The Product Manager’s Guide to Change Management
“The only thing that is constant is change.” ― Heraclitus
Change management is probably the single most important skill a product leader should master in her career. It is the skill that separates the majority from those who consistently and successfully bring together the entire organization to deliver the best product and experiences to their customers.
Understanding how change management works will transform the way you help your business communicate, how initiatives are prioritized, and how you coordinate multiple departments and agendas within the organization. It is what will help you grow with the business as the business inevitably evolves.
Change management as a discipline has been around for a couple of decades already and there is a substantial number of research projects, authors, case studies and frameworks that can be learned from and implemented.
In this post, we cover why most change initiatives fail and provide a brief introduction to techniques you can implement today to master change in your organization.
Why most initiatives fail
If we take the average change initiatives success rate into consideration, then it becomes clear: In spite of your best intentions, your chances at implementing change are slim.
Quite slim, in fact.
In “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” (note, access to the full text requires signup), John Kotter wrote:
Over the past decade, I have watched more than 100 companies try to remake themselves into significantly better competitors. […] In almost every case, the basic goal has been the same: to make fundamental changes in how business is conducted in order to help cope with a new, more challenging market environment.
A few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale.
In the book of the same title, he included research findings proving that, on average, only one out of three change projects culminate in success. (source)
But here’s the kicker:
13 years later, in 2008, a McKinsey & Company’s survey of 3,199 executives around the world discovered that this rate hasn’t changed a bit. (source)
But why such a low success rate?
As Prosci, the leading change management research company put it:
“When your organization undertakes projects or initiatives to improve performance, they often require changes. […] However, it is actually the employees of your organization who have to ultimately change how they do their jobs. If these individuals are unsuccessful in their personal transitions, if they don’t embrace and learn a new way of working, the initiative will fail. If employees embrace and adopt changes required by the initiative, it will deliver the expected results. “
This bring us to the first big idea behind change management:
Change is not about what you want to achieve, but what other people think they will achieve if they embrace change.
Change is less about processes and more about people — their security; their personal chances of success; and how much they can see themselves, as individuals, in the future you are proposing.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that change is a collective activity — it may look like it on the surface, but when it comes to implementation, it is actually a very individual process. You as a change agent need to be able to manage change at both levels.
Not matter how strong the culture is in your organization, people adapt to change if you are able to help them answer very specific questions like:
What does this change mean for me?
Is my job safe?
Can I see myself in this role in the future?
Can I trust them? What they are planning to do?
If I don’t change, will I still be okay in this team?
Change also happens gradually and in stages.
The Kübler-Ross model, otherwise known as the five stages of grief, is often used to explain the different stages individuals go through when they experience dramatic change. From grief to job loss, we all as humans have to deal with different nonlinear stages of adaptation.
You may not consider some of the changes you want to implement as dramatic as a job loss, but even if the changes are mild, people will still experience different degrees of acceptance, denial, engagement and commitment.
What most change management professionals do when it comes to implementing big changes in organizations is to design communication strategies for each of these stages in order to minimize resistance. It is very hard to force people to move from denial to engagement without addressing their emotional needs.
Change is not a linear process, but most people think about it a bit like this:
Most change initiatives fail because people driving change do not understand the individual needs of the people who will be implementing the change.
How do you implement change and, most importantly, make it stick?
Or, to put it differently, what is the secret behind the 30% of successful initiatives?
In their seminal book, Switch: How to Change Things When the Change is Hard, Dan Heath and Chip Heath outline a methodology for instilling behavioral change. They call it “The Rider, The Elephant, and the Path,” and it is worth noting that they based it on the work of Jonathan Haidt, a renowned NYU psychologist.
(Note: You can watch Dan Heath explaining the whole concept in this video, but let me reiterate it for you quickly here, too.)
The premise behind this is centered on our knowledge about two separate systems in our brain — rational and emotional.
As Haidt proposed, we should think about it as a rider on top of an elephant.
The rider represents the logical, rational part of your brain. That is the part that analyzes, plans, and solves problems.
The elephant, on the other hand, represents your emotions. Needless to say, that is the system that powers up your actions.
As you already know, logic plays an surprisingly small part in driving our behavior, but even when we are aware of this, we still trust our ideas and the rationale behind them to drive action.
As Dan Heath puts it:
“The rider can try to lead the elephant or drag it. But if the two ever disagree…who would you be on? The elephant has a 6-ton weight advantage. And it’s exactly that power imbalance making adopting new behaviors very hard.”
Based on this, the Heath brothers concluded that to implement a change; you need to:
● Give directions to the rider that will help them get to the destination,
● motivate the elephant by tapping into emotions,
● and finally, shape the path to allow them to get to the destination quickly and without encountering any significant obstacles.
So, let’s go through those three elements in detail and discuss how you could implement them within your organization.
#1. The Rider
To motivate the rider, you need to do two things.
First, you need to provide direction, which means explaining in detail the nature of the change.
Second, you need to provide the knowledge that will help the rider get to the destination.
What manifests itself, as resistance to change more often than not is just a lack of clarity. Not everybody has the ability to navigate uncertainty the way you might. Understanding what the next steps are for something you have never done before does not come naturally. Humans like predictability.
For example, you may feel comfortable saying “I don’t know if this is going to work, but let’s try it, test it, and see what happens.” For most people working in product management roles, this feels natural and is a good way to propose changes, but the truth is that very few people feel comfortable designing implementation plans or defining next steps for large initiatives.
Most people are not comfortable not knowing if things are going to work or not. Whenever there is a chance for failure, there will be anxiety and resistance.
In practical terms, as the Heath brothers point out, this involves following a simple, 3-step process:
Step 1. Reducing the Analysis Paralysis
We have a natural human tendency to overanalyze problems. The trouble is that such behavior often leads to a complete failure in making decisions and moving forward.
Thus, unless you translate the change into something your team is already familiar with, they might respond to it by overthinking it.
Step 2. Scripting the Critical Moves
The rider represents logic. Because of that, it will only respond to clear instructions.
To motivate the rider, you need to translate the goals for the change into concrete behaviors it can perform. As the Heath brothers state: for the rider, clarity dissolves resistance.
Step 3. Giving the Rider a Compelling Destination
Logic thrives on goals. A compelling destination is bound to engage the rider and motivate it to undergo the journey. So, give it a vivid image showing the possible outcomes of the change.
#2. The Elephant
It is much harder to find arguments that ignite emotions than it is for logic. However, at the heart of understanding how to motivate the emotional side of our brains lies the idea that smaller goals motivate us more.
One research study after another has proven that setting up big goals has a diminishing effect on our motivation. For example, in his book, Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money, Aubrey Daniels cites studies showing that stretch or big goals reduce performance. (source)
In fact, as Daniel argues,
“goals are motivating people only when they have received positive rewards and feedback from reaching them in the past.”
That’s why, to motivate people emotionally, you need to break the change into smaller chunks to offer faster gratification for implementing it.
As Dan Heath notes:
“Hope is elephant’s fuel. And when a task feels big, emotions will resist.”
How can we overcome resistance on a practical level?
Never initiate a change program in one go. Instead, break it into smaller steps and set milestones that deliver wins quickly for the team.
#3. The Path
The final element of the strategy is the path — the process both the rider and the elephant will go through to reach the destination.
Just as you need to engage people’s emotions and give them logical arguments to overcome their resistance to change, you also need to shape the path to allow them to absorb it. After all, the fewer the obstacles to implementing the change, the more likely it is to happen.
This may mean automating certain processes, enabling extra resources while change is being introduced, providing time and space for teams to communicate, and making data available across the business to build transparency. Removing friction will clear the path for bigger changes to be adapted.
To introduce change successfully, you should consider:
- Defining what the future would look like.
- Defining the steps/ direction people can take to get there.
- Providing safety. Address how change is going to affect each person and help them see themselves in that future. You may need to do this with each person or each team separately.
- Defining concrete, small steps or actions the team can take to see progress. Use those steps to create ownership.
- Celebrating progress, even the smallest wins.
- Making sure you have involved everybody who may be affected in any way by the change.
- Making sure you involve even the people who will not participate directly but have some sort of influence in the business. The more people who join the initiative, the easier it will be for others to embrace it.
Introducing change in your team or the organizations involves two types of work that must happen in parallel.
The first type of work is the change itself — for example, helping your team adopt a new methodology, moving to a new delivery process, creating a new team structure etc.
The second type of work is the one of managing people during the change, which may involve running workshops and 1–1s with multiple people to manage their expectations, running internal newsletters and all-hands meetings to continually celebrate progress, opening new communication channels for people to ask questions, etc.
As you already noticed, there is a lot of work involved in managing change, this is why, as a product leader, introducing change is hard. Not only do you have to deliver the product and all the work involved with it, but you also have to deliver change and all the extra activities required to make the changes work.
Many change management firms charge businesses over $3,000 a day per consultant to help businesses implement change. Change is expensive, but without it organizations die, so they are happy to pay the price. Most companies do not have the luxury to pay for change management consultants, so they need to develop these skills internally.
Product leaders are perfectly positioned to drive change, but to be successful you need to recognize that change management is a skill; you do not learn it only by reading about it, you learn it by engaging in deliberate practice.
Change management takes extra work that is not in your job description; and it is a thankless job because, if you are successful with the change, everybody should feel it was because they embraced it, not because you led it.
If you are interested in learning more about change management, here’s a couple of great books to get started:
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
- Leading Change, by John P Kotter, 2012
- The Little Black Book of Change: The 7 Fundamental Shifts for Change Management That Delivers by Paul Adams
- Making the emotional case for change: An interview with Chip Heath
- Kotter’s change management model.