirus.  What this means to most organisations is that the impact of coronavirus is one more change that piles on top of existing change initiatives.

Organisations need to carefully assess the planned set of changes and ascertain to what extent existing changes may need to be tweaked as a result of the virus.  Do initiatives need to be delayed or paused?  Or will the implementation approach need to be different as a result of the virtual nature of work for more targeted employees?  Will communication mediums need to change as a result?  What about learning mediums?  What are the feasible learning platforms and how effective are these for targeted employees? 

Data visualisation tools for change such as The Change Compass can provide a visual way of understanding the volume and pace of change across the organisation.  In particular, assessing the collective impacts of events such as the virus on the employees given other planned changes.  This, in turn, can help with business decision making regarding the roll -out of the various changes to maximise business readiness and adoption.

What I learnt about managing multiple changes came from finance

What I learnt about managing multiple changes came from finance

The concept of managing a set of projects of initiatives may be new in the area of change management, it is commonplace for a lot of large financial services firms in the project management arena.  The idea is that across a large number of projects, these are then divided into a few portfolios in order to better manage the outcomes within each portfolio, versus a scattered, project by project approach.

Where did the concept of portfolio management come from?  And how do we best apply this within a change management context when there are multiple changes going on at any one time?

Portfolio in Finance refers to a combination of financial assets such as stocks, bonds and cash.  The goal of managing a portfolio is to get the best outcome according the risk tolerance, time frame and investment objectives.

This really is not all that different in change management.  Change interventions and activities are designed to maximise the return on investment and the embedment of change. 

  • Change measurement and reporting focus on leading risk indicators such as change readiness, stakeholder engagement levels and progress of capability development in terms of training completion rates.

  • Like finance investments, initiatives also have different priorities and risk exposures.  Those that are higher priority and have higher risk exposures need greater focus than those that are lower priority and less risk exposures.  Therefore, clear prioritisation is critical to ensure clarity of focus

  • The timing of initiatives is also a notable comparison.  Some initiatives take a long time to implement and embed, and require significant continued sustainability to execute on.  Other initiatives may be much faster to implement to reap the benefits.  From a change management perspective, focusing on the people requirement as a result of the speed of implementation is key.  A project for the long-haul requires continuous updates and engagement, versus something that is more intense and quick in roll out

So what can we learn from financial portfolio management approach?

  1. Focus on data

Data is king in finance.  The goal of the overall portfolio can only be assessed in terms of its financial performance.  Imagine trying to understand the performance of a financial portfolio without being able to look at its performance?  It is the same for change management.  We need to be able to assess the outcome of various initiatives within the portfolio.  For example:

  • What are the impacts across initiatives?  How do they impact the same business unit or stakeholder groups?  Which business units are at risk due to change volume planned?  How can the risk be managed or mitigated?

  • How is the change embedment tracking?  This can be measured in terms of change readiness or in terms of more project-specific measures such as specific behaviours or any efficiencies or savings targeted

  • Speed of implementation is also key to measure.  Is there a clear sense of the speed in which different projects within the portfolio are operating at?  What are the short and sharp ones versus the long and arduous projects?

2. Focus on risk

In a way, managing change can be seen as an investment in risk mitigation as mentioned previously.  In overviewing the various projects within the portfolio, be aware of their corresponding risk exposures.

Some of the ways in which we can value the risk exposure of initiatives related to change include:

  • Projects that are deemed higher risk because the quantum of change impact is higher and more complex than others? 

  • Stakeholder support and drivership level

  • Sponsor style and level of involvement in breaking through any obstacles and being visible

  • Project team health.  Is the team cohesive and high performing or plagued with conflicting personalities and siloed work streams?

  • Level of awareness across impacted employees

3. Focus on analysis and reporting

A finance portfolio manager spends his/her time on understanding the performance and risks or each investment and the overall portfolio.  In the same way, in order to understand how the overall change portfolio is performing it is key to review the whole group of initiatives regularly. 

There are routines that can be designed into business-as-usual activities.  For example, as a part of regular business planning sessions, one aspect could be to review the performance of the change portfolio metrics and reports.  This would involve various stakeholders in the planning process, thereby focusing their attention of managing change and giving them accountability in this regard.

The Project Management Office could also benefit from incorporating change management metrics into their regular planning and review routines.  Change metrics and reports would then sit alongside of other cost and schedule data to form a holistic view of making portfolio decisions regarding prioritisation and project roll out.

In all of these cases the change practitioner has a crucial role to play – the analyst and story teller.  Simply by presenting a set of data is not necessarily going to add value to the business.  The change practitioner needs to analyse the data, look for patterns, risks and opportunities.  Are there ways in which the projects could be better sequenced or packaged?  Are there key risks in embedding change looking at the overall picture?  What would particular parts of the business be going through across the initiatives?  Using data visualisation will convey the story powerfully.  Check out digital tools such as The Change Compass to support you in crafting and telling the change story to your stakeholders.

To read more about change portfolio management read our article The Ultimate Guide to Change Portfolio Management.

Build your change approach using this proven technique that Mckinsey consultants use

Build your change approach using this proven technique that Mckinsey consultants use

Often change approaches are built not using a structured and well-defined series of logics but often using a cookie-cutter, standard change approach or change strategy template.  In some cases, a ‘gut-feel’ may also be used based on stakeholder wishes or preferences.  These are subject to stakeholder criticism nor do not achieve the goals of the initiative.

The usual standard change approach for most initiatives often entail the following.

  1. Stakeholder engagement – setting up forums and sending emails to stakeholders
  2. Training – planning for and executing training delivery to ensure users understand the new system/process
  3. Pre-go live readiness – send reminder emails and build intranet articles to raise awareness

How might we better derive change approach using sound logic and an evidence-backed approach?

One way to construct a logical, structured and well-thought-through change approach is by using a logic tree.  A logic tree is a visualization that captures all the component parts of a problem, in order to make it easier to identify a hypothesis that can then be tested using data and analysis.  Logic trees are great for making decisions by visually decomposing the various elements and reviewing these holistically. 

In the following example, a family uses a logic tree to decide which new town to move to by narrowing almost 30 possible potential locations to just one.  In the following diagram (from Bulletproof problem solving, Wiley 2019) you can see how this family started with the problem it is trying to solve, and then broke down the problem into its elements.  Then within each branch a weighting is assigned to each branch, in terms of percentages.  Then each sub-branch is also assigned weightings. 

Example of a logic tree in deciding where to live

Then as a next step data can be collected to determine which town meets the various criteria as defined in the logic tree.  By doing this, laying out the various components, and analysing its weightings, you can derive the best location.

This is how McKinsey consultants and other strategy consultants solve large complex problems.  The logic tree forces you to structure your problem versus being lost in focusing on certain approaches and neglecting others.  Any problem can be solved using this approach.  Even the largest of problems can be broken down into its smallest components.

Strategy consultants then go through every branch to analyse them and collect data to prove or disprove each branch one by one.  This means, that each branch or hypothesis is tested and proven or disproven.  In this way, every option is considered and the chance of making a wrong decision is greatly reduced.

So how might we build a logic tree that helps derive the change approach for an initiative?

  1.  Start by defining the problem or question to be addressed.  What is the goal of the initiative?  Is it to implement a new system that is fully adopted by its users?  Is it to increase cross-selling by sharing customer information across business units?
  2. Think of the broader buckets of each branch.  What are the core types of change approaches to address the problem?  Think widely and carefully about all the types of buckets possible that would address the problem.
  3. Expand the branches until you have covered all possibilities
  4. Go through and assign a weighting in percentage terms to each branch and then use this to determine the focus and importance you may want to place on certain branches in terms of research and data collection
  5. Go through each branch and systematically to reject any that do not apply based on data.  For example, one branch could be to use video as a channel to communicate.  However if the data shows that previous usage of video to communicate key messages did not result in raising awareness for this stakeholder group, then reject this option

Here is one partial example of deriving a change approach for a customer complaints project.

Logic tree example of a detailed change approach

Click here to download this diagram.

One important principle to note when building branches is to ensure that the branches are MECE.  MECE stands for mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.  Mutually exclusive means that you need to ensure that each branch is unique and does not overlap with any other branch.  Collectively exhaustive means that every option or alternative has been considered and nothing is left off.  In this way, the branches you have built are bulletproof from a logical structure perspective.

Building a change approach using a structured approach that is data-supported and logic tested will earn significant stride with the most critical of your stakeholders.  You can even hold a workshop to work with your stakeholders to define the logic tree and assign weightings so that that the agreed approach is one that is clearly visible and logically sound.

Another important point to keep in mind is how each of the branches of the logic tree change approach will interface into the overall change environment. When planning on the execution of the overall change approach or each branch of the approach, one needs to be clear around the velocity and volume of change and what else is happening in the change landscape. Using data visualisation tools such as The Change Compass is one way to grasp and plan around the change environment.