Change Management: It Ain’t What You Do…

Exploring the IT industry’s problematic relationship with change management, understanding why effective user adoption is more important than ever in a cloud-ready world, and looking at some methods and techniques available to those enlightened souls who wish to deliberately and positively deliver change and user adoption.

Bananarama and The Fun Boy Three were definitely onto something back in 1982, when they joined forces to record their version of Sy Oliver and Trummy Young’s 1930s classic ditty. What they probably didn’t realise was that almost 40 years later, the song’s central message would be used as a lighthearted device to illustrate effective ways of managing change in the IT industry.

Build it and they will come?

You see, the IT industry has always had a bit of a problem with change management. “Build it and they will come!” has been the prevailing attitude of IT departments through the years.

It’s been fuelled by a misguided belief that users will simply use the solution put in front of them. And all the evidence points to the fact that, unless they simply have to use it, they won’t. Instead, they’ll seek out an alternative route as the ‘path of least resistance’ – and you’ll have a failed implementation on your hands, thanks to poorly-managed user adoption.

Erm, no they won’t

The ‘build it and they will come’ adage betrays a fundamental arrogance which has been prevalent in the industry for decades. It fails to recognise that IT exists to provide a service to the business; that the business contains users of technology, and that users are very adept at knowing what they need, and what they don’t need. IT departments simply haven’t been providing the tools and technologies their user bases demand; if you need any further evidence, witness the rapid growth of ‘shadow IT’.

Dating back to 1962, the Diffusion of Innovations theory recognises different communities within any social system – from ‘innovators’ to ‘laggards’. Based on this model, a group of users is likely to contain its fair share of ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’. But those communities will only ever represent 16 per cent of the user base.

Poorly-managed, IT-imposed change may resonate with that enthusiastic minority of the user base which is highly receptive to change and innovation. But what about the significant majority, who are likely to be ambivalent, at best, about the change? And what about the ‘laggards’, who will be strongly resistant to the change being imposed on them?

Do it with your users, not to them

Decades ago, Business Analysis emerged as a well-intentioned discipline to connect the technology capability with the needs of the users. But, all too often, the result was an overblown specification – long on detail and packed with esoteric technical terminology. The specification may ultimately have been delivered to the letter, but it missed the mark because users didn’t understand what was being specified on their behalf. Empathy with the ordinary user was lacking; IT and the business were speaking different languages.

The trend towards more agile methods has grown partly out of this deficiency. These approaches are deliberately visual, in order to engage with the user community more directly. They are also deliberately iterative, to engage those users earlier in the process, allowing time for refinement through subsequent iteration.

In recent years, emerging disciplines such as UX (User Experience) have helped, too. They’ve started putting the user community right at the heart of the action. They’ve involved them directly in the design and development process, iterating based on user feedback, with the intention that the resulting solution is more tightly-aligned to the needs of those users.

Adoption in the cloud

In today’s world, where we’re all being shepherded towards the cloud, the concept of user adoption becomes more important than ever. And that’s because it’s inextricably and directly linked to the commercial model which underpins the cloud – that of subscription.

Users and businesses pay to consume a cloud service based on consumption (as with Microsoft Azure), or based on a monthly subscription (as with Office 365). If they don’t consume, then they don’t pay; and if they don’t adopt, they can unsubscribe from the month-to-month subscription.

A generation of partners once existed to build and develop applications on the Microsoft ‘stack’. The more enlightened ones used Business Analysis, Agile and UX techniques in a bid to align their solutions with the needs of the users, thereby promoting user adoption as a hallmark of a successful implementation.

But these days, SaaS (software as a service) offerings such as Microsoft Teams and Yammer don’t need any building. Microsoft has already done that for us.

The role of the partner is now increasingly about getting those workloads adopted. Microsoft is pushing it hard because its future commercial model depends upon it. It’s no surprise, then, that Microsoft’s partners are being incentivised to drive that adoption on the software giant’s behalf. And so the industry has finally woken up to the fact that it needs to actively engage with change management in order to drive adoption.

The cynic may conclude that the motivation is commercial and self-interested, rather than purely altruistic. Either way, it remains true that the user is a happy beneficiary of this increased focus on user adoption.

Change Management – the engine that drives adoption

So, we’ve established that, if a new implementation is to be well-adopted, we need to put the users at the heart of the change process. Those users need to be consciously and deliberately engaged in the process as active participants. That doesn’t just mean involving them as an afterthought, by dropping them into a last-minute training session the day before launch; we need to bring them on the journey with us, right from the start.

At CompanyNet we use Prosci’s ADKAR Change Management model. Other methods are available – but we find ADKAR to be a clear and logical approach. It is based on good, old-fashioned common sense, and it aligns well with a software solution implementation lifecycle.

Specifically, we build Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement of the change – with specific activities throughout the implementation lifecycle, and beyond.

So, what does an ADKAR change programme actually look like?

Naturally, it will vary dependent on the implementation. But here is a starting point:

ADKAR What? How?
Some examples
AWARENESS Promote awareness of the change to those who are likely to be affected by it.

User response to effectively managed change: “I understand why this change is happening.”

Communications Plan, and execution of it. An effective change programme will be underpinned by an effective Communications Plan. Without effective communications, the change won’t reach the users in a way which allows them to engage effectively in the process.

Focus on delivering positive awareness to all stakeholders by involving people in the change.

Use existing communication channels to promote awareness (eg. Intranet, printed publications, in-house events).

DESIRE Encourage those who will be affected by the change to want to be positively involved in it.

User response to effectively managed change: “I have decided to engage with and embrace this change.”

Articulate improvements which change will bring.

Share progress around key achievements accomplished and future milestones.

Secure senior support and visible commitment to change through an Executive Business sponsor.

Identify and build communities within the organisation who will actively and positively champion the change. Involve those people early through the formation of a ‘user group’ and build towards an MVP (minimum viable product). Extend involvement through a wider pilot to a group of ‘early adopters’.

Engage all stakeholders where possible, using techniques including surveys and card sorts.

KNOWLEDGE Developing users’ knowledge about what’s coming. Extending users’ theoretical understanding.

User response to effectively managed change: “I know how to engage with and embrace this change.”

Showcase the MVP to the wider staff audience.

Use these sessions to de-mystify, unpack technical jargon and help to ‘make it real’ for the wider user base.

Keep stakeholders updated on what’s already been achieved and what is still to be completed, and when.

Use physical media (eg. posters around the office) to augment digital channels to disseminate knowledge.

ABILITY Giving users the practical ability to embrace and engage with the change, in practice.

User response to effectively managed change: “I am able to effectively engage with and embrace this change.”

Provide appropriate training ahead of launch.

Provide floorwalking at the point of launch.

Provide ‘how to’ guides, which are based around common scenarios or use cases, rather than detailed user guides.

Use tools such as Yammer to develop an internal support community around the new solution.

Establish a helpdesk function to support users with problems or questions.

REINFORCEMENT Embed the change as the new way of working.

User response to effectively managed change: “I will continue to engage with this change …”

Establish new norms. This may include retiring and de-commissioning solutions and ways of working and encouraging users to continue to seek out the new solution as the definitive source.

Continue to provide appropriate levels of communications and support to users.

Showcase success stories. People want to associate with success, and will distance themselves from failure.

Use metrics (e.g. usage statistics, O365 Admin dashboard which provides adoption metrics, user survey) to monitor, validate and report on performance – and to inform ongoing areas for continuous improvement.

Make plans to evolve the solution over time (both functionally and in terms of content) to respond to prioritised user demand. Provide a feedback loop for future evolution.

Anticipate future changes which are inherent in Microsoft’s O365 roadmap, and actively plan to exploit those to further enrich the solution.


Pop-pickers will remember that, back in 1982, while The Fun Boy Three and Bananarama were enjoying pop success with ‘It Ain’t What You Do…’, another act was forming. They were called ‘Go West’. And they weren’t very good.

From a Change Management perspective, I’d recommend that you set your compass to head in precisely the opposite direction instead: EAST.

ADKAR works on an individual, behavioural level. It’s about people change, affecting the way that people respond to change. To this end, EAST gives us a simple method for applying behavioural insights which affect positive individual change:

  • Make it Easy
  • Make it Attractive
  • Make it Social
  • Make it Timely

So, what does it mean, and how do we apply it in practice? Well, here’s another pearl of wisdom from our song to underline the point: “You can try hard, don’t mean a thing. Take it easy and then your jive will swing.”

Here are a few examples of how we’ve applied it at CompanyNet for the benefit of some of our customers – and their users:

What? How? Examples
Make it Easy Simplify messages Standard Life. Consolidation of 6,000 pages of existing content across 4 intranets, into 300 pages of good quality content at the point of launch. Produce a Content Styleguide to inform consistency and simplification of content, e.g. guidance on writing in Plain English.
Reduce the ‘hassle factor’ of using a service Tesco Bank, Standard Life, Scottish Water. Design an Information Architecture based on inputs informed by an organisation-wide card sort, to help align it to the needs of the users.
Harness the power of defaults Whyte & Mackay. Whyte & Mackay set their Intranet (‘Whiskipedia’) to launch whenever a user initiated a new browser session.
Make it Attractive Attract attention Standard Life. Comprehensive visual component to their pre-launch communication strategy, including posters throughout offices, and signage in lifts and on corridor floors.
Build in rewards and sanctions for behaviour Cairn Energy. Reward offered for participation in an all-staff naming competition.
Make it Social Use the power of networks Scottish Water. Formation of a Yammer community to provide self-serve support to users from within the internal champion community.
Example: Tesco Bank. Staged a ‘Yammer week’ to drive adoption, resulting in 1,500 of its 3,500 staff subscribing to Yammer in that week.
Show that most people perform the desired behaviour Standard Life. Share metrics of successful adoption across the user community as part of an ongoing communication programme.
Encourage people to make a commitment to others Scottish Water. Clear and visible commitment from Business Exec sponsor throughout the implementation and beyond – including presenting internal briefing sessions, and participation in Yammer communications.
Make it Timely Prompt people when they are likely to be at their most receptive Scottish Water. Running comms events on a basis which was most amenable to its audience. Eg. lunch-time briefing sessions and as an agenda item at quarterly standing all-staff communication events, when staff were more ‘liberated’ from day-to-day in-office commitments.
Immediate gratification rather than future benefits Scottish Water. Once the Intranet was embedded, planned their rollout of wider Office 365 capabilities based on user groups who could deliver quick and positive wins, rather than focussing on complex cases which would slow momentum.
Help people to plan their response to events Scottish Water. Recognised that there were likely to be ‘change resistors’ or laggards. Therefore, they actively targeted enthusiasts or ‘early adopters’ as agents for change, to build early momentum, before engaging with ‘early majority’.

What gets results?

People are inevitably drawn towards the ‘path of least resistance’. And people are physiologically hard-wired to fall back to old ways of working. If we can minimise friction and resistance in taking up a new service, and convince them of the benefits, then people are more likely to engage with it, rather than seeking out alternative routes to the same end.

But to provide a ‘least resistance’ environment for our users, we first need to be empathetic to their needs. Empathy with our users is the cornerstone of methods like ADKAR and the application of behavioural insights as with EAST.

People are instinctively motivated by the concept of WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? So, we need to align the intended change with those personal drivers, and describe it in those terms. To do that, we first need to understand what will motivate the people. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned our change programme is, nor how diligently we follow the models and the methods. Without user empathy it will surely fail.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what we do (and the way that we do it), read some of our success stories or get in touch.

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