How can leaders assess how capable or willing their teams are to embrace change? Having buy-in on the ‘why’ of change can often be challenged by teams’ readiness – and willingness – to adapt.

Effective large-scale change in organisations has always been challenging, with an abundance of research showing most major transformations continue to miss their intended outcomes.

In today’s dynamic post-pandemic environment and uncertain global landscape, achieving successful transformations is even more complex, with organisations having to respond to sudden shifts in the marketplace, external shocks, and evolving business models.

Leaders can help transformations stand the best chance of success by focusing on ensuring the right skills exist within their teams for the journey ahead.  Change becomes more challenging when leaders do not prime an organisation for change before embarking on the journey.

The mindset: Leaders and their teams

Several factors come into play when it comes to assessing the readiness and willingness of our people in their capacity to accept and adapt to change.  Some of our teams for example are ready and willing to embrace the benefits of change. Others, perhaps fearful or resistant to change, will push back against it.

Research tells us that more and more workers want alignment between their beliefs and their actions; they can experience dissonance when these are out of step. Gaining their buy-in on the ‘why’ behind a transformation can potentially inspire people to change their more habitual behaviours and build greater commitment to change. Whilst buy-in is important, capability, developing the talent, and the skills of a workforce during transformation can be a key plank in its success. However, this can bring its own challenges.

Leaders embarking on transformation, whether or not they are the architects and agents of change, need to be able to assess the readiness of their people to accept and adopt change. Their experience toolkit will partly inform how they shape planning, communication, engagement, and skills or capability assessment.

One of the most useful tools in the box is a performance management style quadrant, which provides leaders with a really useful framework when interacting with stakeholders across the business ahead of and during large-scale transformation projects.

We call it a ‘will they, won’t they, can they, can’t they’ change quadrant.

Conceptually, if you map out your stakeholders and who will influence or challenge change during transformation, most will generally fall into one of four categories.

The goal of the exercise is to determine who is willing to change (will they), who is not (won’t they), who is capable of change with upskilling or other training (can they), or who is not likely to be able to adapt or whose skills may no longer be appropriate (can’t they).

When leaders understand where their people sit vs where they want them to sit, the strategies, processes, and approaches to use to move the workforce in the right direction, i.e. from where they are to where they need to go, becomes clearer.

‘Will they, won’t they’

In times of transformation, leaders are often urged to develop a change story that helps all stakeholders understand:

  • where the company is headed
  • the reasons behind the change, and
  • why it is important.

Getting feedback on the change story is also commonly advised so that leaders can get a sense about how well the narrative is being received by workers.

For example, leaders may benefit from keeping the ‘will they, won’t they’ question front of mind and considering the interactions they have with their teams and other stakeholders about the changes that are occurring. Do the people they are engaging with about the change subscribe to the beliefs and goals of the transformation that is underway?

Aligning or shifting beliefs can be one of the hardest parts of a transformation, often because it is about getting people not only across what is changing but assessing how willing they are to support and adopt the change that needs to occur. There is also the need to identify people who may be reluctant (at best), ambivalent, or deeply resistant (at worst) to invest in the process.

The quadrant approach gives a leader the opportunity to assess if there are issues with beliefs with a stakeholder, a team, or others impacted by the change process. It may prompt some very difficult conversations – and decisions – to keep the transformation project on track.  A case in point: those workers whose beliefs are immovable.

If this is the case, it may be a situation where: ‘if you can’t change the people, then change the people’ and it becomes about ensuring those who ‘won’t’ don’t derail your transformation.

‘Can they, can’t they’

The other half of the quadrant requires that leaders consider whether their teams can or can’t make the shifts or changes that are required for the transformation to succeed. This is often a talent and skills assessment and the ability of people in their teams who may be able to change.

Human brains are thankfully not fixed. Research around neuroplasticity has shown that new skills and capabilities can be obtained well into adulthood. Unfortunately, though, not all workers have the capability to acquire the new skills required – for some, limits on workers’ capability remain, with skills acquisition also impacted, in some instances, by negative beliefs that developing new skills won’t change the outcome for a worker in a large-size transformation.

Here, the ‘can they, can’t they’ question is useful for leaders when managing and assessing training and capability building. It’s disappointing when someone has the will to change but they cannot perform a new role, but sometimes as we know, that is the reality of change.

Capability building is about fundamentally changing how the work gets done, going well beyond the traditional training of employees. A ‘can they, can’t they’ question can assist leaders broadly, from the C-suite to the factory floor, to support this at all levels.

A leader’s toolkit is an evolving resource

The ‘will they, won’t they, can they, can’t they’ approach to assessing change readiness is simply an addition to the leadership toolkit, albeit a valuable one alongside other tools such as Leadership EQ and understanding the vital role culture plays in successful transformation. This is particularly true for leaders who are navigating and managing project risk and for those who are seeking to build stronger resilience and agility into their teams.

To find out more about how Quay Consulting can help your team communicate change effectively within your organisation,  please contact us.

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