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  • Writer's pictureBarb Grant

Mastering the Art of Change: Practical Tools for Managing Complex Transitions


There's a saying that when a task is large and complex we need to, 'eat the elephant one bite at a time'. That's good advice, but tricky to do if there's a whole HERD of elephants, likely to stampede at the blink of an eye! Complex organisational change can feel like a herd of elephants. Each project is like an elephant, and the programme is the herd. Getting the herd moving in the right direction, in a synchronised way towards a common goal can be a daunting task for any organisation.

It is essential to understand the complexities involved in the process and how to manage them effectively. A number of closely coordinated 'bites', in the right sequence, must be taken to steer the change successfully. In this article, I provide insights into managing complex change and offer practical tips on the core components and sequence to use to achieve success.

Understanding Complex Change:

Complex change involves multiple factors that impact the organization. The Prosci ADKAR 10 aspects of change are useful for getting a bead on how complex the change is. The 10 change aspects, as defined by Prosci, are; processes, systems, tools, job roles, critical behaviors, mindsets/attitudes/beliefs, reporting structures, performance reviews, compensation and location (although I prefer 'environment' over location, as sometimes the location doesn't change but the environment does, such as moving to a different floor in the same building, or having a major refurbish of the existing floor, which means a redesign of the workflow activity). I've also worked in organisations where 'products' and 'information management' were included as aspects, which can be useful where there's a lot of customer marketing and operational collateral impacted. As a rule of thumb, if more than 3 aspects are impacted, then the change can be considered complex. Anything above 4 aspects and the change is heading towards very complex.

Therefore, it is important to understand the nature and scope of change before embarking on the journey. Change can be triggered by various factors such as market dynamics, business expansion, legislative or regulatory requirements, organisational diversification, mergers and acquisitions, or a need for operational efficiency (this is by no means an exhaustive list!).

Challenges of Managing Complex Change:

Challenges can range from reactivity to the change (sometimes called change resistance) lack of clarity on the desired outcome, misalignment between various stakeholders and a lack of appropriate root cause analysis at the start of the journey to ensure the introduced change will actually address the problem! Often there's a complex interplay of all these factors, whereby desired outcomes between leaders vary, the capability of the leader to advocate for the change is limited and the individual projects into which the change is packaged act like individual elephants careening into each other in a stampeding herd. It takes sustained commitment and a comprehensive coordination of the change management effort to channel the change transition to the desired collective outcome. This is part of the change management role, to broker this constructive collective outcome and ensure all parties feel there is real gain in committing to make the change transition.

These challenges can be mitigated by adopting a structured approach to managing the change complexity.

Structured Approach to Managing Complex Change:

To manage complex change effectively, it is important to follow a structured approach. But it must also be one in which targeted initiatives are undertaken in sequence, and some simultaneously, to align the individual components of the change. The following steps are essential:

1. Identify the need for change: The first step is to identify the need for change and the desired outcome. This can be done through a thorough analysis of the existing processes, systems, and organizational structure. In collaboration with business analysis, the key pain points of the current state are defined and the manner in which alleviating these individual pain points, and the collective transformational gains to be made, can be mapped and benefits elicited.

2. Develop a change management plan: Once the need for change has been identified a change management plan needs to be developed. A thorough understanding of the impacts and the scale of impact must underpin this plan. It should include a clear roadmap for the change, key milestones, an understanding of all of the dimensions of the change, and metrics for success. These metrics these must be both tactical and strategic. For example, if the change introduces a new procurement process into an organisation a tactical measure would be that the procurement process now took 10 days less than previous. A strategic measure would be that the quality of the products and services selected out of the new procurement process return more benefit, faster which can be measured across factors such as cost, customer satisfaction, increase in efficiency, productivity etc.

3. Communicate effectively: Communication is a critical component of managing complex change. It is essential to communicate the need for change and the benefits to all stakeholders, in language that makes adopting the change compelling for the individual. This helps to mitigate any reactivity to the change and align everyone towards the desired outcome, although note that 'one size does not fit all' when it comes to this engagement. Communication must be specific, memorable and emotionally resonant for each stakeholder group that will go through the change. This will differ markedly between groups, depending on how they are oriented to what is changing (are they internal users, external users / customers, supporting functions, onlookers?) and how the change impacts them and their perceived status.

4. Implement the change: Once the change management plan has been developed, it is time to implement the change. It is important to ensure that the implementation is done in a phased manner to mitigate any potential risks. Common components of the change delivery will include; communication and engagement, learning, leadership advocacy, business readiness assessment, organisational culture interventions relating to behaviours, organisational structure change, changes to skills and competencies, mentoring and coaching and intensive wrap-around-support at go-live.

5. Monitor and evaluate: Finally, it is important to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the change. The key question to evaluate, is 'did we do what we said we were going to do, for the outcome we said we were going to get?'. This helps to identify any gaps and make course corrections if necessary to ensure the change adoption continues and the full benefits are realised long after the implementation team is disbanded.


Managing complex change can be a challenging task, but it is essential for organisations to continuously evolve to stay relevant and competitive. To stay still as an organisation and avoid evolutionary change is to stagnate, be overtaken, and founder. By following a structured approach to managing complex change and adopting practical and thoroughly tested approaches, organisations can achieve success and spring-board into future opportunity.

This article provides you with insights and practical tips on managing complex change. By following a structured approach and adopting best practices, you can achieve success in your change management initiatives. Thanks for reading!

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