Change Management in Time of COVID-19

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  • The year 2020 will be remembered in the annals of history as a year in which deep and profound changes impacted significantly on the human race. Changes occurred in the last four months in ways we could never have imagined and we ourselves had to adapt in record times. The changes in the last four months made me think about what we can learn about change management as a result of COVID-19.

    For a long time we have believed that change happens when leaders provide vision, stakeholders are consulted and followers buy into the change through a process of pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and sometimes relapse (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1992). We saw this process play out in detail when we were first confronted with the reality of the pandemic spreading rapidly throughout the world.

    Fig : Prochaska & DiClemente’s Cycle of Change. From: Social Work Tech.

    Suddenly it was as though the well-known PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, legal and Environmental) framework which we have used for years to assess the context in which we operate suddenly needed to incorporate another element: HEALTH. Following a discussion between myself and a former student of the strategic change management module, it was decided to “rename” the PESTLE to read PHESTLE. The student developed a meme to launch the idea.

    Yes, it was as if health now moved to the top of the agenda and suddenly changes were made based not based on economic considerations but purely on the health of citizens. The world literally came to a standstill in a matter of weeks. Thanks to social media the message spread like a wildfire and there was little need for long drawn out consultation processes. Resources were mobilised at lighting speed because there was no time to uhm and ahh. Some leaders performed better than others.

    We saw examples of leaders who made quick decisions saving many lives in the process, others taking their time resulting in disastrous consequences. Some leaders taking responsibility, while others abdicated their responsibilities and placing blame by finger pointing. But generally individuals understood the dangers very quickly and made rapid adjustments and sacrifices to prevent the spread and infection.

    In change management terms the lessons we can learn relate to concretizing the dangers and getting participant stakeholders to see and believe the impact of not changing. Then they implement the changes themselves. There will always be laggards who refuse to take the change seriously but the majority of people, given that they understand the threat, will make a plan to bring about the required change.

    As I write this there is still no clarity as to how this change will run its course. There are speculations that we might experience a second and third wave (see the relapse step in Prochaska and Clemente (2006)). What gives me hope is the ability of individuals to adjust their behaviour when it is required. Adapting to changes has always been our saving grace. Let’s hope we continue to do so in the months to come…

    Fig: The new PHESTLE model. Created by Louis van Wyk. Shared with permission

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