Driving change through learning

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Written by Jane Sparrow on 12 October 2016 in Features
Features

Jane Sparrow argues L&D has a vital role in the success of change.

One of the biggest emotions about change is one of fear of the unknown and a loss of control. Photo credit: Fotolia 
 
A global healthcare organisation was due to lose one of their teams in the UK, as the function was being relocated to Eastern Europe. The continued performance of the existing UK team ahead of the move was vital to the success of the restructure and transition, so the change process had to be managed carefully. 
 
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The team were briefed upfront on the move and, using learning and development as the key driver, presented with a range of development opportunities that the next year would bring for those who wanted to stay and assist with the transition. Including inspirational speakers, a suite of training programmes and the opportunity to gain recognised qualifications, the team felt valued, engaged and motivated by the opportunity to develop themselves as part of the change. 
 
For many organisations, change is a constant. No sooner has one round of restructuring or change to focus around a new direction been completed, and it’s time for another change of direction or reshaping to occur.
 
A new change process is identified and while efforts are made to make it ‘look different’ this time, in a world where change is constant, there is a real risk of low performance as people feel ‘here we go again.’
 
Taking inspiration from the healthcare organisation, keeping the energy high during change and helping people realise they are learning through the change process is a massive opportunity that many don’t intentionally capitalise upon. In short, it helps to avoid a performance dip. From those leaving as a result of the change, to those steering the organisation to a new future, all can be fuelled by the prospect that change brings learning and growth opportunities. 
 
So how can we use learning and development as a motivator throughout change? And what practical things can we do to reframe change in this positive way?
 
Switch the L&D lights back on 
During change, often the lights go out on L&D, or programmes continue but they’re not aligned to the new belief and vision. What we need to do is the opposite – turn the lights back on and show how learning is a core part of keeping people performing during a change process.
 
Forward thinking businesses will actually invest more in L&D as a way of keeping people performing, but also reinforcing the new belief or strategy after the change. If we think about the behaviour change required to make any change process successful – that doesn’t come from one intervention, it’s from lots of interventions (large and small scale) – therefore if every L&D opportunity is reinforcing it, people are going to get there quicker. Aligning to the new belief, rather than the old, is critical.
 
Use L&D to help people feel in control 
One of the biggest emotions about change is one of fear of the unknown and a loss of control. Put your people back in the driving seat of their change journey and set personal and/or team objectives for the change period.
 
One of the big things people can control is making sure they get the best from the change.  We worked with the European marketing team of a leading medical devices manufacturer in the period after a major acquisition.
 
Having doubled in size through the acquisition and set to play a central role in the positioning of the new company, creating an engaged, high performance team was critical to their future success. We delivered a programme of both personal and team learning and development designed to empower the division to take charge of their change journey and realise both their individual and group goals. 
 
Create a belief in the future 
The role of what we call the Prophet1, the person who paints a picture of the future and inspires people to get on board, is often too quiet during change, after the big announcement. It’s important to be intentional and help people to learn and understand what the new future can look like for them.
 
L&D professionals can help do this by tightly weaving the future ambition into L&D programmes that exist already to be sure they are being fuelled by the new belief and it’s overtly aligned. Incorporating the ambition into the L&D framework of the organisation, for example, personal development programmes and job descriptions is also a great way of embedding the thinking into the business because a constant link between the organisational belief and the reason why individuals exist is incredibly powerful. 
 
Make change a Trojan horse
Use the process of change as a chance to develop your managers into better leaders and people managers it’s called change readiness. We created a workshop around managing change for people managers at a global electronics company we worked with, as part of a restructuring process.
 
There are so many wins with this approach! It comes from the restructuring (or change project) budget, it has a massive impact on how the change is able to be managed, the quality of care taken with people and results in a group of individuals that feel more positive about what they are managing because they are more confident, plus they’ve had some development as part of the process that they can take with them. 
 
Keep your existing talent, and attract more 
During change, it can appear that the door is closed to new talent ‘while we work out what’s happening’ – this is a bad strategy. It’s key to show you are always open to great talent and to even use a change process to demonstrate that you are a dynamic, nimble organisation. Change can also provide interesting and challenging new opportunities for your existing high performers with project, personnel and other management responsibilities for the taking. 
 
Involve and equip change champions
During change, often change agent groups or champions are identified to support the momentum of the project. This is great, however, we find that the wrong kind of people often come forward or are nominated.
 
For example, lots of change projects need Prophets, (those that get buy-in on the vision), and Strategists, (those that make it happen), yet end up with a team of champions who all are great Storytellers and Coaches.
 
Make sure you’re involved in this process so that the right champions are appointed and there’s a good mix of engagement styles in there. Then give that group of champions some development to enable them to be well rounded, with a range of engagement styles in their toolbox, helping them to see it’s a fabulous development opportunity and a critical role for ensuring performance doesn’t drop. 
 
Reignite dormant development 
If your senior leaders have had coaches, encourage them to reconnect with them and help them navigate their way through the change. Bring alumni groups back together to support each other and keep a positive spirit about how they can apply what’s been learnt in the past together. 
 
The three lenses of change
There are three key lenses of change that are incredibly useful to focus managers on. Firstly, help them think about how they will keep their own performance high. Secondly, how they will manage their team throughout change to perform at their best. And thirdly, how they need to keep close to the customers, partners and communities that are the lifeblood of the organisation. 
 
Gather external insight
There’s a tendency to ‘look in’ rather than out during change and that’s fatal. Take the opportunity to gather and bring external perspective and insight into development programmes during change, helping managers to spend more time looking at things from the customer perspective as a way of keeping energised and continuing to develop relationships.
 
From the perspective of the learning and development professional, taking the opportunity to ensure employees learn through the change process, in turn, means that you do the same! The skills, knowledge and experience you could gain are vast and include:
 
Coaching – coach individuals, perhaps project or team leaders, to keep their focus, energy levels high and to help them see what they and those around them will get out of the change experience. As well as developing your own, you can help to develop their coaching skills too so that they feel better equipped to coach team members on a bad day and to ask the question ‘what are we learning through this process?’
 
Practise your Prophet – we talked earlier about the leadership style of the Prophet to engage and inspire. Use change as an opportunity to practise your Prophet and build on your following. You can also help others to identify how they will create belief and excitement about the future, at a team level. What it could look like for us…I dream it will be like…
 
Become a Storyteller – being a great Storyteller can work wonders in times of change. Work on your own stories about change as well as giving others encouragement and content to tell the story about ‘how we are going to get there’. Share examples of stories that could be used to help bring the journey to life including metaphors and visuals that can be drawn. 
 
Engagement plans – work with your team leads to create a plan to keep their team engaged and be the best they can be. What development can they offer like mentoring, opportunity to be involved in one of the change projects and so on. Encourage them to celebrate key milestones too. This collaborative, supportive approach will grow your own capability to engage and deliver change on the ground.  
 
All people managers lead and engage in a different way. What’s vital is understanding your own natural preferences and knowing when something different is required. In times of change, a number of different engagement styles may be needed at different points in the change journey, equipping yourself, and those around you, to manage this is key.
 
The Engagement Style profiling tool was designed to understand just this. Based on five key roles that leaders need to embrace in order to become expert engagers of their people, the profiling tool works to understand the existing make-up of any given leader and how adept that leader is at each of the five roles.
 
Only then can work be done on actively dialling up other styles, when needed, or indeed dialling down those that are essentially the default position. 
 
For example, through the profiling tool, we often find that learning and development leaders and managers have a low preference for the Storyteller role. The art of storytelling uses an emotional and logical mix to bring to life the story about ‘why’ we are doing what we are doing, by also talking about what it will look and feel like when we get there and crucially what does it mean for me as an individual. Therefore it’s crucial for successful change.
 
Instead HR or learning and development leaders tend to have more of a natural preference towards the Strategist role, focused on logical, process-driven action planning and delivery. In practice this means that the ‘why’ part of the puzzle is often lost in the eagerness of the L&D leader to explain what is happening and what will happen next.
 
As an L&D professional and people manager, being aware of this means that one can focus on developing that muscle and using it more as one of a range of engagement styles. 
 
Ultimately, the big step change here is that we need our leaders and managers, and therefore the rest of our people, to rethink change as a positive thing. If we think of the highest performing companies, for example Apple, who has just recorded the biggest annual profit in corporate history, they never stand still.
 
Responding to, as well as actively seeking, change is central to its culture and business approach and learning through change is just part of ‘how they do things round here.’
 
About the author 
 
Jane Sparrow is the author of The Culture Builders: Leadership Strategies for Employee Performance.
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