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Change with Confidence

By Phil Buckley

(Jossey-Bass, 251 pages, $29.95)

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It seems rather obvious to say that in a change project, you must identify what needs to change. But that isn't always done effectively, Toronto-based change consultant Phil Buckley indicates in his new book, Change with Confidence.

"Status quo environments have nuanced codes of conduct that often go unnoticed unless you dig deeply to find them, and eliminating some of the ways of working can be as important as starting new ones. It's critical not to underestimate the changes required," he writes.

He cites the case of the Canada Firearms Registry, where planners failed to anticipate the number of changes required to existing databases as well as the changes to processes and software upgrades required by the federal and provincial departments connected with the registry. The planners also inflamed gun owners by not developing registration forms that could be easily filled out. As a result, 90 per cent of forms required follow-up, he notes, and agency staff had to be dramatically expanded from a handful to 600.

At the core of that case, the people in charge of the change failed to ask and answer a crucial question: How do I identify what needs to change? That's just one of 50 questions change practitioners have to ask to be effective, Mr. Buckley believes.

John Kotter's 1996 handbook, Leading Change, provided a strategic framework for developing change programs, which other books have echoed, and recently a number of books have focused on the psychology of change. Here Mr. Buckley provides a nuts-and-bolts practitioners' guide, written from the trenches, where he led change for various arms of Cadbury and for Kraft Foods.

The crucial questions fall into four phases of the change process:

1. Figuring out what to do

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After asking what needs to change, Mr. Buckley suggests identifying the attitude and mindset changes first, because they are usually the hardest to pick out and the most difficult to address, as well as taking the longest to implement.

Focus on detailing the behaviours that need to change for each level and department, assigning a "high," "medium," and "low" rating for each change, to determine which require the most change and which groups will be the most affected. Review the skill gaps you find between what people do now and what they will need to do in the future, because that can be contentious, and make sure someone is accountable for each aspect of the change process.

2. Planning for change

Before you start the actual planning, you should also be asking, "What have we done before and did it work?" He notes that people create meaning from past experiences, and you need to understand sensitivities from the past to know how to positively position your project.

Also, ask (and answer) how many change projects are currently going on. "People have a limited capacity for change and the extra work that comes with change projects. Generally, the more change initiatives in play, the more challenges a project has to overcome, and each other initiative can derail your project as it draws on limited resources and takes up executives' time," Mr. Buckley observes.

3. Managing change

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In the managing change phase, he highlights the importance of ensuring that everyone understands why the change is being made, knows what to do, is equipped for the change, and is committed to success. That's a tall order, and he recommends asking leaders what he calls "killer questions":

What have you personally done to prepare your team?

What evidence do you have that your team is ready to transition to the new roles, knowledge, skills, behaviours, relationships and processes on the appointed date?

How have you prepared your team to be aware of risks, and to know what to do if things go wrong, and how to trigger contingency plans if needed?

How confident are you that your team is ready to successfully transition? Why do you feel this way?

For the troops, he has these tough questions:

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What should we be worried about?

Are issues getting the right level of attention?

How confident am I that I will be able to perform your job on the appointed date?

4. Making change stick

Mr. Buckley also spends a lot of time on making change stick, looking at key questions such as: How do I prevent the return of old ways of working? How do I hand over responsibilities from overseeing the project change to the normal operating team? How do I record the lessons learned, and how do I prepare to re-enter the business and take a new role?

His book is a guide, and a bit dry; it's difficult to read at great length at any one time. But it's easy to scan, with each chapter including at least one negative and one positive story about how organizations dealt with the issue at hand, along with specific advice and often planning templates to employ. So you can get a handle on the issues he stakes out, and then return for in-depth study when needed. If you lead change, it will be needed.

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Consultant and Thunder Bay native Michael Watkins's superb guide to taking a new post, The First 90 Days (Harvard Business Review Press, 278 pages, $29.95), has been reissued in an updated and expanded edition.

In The Athena Doctrine (Jossey-Bass, 298 pages, $33.95) authors John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio look at how women – and men who think like them – will rule the future.

Journalist Jack Hitt takes readers into the hidden world of U.S. inventors, tinkerers and job creators in Bunch of Amateurs (Broadway, 280 pages, $18.95)

Author and marketer Vikas Malhotra has developed an infographic of 70 of the best business books, in 14 categories, published in the past four decades.

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