Managing change is a difficult aspect of Product Management, often looked over. As Product Managers, we’re all about change. Any constant is boring! There is always an opportunity to optimize, improve, or experiment! However, with every change that we bring, there is a change that might have an impact on the way of working for the rest of the organization.
None of the current Agile frameworks account for managing the organizational changes we’ve to implement, i.e., with a simple change like changing the payment screen, there is an impact on your organization — whether it is the marketing team tracking the user actions for retargeting OR the customer support team guiding the users, a change, no matter how small, has an impact.
Change management is extremely important if you want your features to succeed. Remember, while you’re leading your product to succeed, you are the CEO of your product (if you pardon the cliche). Which means, you’ve to steer the entire organization along for your product to be successful.
Change implementation is usually a top-down framework, especially for large organizations. A bottom-up approach to change can get derailed quickly if it doesn’t have buy-in from the senior stakeholders. The path for bottom-up change is tough, but not impossible.
Your Communication Framework
No matter how small the change, you need to have a change management framework in place. This is as simple as sending out, before every sprint start, communication to the impacted teams and after release, a company-wide communication on the features released. The framework should account for bigger changes, but at its core, it should focus on frequent communication.
Identifying the change you’re delivering
To know the beast is to conquer it!
Knowing the type of change you’re delivering will help you organize your communication and your artifacts. Each change level defined here equips you with a mini-roadmap to spread the change, down to the first customer interaction.
Level 1 Changes
Level 1 changes are minor modifications in the processes, that can be reversed. Think of simple changes like adding/removing a new step to the checkout, adding new notification features, etc. The impact of this change isn’t organization-wide. It is limited to a few functions that utilize or communicate about the feature.
These changes can be reversed, if the need arises.
This requires basic communication. Standard company-wide communication on the changes with a separate mail/notification going out to the functions impacted should do the trick.
Level 2 Changes
Level 2 changes are changes in the product that have a lasting impact on the processes and policies in the organization. Think of a change in payment gateway (impacts accounting & their processes), product redesign (impacts analytics, customer support & marketing teams), adding of delivery slots (impacts operations, marketing & customer support), etc.
These changes cannot be reversed.
Communication at this level requires buy-in from the impacted teams before they’re implemented. Additionally, the teams might be required to test and retrain their staff because of this change. Any existing documentation will require updates.
Level 3 Changes
Often known as pivoting, these changes are organization-wide and modify your business model. Think of changes like moving away from a one-time payment product to a subscription-based product (Adobe) or vice-versa.
These changes cannot be reversed.
Communication at this level requires organization-wide buy-in — from senior stakeholders to ground staff and a lot of hand-holding on the various process changes that are implemented. There are cultural changes (people are often comfortable with the current way of working), job shifts, new policy creation, and training that needs to be addressed. Your communications and action should account for it.
Your Change Strategy
For Level 1 changes, your strategy is simple — inform the teams beforehand about the change, take their inputs, and implement the change. After implementation, send out a confirmation communication that the change has taken place. You can also include after the change matures a success report on the change.
For Level 2 & 3 changes, for a large organization, your strategy has to be different. The overarching strategy consists of:
- Raise awareness within the function of the change
- Use existing training and updates mechanisms to build the required skills
- Identify and integrate with sponsors & champions for the change
- Work directly with middle managers to drive change
Let’s go over the specific steps involved to ensure the change is a success:
1. The Change Narrative
This is the most important thing you’ll work on. This starts at the ideation phase you’ll figure out the WHY behind the change and how the change will improve your product/organization. This also helps you identify the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) for every functional leader and their teams. The Change narrative needs to be refined, with frequent iterations with the senior stakeholders.
A change narrative can be formulated using the following:
You’ve to now tailor this for the organization at large and then the specific functions that are impacted.
Let’s take a level 2 change: Payment gateway change. The change narrative could be:
2. Creation of the Change Plan
This is where you create individual function-level change plans. The change plan should include the following:
These have to circulate amongst the key leaders and champions to ensure a smooth transition.
Note: It is wise to consider the people aspect of the change at this point. And by that, I don’t mean just the resource angle, but also the fact that your existing workforce wouldn’t want to change. Your communication plan has to highlight what is changing AND what is not changing. Often, people focus on the change aspect, drumming up possibilities of what will change and won’t. You have to communicate what is NOT changing before the rumor mill starts churning.
3. Demonstrate the change!
Practical demonstration is better than theory!
For organizational changes like implementing a data-driven marketing strategy, which requires various business units and marketing teams to change their way of working, requires a demonstration. Remember, people hate change.
Identify willing business functions that are ready to implement the dept-wide changes and work with them to create a success story. These sell better than diktats from senior management. A win goes a long way to show the importance of your change.
This step may not apply to all the changes. Identify, based on your organization, if this step is necessary.
4. Launch & Support
After you’ve done the work of priming the various depts, it is time to launch and create support streams for the teams. Once the feature/change has been launched, there will be many questions and suggestions. Create steady, reliable, and monitored channels to ensure you answer queries and capture feedback.
You can pretty much declare failure if you’re not answering the questions raised by the teams immediately. Remember, these are the people going through the change — it is modifying their way of working — and as much as you’d hate it — you are the change champion. Your timely responses will help to ensure the change succeed.
One simple way I’ve found is to create communities — Slack/Teams channels where the team members can support each other. You can keep a close eye on the responses. You’ll be surprised how quickly people rise to answer queries.
Communicate quickly and often. Communicate success AND failure. No one has ever complained of over-communication.
5. Iterate and Adapt
Nothing usually goes according to plan. The new process you’ve organized may not be to the liking of a key team. It is the nature of change to throw hurdles your way. Don’t lose heart — even the best-crafted plans fail. It is important you look forward and take the feedback you’ve received and implement iterations.
You can always negotiate — if the finance team says this is the process we want, you can negotiate on various aspects of the process. Keep in mind that they want the same thing as you do — business success. Sure, some might want to make their lives easier, but this will surface when you confront them.
The People Aspect
The biggest success driver for your change initiative is the people.
Here is where your product skills of empathizing come into play. You need to understand the fears, worries, and problems the people will face. You also need to identify the enthusiastic champions who’ll drive the change within their teams. Knowing the teams you’re working with and getting a gauge of their acceptance level for the change will help you tailor your communication and interactions with the team.
Identify the WIIFM and you’re set for success!
Dealing with high-inertia teams/people
The change process is not smooth. You’ll face a lot of challenges as you go along — especially from people. Some people don’t want to change. Dealing with these people is easy — don’t let them affect you. Focus on those who’re willing to commit to the change. The dept will automatically force these team members to align.
I’ve been Product Managing in large organizations for over 6 years now. Each organization brings their own flavor of change management and change inertia. Here are a few tips, that I’ve learned along the way:
- It helps to have an informal connection with the key members of various functions. These people can be your biggest ambassadors if you play your cards right. Casual discussions can bring out potential hurdles even before you start your change initiative.
- Be patient! Larger the organization, the longer it takes for your change to permeate through the organization. Identify and glorify quick wins. If I can create a FOMO within the ‘wait-and-watch’ teams, my change initiatives drive faster.
- Keep your personal biases aside. You only have a small picture of the work the teams have to do. If you think a change is small, it may not mean it really is…
- Ensure everyone speaks the same language, especially the senior stakeholders. One of my initiatives to ensure smooth newsletter communication to the customers cost me a month in delay because a senior stakeholder said it’s a gradual change and not everyone has to follow it!
- Many change initiative frameworks talk about shared values. And honestly, at the top, it does work. But these shared values tend to get lost when you reach the lower rungs of the organization. Best to focus on the WIIFM when you’re dealing with the implementation members.
There are a lot of change management frameworks that can help you along the way. Here are 8 of them:
- Lewin’s change management model
- The McKinsey 7-S model
- Kotter’s theory
- Nudge theory
- Bridges’ transition model
- Kübler-Ross’ change curve
- The Satir change management model
These are really good for organization wide changes and really good if you want to stand-out in the board meetings. Apart from Nudge theory, which actually focuses on the people, I find that the others are too holistic for my taste.
Hopefully, this article has helped you identify the holes in your change management. And created a mental model for you to succeed in the future change initiatives. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out!