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Amid pivot to the cloud, a change management plan builds support

A comprehensive change management plan was critical to the success of SoulCycle's big shift to the cloud. Read how IT coached employees to change the way they worked.

SoulCycle's shift to a fully cloud-based environment brought significant change to how the fitness company's 2,500 employees work, including a switch from traditional PCs to Google Pixelbooks.

But Michael Urcinoli, vice president of IT at the fitness company, had a comprehensive change management plan to ensure that employees throughout its corporate offices and 90-plus studios would successfully adapt to a new way of working.

"It took time, but we got the momentum we needed to actually make the changes we wanted," Urcinoli said.

Enterprise change is ubiquitous today, particularly at companies striving to take advantage of digital technology platforms like the cloud. However, enterprise change fails more often than it succeeds. Gartner, the technology research and advisory firm, reports that the average organization has undergone five enterprise changes in the past three years with only 34% considered clear successes, 16% producing mixed results and 50% declared failures.

Although initiatives can fail for many reasons, experts say the absence of a change management plan is often a big contributor. As a result, IT must get change management elements of digital transformation right.

Samuel B. BacharachSamuel B. Bacharach

"Technology moves so quickly that chaos and uncertainty emerges … but we can train IT leaders and CIOs to help people to mobilize support, to reduce anxiety, to make the appropriate arguments and to know how to frame the challenges so that change does not lead to entrenchment," said Samuel B. Bacharach, the McKelvey-Grant Professor of Labor Management at Cornell University and co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group.

But CIOs should not mistake traditional change management dictums with what is required for today's rapidly evolving tech environments, Bacharach cautioned. He argued that what's needed today isn't change management but rather IT change leadership.

"I believe that in the world of clunky organizations and fast-moving technology, traditional change management -- with some of its axiomatic formalistic rules -- no longer covers all the contingencies," said Bacharach, whose recent work has focused on the role of leadership in the workplace. (See sidebar below, "The politics of change leadership.")

"IT transformation demands sophisticated, agile leadership with a deep understanding of what it means to win others to their side and an appreciation of what it means to move an agenda," he said.

SoulCycle's change management plan

Michael UrcinoliMichael Urcinoli

Urcinoli has been overseeing SoulCycle's digital project for more than a year, moving the company to the Google Cloud to run its applications, deploying Pixelbooks and standardizing on the Google browser -- all while modernizing business processes.

He said that he, his team and other executives recognized that success was not about shifting technologies, but rather getting employees to embrace and utilize them to work in new ways. A change management plan needed to focus on changing minds -- and getting buy-in -- as a condition of changing work behaviors.

"I talk about investing in time. When you're changing how people work during a digital transformation, you have to be patient and cognizant of their needs. They've been successful in how they've been doing their job prior to you making the change. So, they have to feel the change you're offering is a long-term benefit to the work they're doing," he said.

Urcinoli's team started by giving select employees access to Chrome OS devices and then gathering feedback on their experiences.

IT identified high-performing employees (such as those with the longest tenure at the 13-year-old company and those recognized as leaders among their colleagues), as well as workers who had a strong rapport with IT, asking them try the Pixelbooks and report back on how they liked them.

Vince DiMascio is CIO at Berry Appleman & Leiden, a large immigration law firm whose clients include many of the nation's big tech companies. He talks about technology leadership in this short video shot at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.

The Early adopters of the Pixelbooks gave IT valuable feedback on the new cloud-based devices, Urcinoli said. The group's willingness to try out the Pixelbooks also generated interest and even excitement about the changes, which helped get others on board.

As part of the change management plan, IT also identified Power users of the new cloud platforms; these people would share their successes with the new technologies with their colleagues, which further supported adoption and enthusiasm.

Urcinoli's team took the feedback they got seriously, reengineering technology and processes as well as plotting future updates based on what they heard.

"The whole project was a lesson in knowing when to stop, start and continue," Urcinoli said. "We had to be very flexible in understanding that individuals would adopt at varying speeds due to how cloud optimized their workflows."

He said if an employee hit a "legacy roadblock" in a process or workflow, his team would modernize it, reroll it out and only then continue with the original project.

Digital transformation, by definition, is "modernization of business processes over time," Urcinoli said. "You have to flexible and know when it's not the right time, or the right team, or right individual," he said.

Communicating change IT-scripted videos

Communication was a big part of Urcinoli's change management plan. He said he and his IT team made sure they communicated frequently and through multiple channels -- via email and the company's learning management system as well as through video. In fact, the IT team drew on its own creative talent to write scripts, which they used with a hired producer to develop three- to five-minute videos about how the new technology would improve daily tasks.

On a more personal note, Urcinoli said he drew on a list of core leadership principles, which he has listed on Post-It notes alongside his computer screen. Those principles? Ask better questions, be an incredible listener, notice more, lead actively, acknowledge emotions and advocate respectfully.

"You have to be thoughtful in the decisions you're making to make meaningful change long term," he added.

Although Urcinoli said SoulCycle isn't through with its transformation as change is continuous in this digital era, he said the work so far has been a success and provides a strong foundation on which the company can build its future.

"We are now focused on iterative process improvements," he said, adding that the company is now focused on maximizing the value of its new technology platform.

Change leadership strategies for success

Many organizations overlook the importance of having a plan to lead change, said Scott Buchholz, a managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP.

"We continue to forget that we can't just put a new mousetrap in front of people and expect them to use it," he said, adding that many workers are suffering from change fatigue.

Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz

Although the types of technologies being implemented are new, Buchholz said the reaction to change remains unchanged. Executives will continue to see some people enthusiastically embrace change, some bitterly oppose it and most fall somewhere between those extremes. The goal then is to devise a change management plan that gets as many people as possible swayed toward accepting change.

Buchholz said executives can do that through constant communication about the reasons for and benefits of the changes -- and by assuming ownership of the transformation initiative itself.

"The successful digital transformation cases," he added, "have been cases where there has been a person in charge, a clear vision and clear direction."

The politics of change leadership

Leadership expert Bacharach believes that CIOs and other IT executives should recognize they have a critical role to play in leading their organizations through transformational change.

"No other group has to be more careful with the strategies and tactics of change management than those leaders involved in IT transformation," Bacharach said.

Yet, IT leaders have not always lived up to expectations, he added.

"For years, IT has suffered under the premise that a good idea was enough to carry the day and that everyone would see the importance of IT as enhancing organizational efficiency and coordination," he said.

But IT change also invariably threatens the status quo -- the organizational structures and work processes that many see as their domain -- and that is dangerous terrain to navigate. If mishandled, IT transformation may create overwhelming resistance, paranoia and even sabotage.

"We live in a world in which people are protective of turf, protective of their own expertise and are easily threatened by enhanced coordination and centralization, which is often implied by IT transformation," said Bacharach, the author of two recent books on leadership: The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea is Not Enough (2016, Cornell U. Pres) and Transforming the Clunky Organization: Pragmatic Leadership Skills for Breaking Inertia (2018, Cornell U. Press).

The core strength of IT professionals is their technological knowledge. "Their core weakness is their lack of political savvy," he said. Unless IT professionals are trained to understand resistance, to win people to their side, to negotiate change and to mobilize support, many of their change efforts will, at best, be slowed down.

To better ensure adoption of new technologies and work processes, Bacharach advised CIOs to anticipate the agendas of others and how others will react to their proposed agendas and then develop campaigns that will get people on board.

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