Change management: are you ready to take the leap?

3 Jan 19

It may be that your organisation has no option but to change, however there are ways to make the process positive, productive and relatively pain-free, says CIPFA’s Brendan McCarron. 

Readiness for change credit Natalie

Image by Natalie Wood


Change is a necessary part of the life cycle of any organisation. It is something we have all been through, and we will all have seen some truly successful projects, as well as some which never quite made it off the ground.

We all know how disruptive change can be, and should all be able to agree that it needs careful management.

Done right, change helps ensure your organisation remains relevant, able to perform and able to provide value for money. However, there are many pitfalls along the way.

A failure of resources, leadership, or communication of the vision can all sink a project. And, in the public sector, there can be serious consequences, including a significant loss of trust and damage to your reputation.

One of the most crucial parts of any change project, which can sometimes be overlooked, is ensuring that you have the culture in place to support your vision. This is why I always encourage organisations to ask basic questions about the readiness of their people before they embark on a project, to ensure they will join in on the change journey. 

  1. Why do you need to change?

    This begins with the argument for change. You must have absolute clarity as to why the change is necessary, and exactly what will change. This is a core question for any organisation, as it is about knowing that the change is a business necessity.

    It means being clear about the hard outcome objectives of change, having a vision for what the future organisation will be like and how it will work, which individuals can grasp and relate to themselves. There must be a clear understanding across the organisation, not just by the change manager or senior leadership.

    Often this requires providing the wider context, ensuring people do not look at the risk of change in isolation. For instance, jumping into a cold sea from the deck of a ship is a big risk; but, if the ship is the Titanic, the greater risk may be staying on board. People must see for themselves that the risk of not changing is unacceptable, so that, in context, the risk of change is clearly and significantly reduced.
  2. How will you go about it?

    You also need to know the process for how change will be made. A major motivator is the confidence people have in the way change will be made. They need to believe it will be successful – and feel supported. This is normally communicated by a plan, which must look realistic to the people involved – especially if they have prior experience of unrealistic, poorly thought-through change initiatives.

    Your people must feel involved in the process. The biggest failure I’ve found when it comes to implementing a change plan lies in communication – not a little under-communication of the message but massive under-communication.

    It always takes extraordinary efforts to involve others for whom the change may be only a part of their jobs, and change leaders should be prepared to take extra steps to include them. Involvement breeds understanding and enables people to see where they fit in the future.
  3. Look for loyal supporters

    Another question you should ask is who is supporting the change. This includes both within the leadership team, and from the wider organisation. People with relatively less power are very good observers of people in power, and they see and interpret every word and action. Leaders must be aware of the effect their actions and words have on others, and they must model the behaviours they wish to encourage.

    Any disloyalty, perceived disloyalty or slacking of support by leaders will be very quickly observed, analysed and acted upon. Make sure you know who your champions are among your staff.

    Most people are more comfortable when they conform with the actions of their peer group. If peers are visible to each other, they can see changes easily. Problems arise when peers have low visibility, which is common among managers who have fewer opportunities to interact with peers than staff who work together. Peer effects can also be problematic when respected peers have reservations about change. Their actions signal a general slowdown of acceptance.
  4. What’s in it for them?

    Lastly, you must ensure that people know what they will gain. It’s important that this is spelt out clearly. This is about clarity of valuable, specific, observable benefits and how quickly they start to appear. The clearer, more valuable, specific and the earlier the answer, the better.

    Linked to the first question, these positive benefits must clearly and significantly outweigh negative impacts of change. The critical relationship is between people and their immediate supervisors. Supervisors are relied upon for direction, information and feedback on performance. These are especially important commodities in change, where existing expectations, behaviours and ways of working must be left behind and new ways picked up.

    I strongly recommend that, before you start your next change project, you make sure you can answer the questions below.
  5. Core questions to ask yourself
  • Is the change, and the reason for it, understood clearly by everyone involved?
  • Do people see the risk of not changing as being worse than the risk involved in the change?
  • Does the plan look like it will work, are the timescales realistic, and is it sufficiently resourced?
  • Are staff involved and, even more important, do they feel involved?
  • Are leaders publicly and clearly supporting the change?
  • Are people who staff respect in their peer groups at work publicly and clearly supporting the change?
  • Are people satisfied with the answer to the question ‘What’s in it for me?’
  • Do people feel they have the support they need to make changes, especially from their immediate managers?

Top tips…


  1. Spell out why rejecting change isn’t an option – and could actually be worse
  2. Remember, the devil is in the detail – be specific
  3. Make sure the benefits outweigh the negatives


  1. Be selective – get as many people on board as possible, no matter how peripheral
  2. Forget to choose people to champion your project
  3. Start a change programme without being able to answer every question below Brendan McCarron is head of training at CIPFA

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