Two businessmen help create stability together with strategy or change management concept.
ATD Blog

Planned Versus Forced Change: Should We Manage Them Differently?

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Lucky for us, as we help our organization navigate through planned change—maybe a technology upgrade or an organizational restructure—there’s a treasure trove of best practices we can tap into for guidance. But do we need to manage things differently if the change has been forced upon our organization? Perhaps government regulations have shifted all of a sudden, forcing our company to change operating protocols quickly to remain in compliance. It wasn’t something our organization planned to deal with, at least not at this time. So now, there’s a crisis on our hands. As talent development professionals, do we need to modify the guidance we provide to our organization depending on whether the change is chosen and planned versus when it’s forced and unplanned?

Here are the best practices for managing planned change:

  • Communication. Enlist every leadership level to speak honestly and often about what’s changing. This way, employees understand what’s happening, why, who is affected, and how and when their work will change. Use face-to-face and virtual meetings, informal conversations, websites, social media, and other two-way communication channels to ensure decision makers hear and address employees’ questions and concerns.
  • Involvement. Provide employees with ample opportunity to share their ideas about how to best implement the change in their own work area. This allows leaders to make more informed decisions and employees to participate in what’s changing. Incorporate this input into your implementation plans.
  • Skill building. Focus on helping employees develop the skills and capabilities they need to perform their jobs in the changed environment successfully. Ensure employees know where they can turn to for support as they try out these new skills back on the job.
  • Assessment. Use pulse surveys, after-action reviews, and other assessment tools, periodically checking in with employees to gather input about what’s working with the plan and what isn’t. Modify the rollout, as needed, based on what has been learned along the way.

In a crisis, we have less time to react, but we still need sound change management. When change is forced and unplanned, leaders may need to make decisions before they’ve collected extensive input from others. Employees may feel resentful when they aren’t asked for their opinion, and they may start griping that a more highly skilled leadership team could have anticipated or even averted the crisis. To manage this kind of change, we may need to shift to techniques we can rapidly deploy, but these general principles of sound change management still apply:

  • Communication. To prevent a sense of chaos from taking over, double down on communication, using every resource available to keep employees informed. Ask leaders to clearly explain the external factors that compel your organization to act right now and be honest about any signals they missed that, if acted upon earlier, could have prevented the crisis. Enlist frontline supervisors to reinforce messaging about what’s changing, why, and how work in their area will be affected, and provide them with FAQ documents to help address employee questions. To support two-way communication, consider setting up online Q&A sites and conducting virtual Q&A sessions to provide employees with opportunities to pose questions and voice concerns.
  • Involvement. If possible, before leaders develop their plan of action, use crowdsourcing, online polling, or other techniques for rapidly gathering employee input. Or, if leaders have already created the general plan, enlist frontline supervisors to quickly work out implementation details. If involving employees beforehand isn’t possible, reassure them that, while there may not have been time to solicit input before a plan of action was adopted, leaders still need to hear from them about what’s working and what isn’t working as the plan goes into effect.
  • Skill building. Use job aids, microlearning, online learning, and other performance support tools to help employees develop the competence they need right now to be effective and establish resources like helpdesks and online Q&A sites employees can turn to for additional support. Ask supervisors to check in with employees frequently to assess where more training is needed.
  • Assessment. Mistakes and missteps happen, especially when decisions are made rapidly and with limited input. As the change is implemented, use spot surveys, employee polling software, in-person or virtual after-action reviews, and other tools to gather input from employees about what is and isn’t working and where adjustments are needed. Ensure leaders use this feedback to course correct.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented many organizations with an unprecedented test of their ability to change. Almost overnight, companies were forced to radically shift operating protocols, revamp safety measures, and deploy new processes and technology. Research by McKinsey & Company suggests that organizations with well-developed change management capabilities, especially those employing an Agile approach to change, fared best during these extraordinary times. Consider the experience of Deloitte’s audit and assurance team, an organization that had established strong change management capability in the years preceding the coronavirus crisis. When the pandemic forced the company to rapidly shift its entire operating model, they were well prepared.


Deloitte deployed multiple communications channels, including newsletters, webcasts, and social media, to keep employees up to date as conditions shifted. They established open, two-way dialogue with employees to prevent a sense of chaos from creeping in during an admittedly chaotic time and set up an online crowdsourcing site to stay connected with employees and gather ideas. They invested in training to ensure employees had the skills needed to support customers as they quickly migrated to a 100 percent virtual environment. And they constantly assessed progress, refining and adjusting plans as the pandemic ensued. Deloitte concluded that during the crisis, there was “no need to reinvent the wheel.” Change management capabilities they had developed before the pandemic to address planned change served them well when they faced a crisis.

This Deloitte example showcases the importance of prepping for change so that your organization can weather whatever crisis comes its way. Help your organization gain know-how and expertise using the full range of change management tools, including techniques that may require some investment of time and those that take only an instant. That way, when faced with forced, unplanned change, you’ll already have the change management capability you need.

About the Author

Kathryn Zukof is a learning and organizational development practitioner and educator with over 30 years of experience in industries ranging from manufacturing to higher education to technology services. Her work focuses on helping organizations create and implement innovative approaches to leadership development and succession management, foster an environment of continuous learning, and plan and navigate through transformational change. Before she transitioned to a career in L&OD, Kathryn held management roles in client relations, product development, and marketing in the technology services sector.

Kathryn has a PhD in social psychology and an MBA in marketing. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in industrial and organizational psychology, research methods, and marketing.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.