“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.“
- Jimmy Dean
Singer, Actor, Sausage Maker
Please pause for a few seconds and think about the last time you went through a change. Was it something you wanted, something you initiated? Or was it something that happened “to” you? Did you leap into the change process enthusiastically, or did you hold back until some of your questions or suspicions were addressed? Do you recall sharing your frustration or your excitement with anyone else? How many times did you ask yourself if it would all be worth it if the change would lead to anything good? How much of your reaction (or action) was informed by changes you had gone through before that had taught you what would work and what probably would not?
Whatever the scenario you recalled, it is almost certain that it took the form of a process rather than an event. Even the sudden changes that hit us out of the blue on a random Thursday afternoon essentially kick off a process. This is true in our personal lives as well as our work lives, it is true for changes that are perceived as positive as well as those that are seen as negative, and it is true for significant changes and (seemingly) insignificant ones. Understanding the structure of that process, and intentionally intervening to achieve a desired outcome through that process, is called change management. Originally used in business to refer to efforts that addressed human factors in large-scale projects, system implementations, or other transitions, change management is something that many leaders dust off and deploy only in cases of major organizational transformation. But one of the most frequently missed opportunities for leaders and their teams is recognizing the need for intervention in the small, “business as usual” changes that occur almost every day. In the case of navigating change, practice does help make perfect. Using traditional change management tools in small moments builds trust, helps identify potential breakdowns before they occur, and strengthens teams to effectively weather the big changes that will inevitably occur.
What are "Business as Usual" Changes?
Some that come to mind are hiring a new team member, adding a new service to your menu of offerings, updating a policy or operational process, rolling out a new benefit or altering an existing one, changing the company logo, engaging a new vendor or third-party provider, adjusting the workload in response to a team member’s retirement, or reorganizing your management structure. As business leaders, you can likely think of many more (see the accompanying Text Box for some examples of changes currently underway by some organizations in the Crematory industry). What distinguishes these changes is that we don’t tend to think of them as distinguished! But each of them can create a ripple effect through the entire organization and therefore could benefit from the intentional efforts of change management. Even positive changes like adding a benefit or updating a remote working policy can have unintended negative consequences if shortcuts are taken in the process. There are few things more frustrating to a manager than rolling out a positive change and having it met with confusion or disappointment. And unaddressed negative changes can lead to rumors, disengagement, and unwanted attrition. Intentionally practicing change management helps leaders become better listeners and decision-makers, and builds resiliency and a sense of empowerment and ownership in employees.
There are multiple change management models, and hundreds of thousands of words written on the subject. Leaders who want to dive deep into the subject can find the model that best resonates with their organization. This article (and its author) is model-neutral. But some truths that cross every model, and that represent a great place to begin an effort to intervene in the “business as usual” changes are—
- People want a say in the matters that affect them. Even if someone’s opinion or wishes won’t alter the eventual course of action, having the chance to safely share their ideas and concerns is a big deal for everyone. Leaders should broaden their lists of “who needs to know”, find creative ways to solicit input, and go into the planning phase with a flexible framework that allows employees room to make it their own. Considering some of the above examples of actual events – how can you involve your employees in the onboarding of new team members? How can you turn a logo change into a friendly, creative competition? How can you make sure that a small change at the top of the organization doesn’t disconnect an important process somewhere down the line? And what if the change has already happened? What if it was driven by industry regulations, or the Board, or the market or any other external force? In these cases, it is still helpful to provide a safe way for employees to process how it impacted them, or what’s in it for them. Focus groups, questionnaires, or even informal conversations about what is being considered are all ways to gather information. What is important is that employees feel safe sharing their thoughts and can see that those thoughts are heard and considered.
- There is no such thing as too much (good) communication. With the exception of the Reply All button, meetings that could have been an email, or poorly constructed directives that create more questions than answers, people value communication. They especially value regular and informative communication when the uncertainty that accompanies change is rolling through the organization. Whether the change was a flip of a switch, or a transition that occurred over time, leaders can help their teams and themselves by envisioning it as a process with a beginning, middle, and end and asking themselves at each phase what employees will need or want to know. Using a policy update as an example, it would be easy to say, “We made the change, we told you about the change, it’s done.” Applying change management principles to the update, however, reveals a few more opportunities to engage and learn. Reminders about what the change involves, meaningful explanations for why it was necessary or desirable to change, and check-ins to ensure that there were no unforeseen consequences of the change, are all points in the process where leaders can share information, get feedback, and learn lessons that will help make future transitions smoother and more effective. Identifying the phases of whatever change is occurring, and planning specific communications within each of those phases, helps leaders ensure that their team has the information they need to be successful.
- Know how your employees feel about change – and recognize them for playing a role in helping to make it happen. Every person in an organization has a different tolerance for change, and a different style for navigating through it. Leaders should try to anticipate who their early adopters are likely to be – those individuals who embrace change and can set positive examples for the rest of the team. Once identified, how can they be engaged to help plan or communicate the change? Leaders should also know where resistance is likely, from whom and why. Once points of resistance are identified, how can they be engaged to help plan or communicate the change? While the natural tendency is to involve the people who are most apt to agree with us, the change management process dictates a broader consideration and listening. The best feedback for a potential change may come from the person who doesn’t want it to happen. We have all heard (or worked for, or been) the hard-nosed leader who says things like, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” Or “If you don’t like where we’re going, you’re free to go somewhere else.” Or “You need to get over it and move on.” Or any other phrase that directly or indirectly suggests that employees should anticipate and roll with the changes and just keep working, or leave. But the fact is that change can be hard for everyone, even the people who say they want it! It disrupts the routine, it can cause people to feel insecure in their positions, and it moves people out of their comfort zones. No matter the size of the change, it is never “no big deal.” Whatever model you might adopt for your change process, the importance of thanking and congratulating teams and individuals (including the resisters!) for their efforts through the process cannot be overstated.
When your organization can routinely embrace changes of all types and sizes, and use them as catalysts for process improvement, relationship-building, and personal development, then you (and your employees) are doing something right. The good news is that you don’t have to wait for a major transformation to occur to use and learn from the process of change management. The easiest place to start would be to simply review your Action Items for the next week or two. What decisions are you making that would benefit from a different approach to planning, communicating, and recognizing? And, when you’re done, don’t forget to recognize yourself for successfully navigating this change!
Funeral service providers, just like any other profession, must continuously adapt to market and regulatory changes to remain viable. Some changes currently being initiated by organizations that can benefit from a “managed” approach include the following:
- Implementing Tuition Reimbursement and other programs as employee incentives
- Using technology to allow more tasks, such as completing government documents and obituaries, to be completed from home
- Exploring flexible schedules, focused on task completion rather than traditional shifts
- Embracing the power of social media and helping employees become brand ambassadors rather than simply restricting use
- Eliminating “single points of failure” and ensuring that at least one reliable back-up is trained for every position