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Managing change in difficult times


Managing changeThe recession means that organisations can’t get away from the fact that there will be changes. Yet many are badly planned and implemented, so it is not surprising that staff do not embrace it. John Pope offers his advice on how to successfully manage change in the current climate.

There will be changes

There are going to be plenty of changes around, due to the present recession and the turmoil in the financial world and the disruption to most markets. Businesses and organisations of all sorts are going to have to cut costs, improve productivity, and fight harder for business.

Activities which do not clearly help the business in the short term must be scrutinised and many will have to be stopped. Sloppiness in management will not be tolerated; staff at all levels who are clearly not pulling their weight will have to go. Any part of the organisation which gets in the way of the necessary changes will have to be examined, and probably need surgery. Those changes will have to be managed well and implemented quickly. There will be some prizes for winners; there will be none for losers.

“Activities which do not clearly help the business in the short term must be scrutinised and many will have to be stopped.”

Some of the changes will be physical, some will be changes to the human organisation, some, perhaps the most important, will be change to the culture of the organisation – all will affect people.

I last wrote about the human aspects of change management in in March 2007. I concentrated on the ways in which HR can contribute to successful change. The main points for HR were:

  • Get aboard the change programme early and get alongside the senior manager responsible. Ask the awkward questions and get some attention paid to the human aspects of managing change.

  • Ask these questions early:

    • How will you make sure that the staff really do understand the need for changes which will be very unpleasant for some, if not all? What will you do to make sure that any pain is fairly spread at all levels, and that there are no privileged classes?

    • How will it affect the staff, how will you consult them, have you thought about…?

    • Is this materially going to change their duties, work conditions, job descriptions, gradings?

    • Will the staff need briefing, training, and when will you do this, (not on the day of the race, please)?

    • What will you do about re-deployment, redundancy? Should HR become involved before there is an expensive legal tangle?

    • How does each change fit with other changes?

To which I should add – make sure that your HR systems and records are accurate and up to date; make sure you are up to date with employment law; and that managers understand and apply the correct procedures.

There will be problems

The changes will be hard on many people; on those who stay as well as those who have to go. Some of those who are dismissed may have been doing special work which will now fall on someone who remains. Not all managers understand what skills each member of their team brings to the job. Capture that knowledge or arrange for the transfer of skills before they are lost. And be careful how special work is re-allocated – it may affect job grading and there may be unexpected knock-on effects.

We talk freely about ‘resistance to change’; we blame the staff for not ’embracing change’. Many will have experienced poorly-managed change. Are we not being unfair on them? Change is an essential part of an organisation’s way of life and strategy. Badly managed changes can wreck confidence and plans alike. There are two basic options for management. Stop changing, or handle it well. The first option is not feasible, though change less, or change less often can be a better approach. Be selective and prioritise are both options. Managing change better is not an option, it is a necessity.

A programme of change

It should go without saying that all changes should be managed rigorously – as projects. Make sure that those who are in charge of projects understand project management. There will be little time and less money to train them, but you could give them a short guide which sets out the principles and pitfalls.

Steve Kirk’s handbook ‘Fail to Plan – Plan to Fail’, is a good one. In these present difficulties there will be many urgent projects some of which will compete with each other and make calls on the same limited resources at the same time. Projects and project managers can easily get in each other’s way and make calls on the same limited resources at the same time, so programme management is important.

Set out the many projects against a timescale with the resources called on and the people involved. Identify those points where one project conflicts with another or which call for key staff to be in two places at once. Adjust the individual project plans accordingly. Realism is essential – unrealistic deadlines or completion dates undermine the project manager’s authority and reputation.

Overcome old barriers to change

In many organisations there are restrictive practices, barriers to efficiency or old customs which have been allowed to continue because changing them has been considered to be too difficult or would upset the workforce and cause people to leave. The world has changed. Are people going to leave when few organisations are recruiting?

The change in culture

That’s a top management responsibility. HR ought to know how the culture has limited the business or created problems. HR should already know the damage this causes and may have been pressing for change for some time. Unpleasant as it may be, some changes which are being made now in the financial services industry are long overdue. Some of the bad effects of the high bonus culture had been known for a long time. Some HR managers will have been concerned at the damage which such bad practices and extravagance have caused but been unable to get anything done.

“Realism is essential – unrealistic deadlines or completion dates undermine the project manager’s authority and reputation.”

Circumstances will be favourable now. In present conditions it will be possible to make them as long as they are clearly necessary. HR should have a very good grasp of the culture of the organisation and clear views of any changes in attitude which are needed. This will be the opportunity to make these changes.


Leadership in good times when the business is prosperous and expanding is comparatively easy. Cutting back, closing offices, branches or production lines can be miserable – tough for those who built them up, tough for the teams which are being dispersed, tough for those who lose their jobs. It is a time for real leadership, starting at the top. Strong leadership is essential to the survival of the business and the useful employment of those who are real contributors to success.

There are plenty of examples of failing businesses being turned round under the leadership of far-sighted and energetic managers. Cuts and pain should fall on all equally, and most importantly every change must be seen to be relevant to the survival and progress of the business. That must be made clear to all those concerned with it.

Visibility and progress

The management team must be at the forefront of things; senior managers must be visible and prepared to take the workforce into their confidence, talk realistically about reverses as well as the contributions which the changes will make to success and progress. HR should know from its regular contact with the workforce what the mood is and what the problems are. Make sure that busy managers realise when and where their presence is needed.

John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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