8 minute read 20 Jul 2020
Businesswoman looking away standing in city's financial district

How organizations can create a humanized change experience

By Maya Smallwood

EY Global People Advisory Services Employee Experience Leader

Exploring the intersection of art, science and client experience. Human-centered design student. Mother of a girl with big dreams and a smart mouth.

8 minute read 20 Jul 2020

To enable change, companies should design for positive impact, foster a culture of trust and allow employees to be their authentic selves.

Change management has been a tool organizations have used for decades to do the so-called “soft stuff” with operational rigor. Most successful companies employ change management to develop and implement the right policies, programs and strategies to engage and incentivize employees to “buy-in” to whatever strategic, operational or financial changes the organization is looking to roll out. But this industrial age approach won’t help them effectively navigate the uncertain terrain we move through today.

The velocity and intensity of change had been on an accelerated trajectory before the Coronavirus pandemic. Now, global transformation is taking place against a backdrop of an unprecedented economic and human crisis likely to change our working world forever. As organizations develop and adopt new strategic plans, operating models and experiences that improve productivity and satisfaction, or drive innovation, ease and efficiency, there is a new imperative to put humans at the center.  Should there be a similar call to action to humanize the approaches to change?

People are multifaceted, complex and not always rational. They have beating hearts and spectrums of emotion that aren’t always able to fit neatly into the process-oriented, check-the-box change management programs we have become used to executing.

The traditional, somewhat industrial approaches to “manage change” and get “buy-in” from employees, they sometimes are missing the bigger picture — that people are just that…people (not robots).

As programs focus on directing employees to embrace new ways of working, many organizations are either ignoring or judging the anxiety, fear and uncertainty that humans inherently feel when presented with changes that are supposed to just make sense to them because they make business sense. This creates a cognitive dissonance between what people actually feel and how they are expected to behave in response to workplace change, even when the benefits are clear and tangible. There’s a way to continue to do what makes business sense – but show that people matter as much as the bottom line.

Rather than managing change as a mechanistic process, companies would benefit from creating a change experience — one that is designed for positive impact, foster a culture of trust and allow employees to be their authentic selves.

Authenticity is key. By taking a holistic view of the needs of their people and the complexity of implementing change in the context of the operating model and work environment, organizations can develop and execute a human-centered approach that expresses empathy, empowers co-creation and helps people to adopt required mindsets and behaviors. What people learn to do, or don’t do is a big reason why transformations fail.

Examining past failures

Amid increased complexity, exponential disruption and heightened employee expectations, there is increasing pressure to change just about everything to respond to it – often, to implement new enterprise technologies and digital, agile ways of working . Yet, transformation programs are notorious for failing to meet stated objectives. Forty years ago, 70% of transformations failed. In the dawn of the digital era, that percentage increased to 84%. Today, 90% of transformation programs fail to meet the expectations outlined in the business case.¹ Tomorrow, in a post-COVID-19 world, planning to fail the majority of the time is a hopeless strategy (to paraphrase an old saying).

For some organizations, failure stems from a lack of alignment to purpose, business outcomes or among leadership. For others, it’s the inability to adapt to an evolving, increasingly complex landscape. Not leveraging the reams of data companies collect to make better decisions is another stumbling block. And then, and perhaps the most vital of all, there’s failure to consider the human factor. So, how should organizations make transformation more human(e) while also meeting ever-increasing pressures to deliver top and bottom line value?

Enacting the four cornerstones of change

To effectively design and deploy an impactful change experience and then scale it within complex organization structures, companies need to take an agile and iterative approach that focuses on purpose, insight, personalization and (immersive) interaction.

1. Have a purpose — and live it

Purpose is the north star that guides all change experience activity. People typically need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. This is true of all generations, but especially so of millennials and Generation Z. As such, organizations need to do more than talk about purpose; they need to walk it. Purposeful change needs to be why-oriented and answer the question for everyone impacted: why are we doing this? It needs to be value-led, which involves defining the purpose of the change, making the business case, identifying the to-be behaviors people must adopt and clarifying the outcomes they will deliver as a result. This is why inspirational notes of purpose are combined with practical focus on adoption, with initiative teams working to identify and remove potential friction points to make the transformation work for the organization.

In articulating the purpose for change, tone-at-the-top is important. It’s the reason why many people are willing to embark on the transformation journey. However, leaders need to be aligned on what the purpose is and adopt the behaviors that signal its importance and relevance consistently. Simply communicating the “why” message from on high dilutes the impact and relevance as it moves through the middle layers of the organization, until it is completely lost among the employees on the ground.

In a recent EY study, 80% of leaders said they thought their company’s purpose was clear and embedded in the culture, but only 10% of employees actually thought their company was living it. This disconnect breeds skepticism, can harden into cynicism and disengagement. Organizations need to deploy the right mix of inspirational and practical elements to make change feel real across all levels of the organization.

2. Harness near-real-time data to power insightful decision-making

According to a recent Gartner study,² more than 90% of organizations have not yet reached a transformational level of maturity in data and analytics. Using available data and analytics can help companies gain near-real-time visibility of a transformation journey’s progress. It can monitor when issues arise or when the journey appears to be taking a detour and institute change interventions that get the effort back on track.

Observations and data on current or historical performance, behavior and preferences can identify patterns that will help in personalizing change approaches. Using deep listening capabilities and surveying to gauge sentiment while analyzing how people connect and influence one another in social networks are powerful new avenues for insight. Quantitative analysis and digital tools can support collaboration and engagement, while both quantitative and qualitative analysis of workforce responses can provide a near-real-time picture of emotions and energy throughout the transformation journey.

3. Personalize the journey around moments that matter

Moments that matter in a transformation journey mark inflection points where it is most critical to engage employees. Building personas can help leaders think about employee behaviors — what they think, feel, need and how they work. This will give them an experience-led perspective on execution. Personas are particularly resonant because most leaders know someone like the persona character. In this way, rather than the journey being a series of steps to execute, leaders can focus on how the journey is going to feel for employees, where they may face resistance and where the opportunities lie to improve the experience for each employee on a personal level. Such human-centered design, when consistently applied, will motivate employees to bring the best of who they are to the workplace, allowing them to unleash a wave of human potential.

Complex organizations may think they have to create dozens or hundreds of personas that represent their employee base. In reality, fewer than 10 well-crafted, data-driven personas can accurately capture the nuances of a large stakeholder population.

4. Immersive experiences can help to engage and connect employees

An interactive approach that uses intuitive, consumer-grade communications tools and engaging content employing storytelling techniques and multimedia channels can generate enthusiasm, involvement and commitment to the organization’s purpose. Co-creation activities directly involving impacted people in reducing operational friction and shaping future ways of working can also reduce the resistance that can arise in the transformation journey, particularly within the middle layers of the organization.

Immersive experiences can connect people and teams in both virtual contexts and in the physical work environment. At the same time, digital platforms can help increase interest and offer choices in how leaders engage with impacted employees.

Designing, executing and scaling for transformation success

As organizations look toward the “next-normal,” an era of accelerating, exponential change, they will need to transform if they want to avoid becoming one of the 40% of the S&P 500 that will not exist in 10 years’ time.³ However, the impacts of change felt first by employees and then reverberated throughout the organization, can form barriers that limit or undermine the effectiveness of a transformation. Change is harder, there’s more of it, and it will keep happening.

Even your most capable and supportive employees are impacted by change saturation. They might intellectually support the change, but progressively feel confusion, fear, anxiety, then apathy, disengagement and burn-out as they try to keep with the pace and meet the expectations. Organizations, under pressure to get results and meet promised timelines, may overburden already stretched resources, experience cost overruns, cut corners and ultimately fail to meet the transformation’s stated objectives.

By following a purposeful, insightful, personalized and immersive approach, organizations can gain clarity on the business case for change, build a rich understanding of employee mindsets, behaviors and preferences, develop a deep understanding of the implications the transformation will have, and co-create the future of change with their people. In the execution phase, large complex organizations may benefit from piloting new ways of working with actively engaged teams, identifying friction points and fine-tuning the change experience before rolling it out across the organization in phases, measuring success and tracking benefit realization along the way.

In this way, organizations can design, execute and scale a change experience that leads their transformation journey to success in a way that people respond to and feel motivated to deliver.

  • Show article references#Hide article references

    1. https://www.couchbase.com/binaries/content/assets/website/docs/whitepapers/cio-survey-results
    2. https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2018-02-05-gartner-survey-shows-organizations-are-slow-to-advance-in-data-and-analytics
    3. https://www.innosight.com/insight/creative-destruction/


In order to ensure change management efforts are successful, companies must place humans at the center of their efforts. To do so involves a combination of living their company purpose and using data and analytics to create personalized and immersive change experiences.

About this article

By Maya Smallwood

EY Global People Advisory Services Employee Experience Leader

Exploring the intersection of art, science and client experience. Human-centered design student. Mother of a girl with big dreams and a smart mouth.