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Preparing your association for technology change

By Phil Buckley

Managing constant change is a reality for all associations. Achieving mandates is directly tied to each association’s ability to serve multiple stakeholders that are, in turn, evolving themselves.

“Reinvention,” “transformation” and “disruption” are popular terms to describe how organizations are evolving to accommodate changing requirements, environments and expectations. To stay relevant, they must address new stakeholder needs, regulations, competitors and technologies.

New technology, such as an integrated association management system, provides the tools and processes to function more effectively and efficiently by unlocking access to data and analytics, integrating disparate functions, improving transparency of financials and building member relationships. These benefits can lead to higher member engagement, retention and growth. Failure to follow the digital tide may lead to reputation damage and lower relevance.

Extracting the benefits of new systems takes significant investment. Systems demand the allocation of limited resources, including money, people and leadership focus. Beyond the software purchase and technical implementation, new roles, capabilities and processes need to be defined, understood and adopted for successful transition.  It takes a committed, resourceful and tenacious association leader to implement technology change with fewer resources than most organizations.

YOUR ROLE AS A LEADER

Leaders play a foundational role in implementing successful change. Their actions significantly increase or decrease the probability of success. An often-cited IBM study reported that 90 per cent of respondents attributed top management sponsorship as the number one success factor.

Excellent sponsorship leads to better outcomes through more engaged employees, reduced risk, less rework and lower stress on the organization. The opposite occurs when senior sponsorship isn’t strong: lack of trust, disengaged stakeholders, higher resistance, delays, budget overages and marginal achievement of benefits.

Leaders have four main roles in technology change:

• Communicate the vision for the new technology

• Build support for the change through visible and consistent participation and sponsorship

• Role model the new mindsets, actions and behaviours required to operate the technology

• Remove obstacles, including resource deficiencies, cross-prioritization of efforts and resistance to change

COMMUNICATE THE VISION FOR THE NEW TECHNOLOGY

McKinsey, a global research and consulting firm, estimates that change initiatives are 5.8 times more likely to be successful when leaders communicate a compelling, high-level change story. Stakeholders expect leaders to provide them with the “big picture” on changes that affect the organization and themselves. They need to know four details about the new system:

•  How will it make the organization better?

•  How will it make their lives better?

•  What’s expected of them to make the change successful?

•  What support will they receive to adopt the new tools?

People need to know how the new technology will improve their association’s ability to achieve its goals. The leader must lay out the case for change and demonstrate how the new system aligns with the board-approved strategies chosen to fulfill its mandate. This narrative includes the need for the change, options considered and why the selected solution is better than any other for the organization. 

Many leaders assume brief explanations are sufficient to gain people’s attention, engagement and active participation. A PWC survey suggests otherwise, where 44 per cent of employee respondents said they resisted change efforts because they didn’t understand the initiative. Furthermore, this study noted 38 per cent said they didn’t agree with the change, which suggests it isn’t enough just to present a business case: it must be convincing. Providing opportunities for people to discuss the rationale for the new technology will help gain their buy-in, focus and ongoing support. Discussion leads to accountability and aligned efforts.

“What’s in it for me” (WIIFM) is a natural response when people learn of a pending change. Most fear the worst — or even create it  — unless they hear otherwise. Leaders must paint a picture of how people’s work lives will change, including gains and losses. People can accept losses if they’re prepared, but they can’t handle surprises. Many leaders share what will change without highlighting what will stay the same. Missing the latter often leaves people to fear the worst, hold onto current practices and resist the change.

For people to feel engaged during change, they need a role to play in its success. It could be as simple as attending training, giving feedback on a new website or stopping using old processes. Whatever the role, the leader must view it as essential to the success of the initiative and communicate that perspective to their team. They can and must remind people of their important role when they are tasked with extra work on top of their day jobs. Elevating the role also provides an opportunity for leaders to give them recognition for their contributions.

Most people wonder if they can perform effectively when new technologies require broadened knowledge, skills or behaviours. They wonder to themselves, “Will I excel, or even survive, this new system?” Outlining the support they’ll receive can help relieve their fears. Help could include information sessions, focus groups, training, coaching from “super users” or time to practice new routines. The more concrete the support plan, the more confident they will feel about the transition to the new ways of working.

BUILD SUPPORT FOR THE CHANGE THROUGH VISIBLE AND CONSISTENT PARTICIPATION AND SPONSORSHIP

People emulate their leaders and prioritize what they focus on. Investing time in the new technology project, such as attending update meetings, sending communication briefs and informally reinforcing the benefits of the technology, telegraph that leaders are committed to the initiative. Consistent engagement creates momentum around the initiative and keeps it top of mind for all stakeholders. Without this support, it’s easy for people to get caught up in their day-to-day accountabilities and disregard their change roles.

Leaders need to pay extra attention to connecting with informal influencers who are respected by their peers. Trusted board members, members, employees and suppliers are listened to by others and they guide their views and opinions. These individuals can act as champions of the initiative throughout the planning, testing, launching and sustaining phases of your technology change. They can advocate for the change when leaders aren’t present and provide honest feedback on progress and challenges. Conversely, not having these influencers on their side can create credible and dangerous sources of resistance to the change.

ROLE MODEL THE NEW MINDSETS, ACTIONS AND BEHAVIOURS REQUIRED TO OPERATE THE TECHNOLOGY

People change after their leaders do. Leaders need to take on the changes first to prove their commitment to the new technology and demonstrate what good looks like. If training is mandatory, leaders must attend training classes required for their role and ideally, kick-off all others. Being too busy to participate sends a clear message that it’s not really a priority after all.

Most large technology changes require new ways of thinking, operating and behaving. For example, moving to a new association management system — to house your member data, membership and event registrations, education and calendar — could require a new mindset of data-driven decision-making and the importance of measuring performance. New procedures might be needed to capture the data and process reports. Also, collaborative behaviours might be necessary between finance and member relations to create a superior customer experience. Leaders play an important role in following and encouraging these changes, so the transition has minimal disruption and reduced risk for achieving the benefits identified in the business case.

Changing first isn’t easy for leaders, and people know it. It’s the intention and effort to lead that inspires others to follow; first attempts don’t have to be perfect. Ironically, seeing leaders struggle with new ways can encourage people to try them, knowing it is okay to learn over time without having to worry about being error-free.

Behaviour alignment is the most important type of change to master. It’s the glue that connects people to new ways of working. When leaders change their behaviour, it provides an example for others to follow. Once behaviours become the norm, new mindsets develop.

REMOVE OBSTACLES, INCLUDING RESOURCE DEFICIENCIES, CROSS-PRIORITIZATION OF EFFORTS AND RESISTANCE

Technology changes are never easy. Regular operations and competing initiatives test the resolve of leaders to follow the transition plan they approved. The pressure to cut resources or eliminate activities is one of the biggest risks of successful implementation because it increases the likelihood the organization will not be prepared to adopt the new system. Lack of readiness leads to a poor launch or delays, lost momentum, damaged credibility and increased costs. Removing resource barriers and reinforcing the prioritization of the technology upgrade often requires deprioritizing of other activities or initiatives. Being clear about what people work on is a must.

Another obstacle leaders must remove is resistance to the change, where people in some way oppose the new system. In a Deloitte survey of CIOs, 82 per cent of them identified resistance by employees as a primary reason for the failure of their technology initiatives. Resistance can take many forms from indifference to not changing to outright sabotage. It’s natural that some people will resist a change. They must exchange comfortable routines for untested new ones. It takes hard work to change, and it’s always easier not to.

People resist change for many reasons. Fear of the unknown, comfort with the present, attachment to past successes and lack of skills or confidence are common justifications for not engaging with the change.

Leaders can proactively mitigate sources of resistance by:

•  Communicating a clear and stepped plan to minimize the unknown

•  Allowing people to test-run the software and provide feedback on what they like and don’t like to give them a sense of control over system configuration or future modifications

•  Scheduling working sessions for team members who have new tasks and relationships to provide them greater certainty on how they’ll work

•  Encouraging people to share their needs and concerns at information sessions or through influencers and then addressing them before they turn into sources of active resistance

Preparing an association for technology change requires an investment of money, people, time and leadership focus. Leaders can significantly improve the probability of a successful change by communicating the vision for the new technology, building support for the change through their visible and consistent participation and sponsorship, role modelling the new mindsets, actions and behaviours required to operate the system and removing obstacles including resource deficiencies, cross-prioritization of efforts and resistance to change. Providing people with what they need to adopt new technology sets a clear and structured path to realizing the benefits identified in the business case that justified the technology change in the first place. The efficiency and effectiveness gains from the new system will fuel future changes to help leaders and their teams fulfill their association’s mandate.

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