"Tracey’s Takeaways" is a regular feature that focuses on employee development, management issues, leadership and organizational culture.

Disruption and transformation are two buzzwords being used to describe how much our industry is changing. Against that backdrop, "change management" doesn't seem weighty enough to describe this possibly Herculean task. But if we can get the fundamentals of effective change management (CM) right, any change, large or small, is within reach.

3 Things Electric Cooperative Leaders Should Know About Change Management

  1. Change, whether granular and gradual or massive and transformative, is still a process of trying to go from one state to another.

  2. To be successful, a change leader must actively manage both the rational and the emotional responses of the people impacted by the change effort.

  3. CM is at or near the top of co-op leaders' to-do lists…and it's going to stay there for the foreseeable future, so the time to get better at it is now.

Change Is a Process

Regardless of which CM model you prefer, all describe steps or stages to move from the status quo to something else. Too frequently change initiatives, especially large ones, don't start with a clear picture of the final destination, or, with a destination in mind but only vague ideas about how to get there. If this describes a change effort you are considering, pause.

First, confirm the need for change, then get clear on the destination (ask yourself, "how will we know we've arrived?") and lastly, define what needs to happen to get there. If that last part is not known at the outset, and that's pretty likely, identify external resources, peers and partners who can help. More time spent upfront in planning for the change will pay for itself when it comes time to implement.

Change Is About People

Authors Chip and Dan Heath use a wonderful analogy to describe leading people through change—an elephant with a small rider on top. The rider is the rational side of humans that need and respond to clear direction. The elephant is the emotional side, a massive, powerful form that is hard to get moving. The relative size of each also conveys the time and level of effort needed to address them, too.

In NRECA's CM course*, we illustrate those emotions along the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross Change Curve.

Most CM models emphasize the importance of communicating and engaging employees throughout the change process. We boil this down into the 4 P’s of change communications in our CM course: Purpose, Picture, Plan and Part.

  1. Purpose: Why we have to changeIt’s critical to create a sense of need and urgency for the change. Be sure to emphasize external factors (e.g., our members’ expectations are changing, our safety performance is lagging our peers, our outage response times are getting longer, etc.), which not all employees may be aware of.

  2. Picture: What it will look and feel like when we reach our desired new state. The Heath brothers advise using a simple test: Can your employees picture the change in their minds? If not, the description of the destination is probably not clear or detailed enough.

  3. Plan: Step-by-step, how we will get there. This part is not just about describing the procedure or equipment changes but highlighting potential obstacles that may arise, noting the training that will be available, and celebrating and reinforcing progress made along the way.

  4. Part: What employees can (and need to) do to help the change move forward. Not everyone will be affected equally, so be clear about the role each team or person will play. The more you can describe the specific ways each can contribute positively to the change, the easier it will be for them to embrace it.

Change Management Is on You, so You Better Get Used to (and Good at) It.

Some leaders may readily admit that CM is something they dread. If you fall in that camp, examine why you feel that way. Is your own negative reaction to CM grounded in some erroneous assumptions about upcoming changes that will be required or maybe in some past bad experiences with change? Or, maybe you have had little CM training or experience to help you build the skill and confidence you need. Unpack your own lack of enthusiasm and you will not only develop greater insight into what might hold you back as a change leader, but also some of the same obstacles you’ll need to overcome with your team. As for enhancing your CM competence, there is no dearth of educational material on change management. Below are some resources for you to consider.

This is longer than a typical Tracey’s Takeaways article, but I felt the topic merited the extra “ink” to try to do it justice. If you got this far in reading, hopefully you agree the additional words were worthwhile.

For those who want to dig deeper:

Tracey Steiner is NRECA's senior vice president for education and training. Her 25-year career at NRECA has spanned a variety of roles starting in communications and marketing positions then 15 years as an attorney focusing on cooperative governance and public policy issues before moving to Education & Training in 2012.