This article was originally published in the Change Management Review.
Change happens one person at a time. While change planning emphasizes engaging and communicating with various constituencies and stakeholder groups, we ultimately need to ensure that each individual moves successfully through the transition process.
In the telecommunications and transportation industries, the term “last mile” refers to the final link in the chain of getting information, materials, and people to and from individual homes, offices, and other end-points. Think of Amazon.com—they have a huge distribution network of national, regional, and local centers, but in the end they must get each individual package into the hands of a human being at a specific address, and to pick up items that need to be returned. This is a notoriously difficult challenge, and represents a large part of the expense of delivery—in some cases, more than 50% of the cost. The postal service, UPS, FedEx, and local services all make up a complex network of resources that Amazon calls on to close this “last mile” gap.
We have a “last mile” challenge in organizational change as well. Once a project team has defined the path forward, identified the people who need to adopt new ways of thinking and working, built transition plans to help accomplish the desired shifts, and initiated enrollment and communication strategies, it has typically reached the level of work that corresponds to the “local distribution center.” Key leaders in each department understand the reasons for change, the main shifts that need to happen, and the objectives, measures, and timelines that will be used to track progress in their area.
But there is a lot of work still to be done. The final leg of the challenge is reaching every person who needs to adopt new behaviors and mindsets and providing the specific information, motivation, and support needed to help him or her succeed, while gathering feedback, concerns, and other information to relay back to the project team. If we don’t deliver at the individual level, and instead assume that people will be willing and able to figure things out for themselves based on information they hear at meetings and in general project communications, and that they will voluntarily take the time to share their issues and questions with the team (this is the rough equivalent of Amazon asking everyone to pick up their packages at the local warehouse), we put our success at risk. This individual-level support is labor-intensive and, in my experience, we rarely plan or allocate enough time and resources to the task.
Just as Amazon hands off delivery to local-level resources, we need to be prepared to do the same. Three main on-the-ground sources of support can help cover the “last mile” effectively:
Local-Level Sponsors—supervisors and department managers play a crucial role in working one-on-one with their direct reports to ensure that they are ready to change. They are the ones in the best position to clearly articulate and reinforce expectations for new mindsets and behaviors, to notice where people may be struggling and help find solutions, and to celebrate and share successes.
Change Agent Networks—many organizations have established a network of change agents who are charged with providing support to their own departments and divisions. These resources can identify training and development needs, spend time with individuals to help them practice new behaviors, share issues, and successes with project teams, and identify people who need extra support.
Peers—in most work settings, there are individuals who tend to embrace new ways of operating easily and effectively, and also enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. They may be seen as “early adopters,” “super-users,” or “subject-matter experts.” These people can help their peers with one-on-one assistance in acquiring new skills; they can also model new ways of thinking and provide encouragement and praise to their colleagues.
When we establish good communication and clear expectations for each of these groups about their roles during change, we prepare them for success. In some cases, we may need to help them free up the time and energy for “last mile” work—many local change agents are doing this work on top of a full-time job, and need a portion of their time officially dedicated to their change work. Supervisors and managers need to receive clear guidance from their own managers about the importance of their role as local sponsors. Peer coaches need to be able to dedicate time to this aspect of their role and feel they are valued and supported for their efforts.
As you plan your initiatives, think about the proportion of resources you are spending on each link in the chain. Are you investing appropriately in reaching each person at their unique place in the organization? What can you do to more effectively and intentionally address the “last mile” challenge in your current work?