How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
The first meeting
Managing the change project starts from the very first meeting and continues until it is fully sewn up and put to bed.
In the first meeting that you have about the project, assuming you are a consultant or manager within the organization, you will typically be asked to take on an important 'challenge' that is a great 'opportunity' for you.
A critical initial skill is to recognize that the innocent tuber being proffered is, in fact a potentially hot potato and that the worst thing you can do is agree blindly to take on what could easily turn out to be a no-win project where you are the fall-guy who will take the blame for the almost certain failure. If you want to survive, you should never take on work blindly and this page offers some advice for getting on the right road, starting in that first meeting.
The first step (and many future steps) is to slow things down so you have time to understand exactly what is being asked of you. The first questions are thus to scope out the change, identifying what is to be changed, when it needs to be changed and who is affected or interested by the change.
Surprisingly often, the answers to these questions are not particularly well known. Even the 'what' may be vague ('Slim down the sales force' might be all you get). This is still useful information: if the change is not well identified, you will need to nail it down. This vagueness also gives you reason to put the case for an investigation that will put the project on a clearer footing.
Another early question is about who is sponsoring the change and why. The amount of corporate ownership above your head is where your air-cover will come from when you are out there in the trenches.
Sometimes the most important information is about the person sitting in front of you (who may or may not be your manager). However, they may just be passing the buck to you with the intent of washing their hands of all future involvement. If you are intended to carry the explosive can all by yourself, then you should be triply sure that you have full authority to ensure necessary stages.
Ask about the senior management involvement that is expected. Ask about the higher-level governance structure. Ask about escalation routes. Ask what will happen if the project fails. Clear sponsorship is important both for legitimizing the change and for handling the situations where your influence is insufficient to move the stick-in-the-muds who are not ready to play ball.
An important and sometimes difficult task at this time is to position yourself as a Change Manager (with capital letters). Managing change is seldom like being a line manager, where everyone reports to you and you can direct the action with authority. As a Change Manager, you may well be influencing and working others way above your station and people who have no reporting relationship with you. In doing this, you need to find the right level and style of assertiveness. If you are unassertive, people may well refuse your requests and the project will fade away. If you are aggressive, they may well fight back. This is also why clear sponsorship is important.
Another important positioning of your role, that also will be reflected throughout the project is that you may well own the process of change, but not the actual solution of how the changed organization will look. The solution will have to be managed by others in the company and they may thus own the definition of the new organization. You may provide information about what has worked and failed elsewhere, but your role (unless specifically defined) is not one of approving the design of the new organization.
As an initial positioning, you should know that you can refuse to take on the change job if you believe it is unworkable -- or at least require sufficient support to ensure that it is a feasible proposition. If you take a submissive role, including saying 'yes' to everything at the first meeting, you will likely fail. There will be times when you need to stand up to senior people, disagree with them and assert your position. Falling at the first hurdle is a surprisingly common failing for people used to blindly following the authority of position.
You are unlikely to find out enough at this first meeting, and hence you will need to undertake a deeper investigation, for which you will need to buy more time.
Buy time with a clear exchange. Promise to come back with a firm plan in return for time to investigate and prepare a realistic proposal. Try to make it impossible to refuse this request by asking enough questions beforehand to help them realize that this is likely more than a walk in the park.
If you are in a position where you are not able to buy enough time (which is sadly common), then be prepared to investigate anyway and, if necessary, raise a red flag in the shorter term.
And the big