You change it, you own it: Employee participation in change management

by Ian Andersen

No matter which metric you look at, employee involvement is a key component of successful change communication. By working with employees to establish not only what to change but also why change is needed, you will ensure that the workforce owns the change and the way it is communicated.

The connection between change management and resistance to change has been studied for decades. The relationship is complex and open to multiple interpretations, but a few facts stand out: The most effective and lasting approach is to define the change and its rationale with the full involvement of those who will live through it. Good, but not as good, is to design the change with participation of representatives of those affected. Least effective is simply saying “make it so.”

A method called The Art of Hosting is one way to tap into the knowledge and experience of the entire organization when preparing change programs or strategic vision or action plans, and the communication that goes with them. And because its methods closely involve the participants in designing the necessary change, resistance will be close to nil.

Hearing everyone’s voice

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In May 2014, the Finance, HR, IT and Logistics units of the European Commissions Directorate General for Communication got together for a reflection day on how to improve service for their internal clients. The staff is seen here in the final round of a World Cafe event on practical initiatives.

Try to imagine a meeting of 200 people in which, in two hours, everyone has spoken and, at the end, the five most important points that people are ready to act upon are completely clear and agreed upon by the participants. This extraordinary vision is an achievable outcome with participatory methods.

The key to participatory leadership is good conversation and visible follow-up. It relies on the “caller,” the person who desires a change, to set the process in motion with:

  • Process hosts to help clarify the purpose of the meeting, make it explicit and design a neutral framework for carrying out the process.
  • Participants in the process to share their insights and intelligence.
  • A “harvesting” team to collect the results of the conversations, organize the results and prepare implementation.

Finally, the caller, together with the participants, needs to ensure that the resulting plans are put into practice.

Conversations can be hosted in different ways for different purposes. Appreciative Inquiry is often a foundation: starting with exploring what works well before moving into charting what needs to change. World Café and Open Space are two other powerful formats. The processes are scalable from a dozen to hundreds of people—even thousands if you use parallel sessions connected online.

Directorate General for Enterprise working on changing the European Commission’s approach to entrepreneurship for the coming decade. Consulting staff was a great source of real innovation. This group is summarising their findings after the third round of World Café. The day started with an appreciative inquiry into what worked well in the present system.

Directorate General for Enterprise working on changing the European Commission’s approach to entrepreneurship for the coming decade. Consulting staff was a great source of real innovation. This group is summarising their findings after the third round of World Café. The day started with an appreciative inquiry into what worked well in the present system.

In the World Café format, participants discuss a set of questions that have been carefully crafted by the process hosts working with the caller, four to a “café” table, with clear instructions to listen and to build on the contributions from others. After 20 to 30 minutes, everyone changes tables, leaving one person behind to explain to the incoming trio what just happened. The groups then get a new question, go to work, and repeat. After typically three rounds you ask them to formulate, either individually or together, significant next steps or action points.

The Open Space method is also known as the “un-conference” format. Participants contribute their discussion topics to a marketplace/matrix of ideas, indicating at what time the session starts and where. Each session typically lasts 40 to 80 minutes, and the caller of the session takes notes and prepares an overview of outcomes immediately afterwards. The number of groups is only limited by the physical space available and the sessions delve deep into the topics. Open Space can last anywhere from half a day to three days.

Combining the three can be very powerful, for example with a Café in the morning, opening with Appreciative Inquiry to map the issues, and then moving into Open Space in the afternoon to allow individual participants to take ownership of investigating solutions.

What you need to have in place

Earlier this year, senior officials from The European Commission’s Directorate General for Transport and the Transport Commissioner’s Private Office got together to change the Commission’s approach to innovation in transport services. In just two hours, they fleshed out a new strategy for engaging the Commission in transport innovation.

Earlier this year, senior officials from The European Commission’s Directorate General for Transport and the Transport Commissioner’s Private Office got together to change the Commission’s approach to innovation in transport services. In just two hours, they fleshed out a new strategy for engaging the Commission in transport innovation.

Your objective should be to create lasting solutions with those involved, rather than provide therapy while real decisions are made elsewhere.There are a few prerequisites for this variety of participatory leadership to be truly effective:

  • The caller of the sessions needs to have authority to act on the outcomes, and the boundary conditions (e.g. funds available, limits to action) must be clearly set out from the beginning.
  • The conversation space must be safe: Nobody gets fired for speaking their mind and participants’ opinions are not held against them.
  • Seasoned practitioners will need to host your team and guide the harvesting of ideas.
  • The outcomes must be acted upon in good faith. If not, you will lose credibility.

Poorly facilitated participatory events are not only demotivating, they can seriously undermine faith in your organization’s integrity and, ultimately, your business results.

If you address change with openness and without hidden agendas, aiming to collectively seek solutions, and you are ready to work with emerging ideas rather than top-down prescriptions, you will establish the trust necessary for sustainable change, and your staff will help you drive it. With full involvement, they change it, they own it.


 ian andersenIan Andersen is external communications adviser to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Interpretation, and a Participatory Leadership practitioner. All views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of his employer.