How to Build a Change-Ready Mindset Across Teams

Image of Eve Mwangi for Digital Exclusives article

Amid the seismic shifts of the pandemic, biotech firm Illumina launched a change program last year that required teams across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific to adapt to new processes. Project leaders, including Maya Fakhrriddine, knew getting engineering, operations and maintenance teams to lean even harder into agility would test her power skills.

“Change takes time, patience and believing—and this project would challenge these teams to trust, engage in and learn new things,” says Fakhrriddine, PMP, a former senior project manager at Illumina. “You need to believe and make people believe in your vision.”

That’s easier said than done. Despite pivot after pivot, organizations still have work to do to build change-ready teams. According to PMI’s 2021 Pulse of the Profession®, 45 percent of organizations place high priority on adaptability as part of their strategy for talent development, yet only 35 percent report progress in this pursuit. From implementing new tools for teams to use or scaling a new process for teams to follow, project leaders must create a culture and a mindset that allows teams to adapt seamlessly and quickly.

For instance, when IBM last year unveiled a new framework to ensure the company’s AI teams build systems in ways that limit negative social impacts, the tech giant established an internal panel to develop the new guidelines. It then established a training program for more than 345,000 employees around the world. And as part of a pandemic-driven ways-of-working reboot, Germany’s Allianz last year standardized and tailored digital tools so team members—whether working remotely or in office—were aligned to the same technology.

What’s at the heart of getting teams to facilitate and embrace change? Building connective tissue that ensures when planned or unplanned shifts are necessary, muscle memory takes over. Here are three ways project leaders can reinforce a changemaker ethos that helps teams thrive:

1. Empower Teams to Take Ownership 

At a time of change overload, the risk of burnout is high. According to a 2022 global survey by Gartner, 54 percent of human resources leaders say their employees are experiencing change fatigue. To sustain engagement, project leaders need to make team members active participants of change initiatives.

“Make the employees aware that you simply cannot do it without their help,” says Lee Collins, PMP, senior project manager, FourNet, Manchester, United Kingdom. “Seek their assistance and advice.” 

Collins identifies advocates within the organization and requests they become an extension of the project team, for roles such as training designer or testing lead. He also initiates workshops that inform team members about major project requirements and reveal how the change will positively impact their work and organization. Outside of formal documentation signoff, the aim is that all team members have information as to the wider project objectives.

At Illumina, Fakhrriddine helped assemble focus groups that provide feedback about ongoing change initiatives and identify day-to-day pain points that could lead to new initiatives. Turning that feedback into action creates a shared sense of ownership and builds support for change across the enterprise.

“I take the time to instill an investment mentality in us all,” says Fakhrriddine, co-founder of Zaytoun Creative, San Diego. “We need to really believe in the end results to do the hours of careful execution, training and rollout.”

Project leaders also need to root out and deal with resistance from the start, says Eve Mwangi, PMP, senior specialist program manager, Safaricom PLC, Nairobi. To mitigate that risk, Mwangi conducts meetings to give team members the opportunity to explain how they work—which, in turn, allows her to show how the change will boost their productivity. Such upfront engagement reduces the likelihood that team members will feel like change is being forced upon them.

For example, when Safaricom upgraded its enterprise resource planning system, Mwangi met with teams that used the system. They created a wish list for how the new system would best align with their needs—and outlined how to adapt it accordingly.

 “When you engage teams and let them contribute toward the change process, they feel involved and can own the process from the beginning,” Mwangi says.

2. Reinforce the Message  

Ambiguity slows the pace of change. Project leaders must develop and execute a clear and proactive communication plan to ensure everyone is engaged from the start and aligned to the same goals, says Mwangi. 

“Information is power, and when teams are empowered with all the information regarding the impending change then they feel empowered to accept and even drive the process,” she says.

Safaricom launched an initiative last year to transform it into an agile organization, spreading the word started at the top. The CEO conducted biweekly town halls with all team members, during which he gave updates and clarified who would be impacted by the change. Project leaders also stressed the importance of implementing agile by sharing updates in the company’s daily internal newsletter and across internal social networking channels. Division and department leaders also had breakout sessions to target information based on team needs. 

On another project Mwangi led to implement a new customer relationship management system at a different organization, she scheduled recurring monthly meetings with the entire team to review process changes, then further updated teams with weekly emails. She also sought input via ad hoc sessions to maintain two-way communication.

“Whether it is through meetings, email, town halls or broadcasts, having a regular cadence—weekly, biweekly, monthly—works best and keeps everyone up to date,” Mwangi says.

Change documentation also needs to be easily accessible. Fakhrriddine creates internal sites where team members can browse critical documents, gaps analyses and other elements of the project plan. 

Designating leaders to communicate the goals and requirements of a change initiative can also accelerate the flow of information. At Illumina, project leaders appointed regional team leaders and site-specific project managers to establish go-to experts. Doing so reduced uncertainty and encouraged team members to ask questions or seek clarification at any time, Fakhrriddine says.

“The regional leads served as a single point of communication up to me and the program sponsor,” Fakhrriddine says. “They would be the advocates for the change and help deliver the message to their regions. They would also provide us with any concerns varying sites had, and that allowed us to cater our messaging appropriately.”

3. Measure the Impact

Each change initiative lays the foundation for the next. To ensure an organization can continually evolve, it’s essential for project leaders to capture metrics, feedback and lessons learned—and strategically apply them.

As part of each change initiative, Pedro Castela, PMP, project manager, Luminator Technology Group, Rastatt, Germany, conducts a postmortem to analyze, document and archive the outcomes. Castela determines how well project leaders engaged stakeholders or developed adequate training. If the change is related to the use of new software, he measures the adoption rate and user proficiency. He also compares the old and new key performance indicator values and the actual ROI versus planned ROI.

“The insights gained from documenting lessons learned can be translated into good practices and mitigate any common risks for your future projects,” Castela says. “Ideally, the lessons learned need to be included in the implementation process for future change initiatives.”

Securing candid and honest feedback is also critical, Collins says, because it ensures that an organization’s shared vision for change will be shaped by authentic experiences. If necessary, he says, allow for anonymous feedback requests—just make sure there’s an opportunity for team members and other users to elaborate on how to achieve improvements.

“It should show the sponsor the impact of their change initiative over and above the cold hard financials,” Collins says.

For Fakhrriddine, measuring impact requires a mix of hard data and frontline experience. She starts by assessing how each change initiative aligns with key compliance metrics set by leadership. She also gathers feedback from team members during lunch-and-learns and other events. These insights help project leaders determine ways to accelerate change going forward. They also ensure that two-way dialogue doesn’t end with a particular project. 

By putting team members at the core of the change process, project leaders can build momentum for increasing agility in the future—and help inspire the next generation of changemakers, Fakhrriddine says. “If you instill confidence in the team, they will ultimately take responsibility for delivering the amazing benefits of change.” 

Photo (of Eve Mwangi, PMP, Safaricom PLC, Nairobi) credit: Erick Forester