Is it useful to label change as positive or negative?

Is it useful to label change as positive or negative?

You may have been asked to rate change into either a positive or negative change to classify initiatives and thereby use the classification to aid change implementation.  After all, we all know of initiatives that nearly everyone sees as negative and other initiatives where it’s going to make people’s lives easier, and therefore viewed as mostly positive.  So, is it useful to classify every initiative as either positive or negative?  Let’s examine this closely.

What is the usefulness of classifying change into either positive or negative?

Some managers believe that if we are able to classify change as either positive or negative then we are able to focus on those changes that are perceived as negative since they may require significant managerial effort to drive through the change.  Also, negative changes may face more resistance.  Therefore, knowing this helps to plan for change implementation.

Negative changes could include significant restructures where employees are losing their jobs, and where there are significant cost-cutting outcomes targeted.  On the other hand, a positive change could be a process improvement where the new process makes work easier for impacted employees, requiring less approval and less paperwork. 

However, there are many issues with this assumption.  Let’s break things down….

Differences in individual perception

Every individual has a different perception of the same change initiative.  After all, we are all individuals with different upbringings, personalities, life experiences, and preferences.  In a major restructuring, whilst most impacted employees losing their jobs may see this as negative, there could be those who are eager to receive the redundancy payout, possessing long tenure at the company.  Others may initiative find the change negative, however found that this was a great opportunity to launch a career they had always wanted.

On the other hand, even for a seemingly positive change that could make most employee’s lives easier, not everyone may see it that way.  There are always some that simply do not like changes at all.  It could be that they are so used to the old ways of working that any change and adjustment would be perceived as negative.

You may recognise this Rubin Vase picture – either an old woman or a young lady.

Different perceptions in stakeholder groups

It is also important to note that not every stakeholder group would perceive the same initiative in the same way.  It depends on various factors.  For example, with a phone upgrade, younger employees or those groups more familiar with technology would welcome the change with open arms.  New phones with new features, exciting functions, faster responses, and better quality cameras – how could anyone view this as negative?

Well, it could be that for those who are not ‘early adopters’ and are used to using the same phone for the long term, this may be a negative change.  They may not even want to use most of the features of the phone and in fact, more features could mean more confusion and more time required to learn the functions of the phone.

There are positives and negatives in most changes

Inherent in every change, there could be both positive or negative aspects of the change for the same stakeholder.  Implementing a new system in order to improve response time and incorporate greater digital features may be initially painful.  The significant work required to understand why the change is required, the long time spend in preparing for the change, only to find that releases often get pushed back. 

Eventually when the system gets launched there is excitement and everyone is saying how much easier the new system is to use.  However, like all systems, there are bugs that need to be ironed out and this could take at least a few months.  So, you can see that it’s not as easy to just label the whole initiative as positive or negative.  It depends on which angle we are viewing the change and at what phase of the initiative.

Changes may be neither positive nor negative

Some changes may be neutral.  Think of the slew of regulatory changes impacting the financial services sector.  Many of these are process changes that are geared to provide more oversight, transparency, and to benefit customers. 

Small process or policy changes may not be difficult to understand nor to implement.  Employees may not find it a difficult change, however, it doesn’t really benefit them in their roles.  However, they do understand why this was implemented and that this is important to abide by or the company may be fined by the regulator.  So, this is an example of how some changes don’t need to be necessarily positive or negative.

Perception may not be either positive nor negative. Humans are more complex than that.

Perception toward the change could be altered during the implementation

Change management is about influencing stakeholder perceptions.  If perceptions toward change cannot be altered then what is the point of change management you may ask?  Absolutely. 

Stakeholders may initially have a negative perception of the change due to preconceived ideas about the ‘why’ of the change.  Or it could be that managers’ roles are impacted negatively and therefore they then painted a negative image for their teams.  It could also be that insufficient communication and engagement have been in place and therefore the change came as a surprise – leading to negative perceptions, more towards the senior managers that are driving the change, than the change itself. 

Effective change managers are able to skillfully diagnose stakeholder perceptions and anticipate their potential reactions to change.  The change intervention is therefore designed to effectively influence and collaborate with impacted stakeholders to build rapport and consensus toward the change.  What may have started out as a negative change, can be turned around into a neutral or even positive one.

Time it takes to embed the change for positive/negative changes

It is a fallacy to assume that positive changes always take less effort than negative ones.  This is not always the case.  If we go back to our example of the new system, like any new system, whether perceived in a positive or negative light, effort and time are required to learn the new system.  Focus and effort are required to understand why this change is needed, what it is aiming to achieve, and the impacted stakeholder’s role in this.  Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that positive changes require less effort and focus.

But would negative changes face more resistance?  Maybe yes and maybe no.  Again, it depends.  For example, we know from the below involvement and commitment curve that there more someone is involved in crafting the change the more committed they will feel to the outcome of the change.  So, resistance could be the result of insufficient or ineffective engagement, rather than a necessary result of a perceived ‘negative’ change.

So, you can see that it may not be so useful to try and label change as positive or negative in order to aid change planning.  A much more useful angle to look at planning for change is to look at aspects such as impact, stakeholder readiness, behaviour changes required, level of complexity, etc.

To read more about measuring change check out our Ultimate Guide to Measuring Change.

Planning for change during COVID19

Planning for change during COVID19

Is your business re-planning existing initiatives or in the middle of reverting to business continuity plans? 

What is the role of the change practitioner in the midst of coronavirus? In all the chaos and sudden shifts in organizations around the world in response to the implications of the virus comes significant opportunities. The change practitioner can be well-positioned to provide significant value to guide the organization in planning for change. 

Listen to our recorded webinar to gain a broader understanding of…

  • How to help your business re-plan a portfolio of changes
  • How to ensure that your project’s timeline fits in with business changes
  • Helping your project to deploy and maneuver around limited business capacityTweaking your change approach when everyone is working from home
  • Engaging various stakeholder groups during these times
  • Plan for change scenarios to anticipate impacts from coronavirus on your organization

Sign up below to access our webinar.

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.