Join Our Email List!

Enter your information to receive weekly insights, invites, tips, tools, FREE resources and more! 

Forming a Change Function? Think Like a Startup

change management startup Nov 01, 2021

Written by, Apogy Founder Jess Crow

Recently, a client-in-training shared their concerns about getting buy-in and approval for a small team that would lead change management efforts for their organization. Currently, they belonged to a volunteer taskforce that was chartered with identifying the top issues impacting employees that could be improved with better process, engagement, and communication. The list of opportunities was long, and the lack of ownership was apparent.

In my client’s mind, the need and opportunity were clear. The only problem? The c-suite wasn’t yet convinced the promised improvement was worth the proposed change in process and structure. 

As the founder of a company that’s trying to enter an established market with a product and service that offers an alternative to the status quo, I understand how hard it can be to win the hearts and minds of decision makers. And, as someone who has launched specialized teams in the past, I feel qualified to provide my perspective on the matter, and what to do next.

Want to Form a Change Function? Think Like a Startup

As any startup company knows, finding product market fit is the key to success. It’s also the most difficult aspect of getting a new venture off the ground. Change leaders, especially those who work for companies without a formal change function, can take a cue from founders when attempting to redesign or build a centralized change capability within their organizations.

Startup operators are like change leaders in many ways. Both roles put the needs and preferences of people (employees and customers) first.  Both roles also begin with the end in mind: defining the problem (or impacts) and designing solutions that help people see the value to them personally so they will buy (or buy-into) the new product or service. 

Unlike startups, however, which seek to find customers, change leaders have access to a captive audience. The challenge here is convincing key stakeholders to accept and adopt the new behaviors that support a standard approach to rolling out change across the enterprise. It also requires buy-in and support from the c-suite, which may think the organization already does change management well, even if it doesn’t.  

Identify the Problem Before Building the Solution

Change leaders serve as a voice of the customer, advocating for well-designed solutions and implementation strategies that accelerate end user adoption.  In best case scenarios, change management helps to reduce disruption, shorten the learning curve, and ease the transition from current to future state. In worst case scenarios, leaders ignore the risks for rolling out change without following best practices and pay the price – financially, operationally, and culturally. 

Thinking like a startup when attempting to form a change function starts with identifying the problem(s) you’re solving for. What happened or is currently happening within the organization that surfaced the need for effective change management?  Did employee survey scores come back low? Did a poorly executed change negatively impact business operations? Is there high employee turnover? Have project costs and delivery timelines increased?

Understanding the core issues is critical to building an effective change capability. It’s also fundamental to your case for change leadership and how standardizing best practices will benefit the bottom line. Thanks to the challenges many employers are currently facing – from supply change issues to retention and rapid tech transformations – minimizing risk by caring for the human side of change should not be a hard sell. But it still may be.

Why? What change management is, exactly, continues to confound senior leaders. For one, few organizations do change management the same way. Unlike project management, which often lives within a PMO, change management’s home base can sit within the PMO, CMO, HR, IT, the list goes on.

It’s also common for change management to be completely decentralized, with consultants or trained employees supporting the needs of their specific team. The high degree of customization makes sense, and at the same time lacks clarity. This can put change leaders in a tough position when their boss asks for examples on how it’s done in other organizations.  

Another reason formalizing change management can be difficult is because senior leaders frequently underestimate the impact of change on employees. The reality is that the further a person is from the top, the less control they have on what happens in the organization and how. They also have less time to emotionally process the changes envisioned by the leadership team, most of whom were involved in the strategy and decision making. This is the crux of the problem; whereas executives are clear on the vision, value, and next steps, frontline workers are still wondering who, what, and why, and what the changes mean for them personally.

Despite the universal disconnects, change leaders with a startup mentality will have an easier time finding product market fit because they understand the change function isn’t being formed for senior leaders, its purpose is to meet the needs of impacted stakeholders. Otherwise put, collaboration is key, and revisions should be expected.

Test and Refine Your MVP (Minimum Viable Program)

Just like a startup experimenting with what works and what doesn’t with customers, the next step is to iterate on your ideas and plans with as many end users as possible. Ask people for input on your approach and “rules of engagement”, as well as which opportunity areas you plan to focus on first. The goal is to pressure test your strategy and, in the process, give coworkers confidence that by changing their behaviors they not only set the change function up for success, but their teams too.

A stable change function requires buy-in from employees at all levels in the organization. It must remove friction and alleviate the pain points identified in the previous stage when the MVP (minimum viable program) was designed. In the startup world, prototyping is how operators make agile, iterative changes to the products and services under development. Change leaders can take a similar approach by experimenting with end users during the ideation or pilot phase of a project or initiative.

If your team doesn’t have a test case available, another option is to partner with a department that frequently send out changes and updates to employees, like IT or HR. No matter how it shakes out, the aim is to evaluate what’s working and what needs to be refined with a subset of employees before trying to take ownership of change management at the organization level.  Be sure to collect data and feedback before, during, and after implementation, because these insights are how you will iterate on your overall strategy and approach.

Be Patient, Stay Agile

Forming a change function takes patience. Keep this in mind, as well as the startup mindset: build, test, measure, and learn. By remembering business transformation doesn’t happen overnight, or even in the ways originally envisioned, change leaders can stay committed to making progress, and sane in the process.

Building a change function also requires marketing and promoting the results. Just like a startup, your efforts will die on the vine if stakeholders can’t connect the dots between what’s changing, the benefits, and who’s driving the positive improvements. 

Startup success often hinges on finding the right product market fit before the resources run dry. While change leaders may not face the same extremes, the challenges of operationalizing change management can feel just as significant in the moment. By holding fast to the vision and promise, the right product market fit for your company’s change function – whether its centralized, decentralized, or something in between – will reveal itself in time, with effort, and of course, a little faith.

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.