When the risks that you didn’t pay attention to happen, you could be looking at some extensive setbacks at best or worse, a ditched initiative. Those risks can do significant financial and reputation damage to both your career and your organization.

As an Executive Coach who is privy to the inner thoughts of leaders and managers going through their own responses to change – and the people leading the change – in their workplaces, I can confirm that a well-planned change initiative is the surest guarantee as you can get for a relatively smooth-ish ride.

Revenue can take a hit, talent can walk out the door, workload increases for those remaining, customers go elsewhere, investors lose confidence, and morale and productivity drops.

Classic major change initiatives include mergers, redundancies and organizational restructures, new technology, office/HQ relocations, new business strategy, culture shifts, new policies or industry legislation, and many others that involve some level of process re-engineering and financial investment.

Priorities and audiences shift throughout a change cycle

The thing about change is that its priorities and its audiences shift as change progresses. By way of illustrating what I mean by shifting priorities and audiences, let’s consider a simplified scenario in car manufacturing.

With each baton change, the number of people accountable increases.

Where a change may have been initiated by insurance entities, economists, lawyers or board directors, the next audience to receive the baton may be senior and middle management who have to figure out the impact and own the tasks which may mean increasing the level of quality tests or introducing a new technology to eliminate a faulty mechanism.

The tasks and issues determined by middle management will directly impact the end users – employees at all levels (and sometimes customers) – who have to adapt with either new training, integrate an extra process or a new team, or even face redundancies because of the new technology.

With each baton change, conversations change flavor and emphasis.

Over the course of the months or years that the change cycle can take, you can see that the conversations will be changing flavor and emphasis depending on the people involved at each stage.

The first stage might be very theoretical and statistical as options are mapped and determined to ensure profitability of the organization.

In the second stage, the reality of change starts to hit home as management considers options and people start to figure into the equations, people they know and they’ve worked with and have known for a long time.

In the final stage, the conversations and debates among those most affected are about how threatened or excited they feel by the change.

People think about their career first and the organization second

As a leader, it is critical to have this bigger picture in your mind while being sensitive and aware of the impact on your people throughout the organization. Your role is to help people make sense of it all as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.

“What does this mean for me?”

The reality in the majority of cases is that people will be thinking about their career first and the organization second. If you don’t talk to this issue – whether it is raised or not – you risk losing a connection with people. Not addressing it says to people, “S/he doesn’t care about me?”. It makes room for doubt and fear, and they’ll stop listening to the “why” or business case for change.

Take stock of what you know and of what you haven’t yet considered

There’s a great deal to cover on this subject of change. Assuming you are somewhere on the management continuum and the decision for change has been made, I’m going to start from the point where you get handed the baton to lead the change initiative from this point forward.

What do you know already? What don’t you know? From your head to your heart, you need to understand the facts, do some analysis and projections, test assumptions (yours and others’), and have the courage to address the toughest issues quickly and with compassion.

So here are some questions to get you started:

Why change?

Articulate this clearly and simply – it needs to be a compelling case for change that people can easily rally around. What could happen if change doesn’t happen? What becomes possible because of the change?

Then expand on your key points. Express the possibilities for as many stakeholders as there are: the organization, your customers, your investors, your employees, your leadership and you personally.

Why will people resist the change?

Who are the different groups of staff most likely to resist change? Just how much might they resist it? What kind of threat are they feeling? Is it about power, money, habits or actual understanding of the facts? How will you help them adapt?

Who or which groups could be instrumental in getting them to support the change? How might they slow the pace of change or even sabotage plans entirely? What are your options if you don’t get them on side?

Why will people support the change?

Again, who are the different groups of staff supporting the change? How much do they support it? What’s their driver? What opportunities or advantages are they seeing? How can your supporters help you to either bring resistors on-side or at least neutralize them? What power do they have to accelerate the pace of change? What will you do to support and acknowledge them?

Do you have a comprehensive communication plan?

Think of your communication plan as the backbone of your change initiative.

Without one, you are risking miscommunication, inconsistency of messaging, people making things up, room for potentially neutral stakeholders to become saboteurs in the absence of strong messaging, wasting time and money on damage control, missing the chance to empower your supporters with key messages and actions, and so on.

What is your leadership team doing to support the change?

Some of us find it hard to accept the reality that people take their cue from the leadership team. If your leadership team is behaving in ways that are counterproductive to the change plan (like creating decision bottlenecks or not showing up to meetings) or in ways that are insensitive to the impact on staff, you are going to have a tough time getting buy-in and building momentum.

People will be behaving just how the leadership team is modeling. Your supporters will go quiet and your saboteurs will get louder.

Do you have sufficient time, money and people to achieve your goals?

Have you allowed enough time for a communication campaign where leaders can talk to their staff, answer questions and allow for people to adjust to the idea? Establish a budget early on for new equipment, training and new roles. Identify cost effective alternatives and contingency funding sources that you may need to go to.

Do your people have adequate time to effect the changes?

Don’t fail at the final hurdle because you haven’t considered how much time staff need to carry out their change tasks like training or testing a new system or recruiting or redundancy measures.

How can you help people clear their plates? What upcoming events are moveable or need to be worked around? Does change need to be rolled out in phases across teams or departments? And what advantages or disadvantages does that present?

When you consider all these factors, where’s the value in winging it?

Be a credible leader

Answer the questions above and you get yourself a baseline.

Have confidence that you are putting your energy and time into the areas that need it most.

As an informed and astute leader, demonstrating an awareness of the nuances of change and its far-reaching impact, you will build your own credibility. You will make it easier for people to support you and the plan for change.

Practical Tip

Create a shared online resource – document, spreadsheet or other tools for easy tracking – that you and your change team can keep updated and share real-time. Use it as the source location to raise issues, track progress, update with new information and responses, and run your meetings.

Whether your team is dispersed geographically or all at the one location, this is one of the simplest ways to reduce the risk of miscommunication and confusion.