Mastering Change Management: The Lessons You Need to Succeed

Change is hard.

Even good, beneficial change can make you feel uneasy and like everything is out of whack.

If you can’t learn to embrace it, you and your team won’t be able to tap into the creativity and innovation that will propel your organization forward.

“Change, after all, is only another word for growth, another synonym for learning, we can all do it, if we want to.” –  Charles Handy

Being prepared for disruption before it comes can alleviate a large portion of the fear and angst.

The concept of play combined with the ability to challenge your thinking can revolutionize the way you and the people in your organization manage transition.

1. Improv: The heart of managing disruption

If you’ve ever seen an improv troupe perform, you know they’re experts at putting together an engaging, hilarious scene on-the-fly.

They’re masters at managing change.

Have you ever wondered what qualities these performers possess?

And assumed that you didn’t have whatever that magic gene was?

The good news is, you don’t have to be “born with it” to learn the principles of improv and apply them to your own life – personally and professionally.

There are two simple words that make a big difference when you’re using improvisational techniques: “Yes, and.”

“Yes, and” means that you are accepting a new idea and adding to it.

The problem is that our natural inclination is to say no to fresh concepts.

This is certainly true for many corporate cultures that have a negative risk-averse reaction to creativity.

Negativity is a serious problem for innovation and words are powerful. Once people hear no, they are statistically less likely to contribute again.

“Yes, and” behavior is critical to innovative teams because it opens the door for everyone to contribute and share their ideas.

It doesn’t mean that every idea is a great one, but that each idea is considered, discussed, and individuals are encouraged to continue contributing.

This improvisational behavior is what drives performers to create a great scene and it’s key for creating innovative work environments.

Learning to behave and think differently can open the door to greater success for you and your team.

Let’s examine some of the facets of working with a “Yes, and” mindset and how they can shape your change-management strategy. There are plenty of examples of these concepts in action that resulted in great success.

2. The improv cycle

Improvisers live in a constant cycle.

It’s a cycle of growth that allows you to be flexible, adaptable and innovative – no matter what situations you may face.


To be a good improviser you should always be practicing, preparing and setting the foundation because you never know when you’ll be called on to perform.


Play, exploration and experimentation test the limits of your preparation.

In this way, you’re able to see where you’re hitting the mark and where you need to go back to the drawing board.

Think Upside Down

You have to be able to look at things upside down, in weird ways and with diverse groups.

Allow your thinking to push the boundaries of your play and preparation.


As all the upfront work begins to pay off, you have to embrace the refinement process.

It’s all about evolving.

Once you’ve mastered these new skills, it’s time to start all over again!

The cycle at work

Organizations that can learn to engage with this cycle of growth and change will be ready for any disruptions or transitions that come along.

The result is an improvisational attitude that can increase collaboration, communication and productivity.

3. Embracing the unexpected

If you’re like most people, you have a bit of trepidation about the unknown.

But it is possible to flip the script.

In fact, it’s necessary.

Much of the best improv and innovation grow out of surprise, problems that must be overcome, and tension.

The opportunity is there if you decide to jump in.

Improv performers hit the stage each night, willing to embrace whatever comes their way.

They’re not enduring it or gritting their teeth through it.

They’re embracing it.

You can have the same attitude when you’re faced with uncertainty or blindsided by the unexpected.

It’s the time to dig deep and open your mind to new possibilities and creative solutions.

A. The role of diversity in change management

Human nature causes you to want to flee from any uncomfortable situation.

You avoid tension by staying in your safe-zone.

But a lack of diversity is a sure killer of innovation.

Diverse groups can be uncomfortable, but we undermine our ability to be innovative when we lean toward only comfort and familiarity.

Diversity breeds innovation.

It’s good for the financial bottom line, too.

And the only way to achieve diversity is to create environments where people feel safe and included.

That’s why “inclusion” is such an important word. If you can be part of a corporate culture that allows people very different from you (even to the point of making you feel uncomfortable!) to feel safe and included, they’ll continue to contribute their ideas.

And at some point, you’ll realize, “Wow! That’s a perfect idea. I never would have thought of it.” That’s the beauty of inclusion.

When companies promote and train for inclusion, they solve problems faster and more creatively, which is reflected in their revenue.

Being an improviser is all about pushing the boundaries of your own comfort.

B. The inherent tension

Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand, but it’s important to make a distinction between them.

Creativity is the ability to envision anything and see the impossible working.

Innovation is the application of creativity.

For example, the moment you paint on a canvas, write notes on a score, or design a building, creativity is transformed into innovation.

Therein lies the tension.

If you let the rule-followers in too soon, crazy creativity can be quickly squashed.

But leave the execution solely to the dreamers, and it’s likely nothing will actually come to fruition.

How do you bridge the gap?

The answer is to continue encouraging creative people to speak up and share their ideas, while giving everyone the resilience and courage to hang on during execution of those ideas.

The rolling out of even great ideas can often be arduous, underfunded or under-sponsored.

That’s why fortitude is critical!

Case study: Law Firm in the Southwest

Here’s an example of a law firm in the Southwest that embraced the unexpected by employing improvisational principles and overcome a significant challenge.

The problem

The firm was losing clients to other firms or they were discovering key information late in the legal process because clients weren’t sharing all the information the lawyers needed to know.

Other firms weren’t as qualified and were more expensive, yet they were getting the business.

The first order of business was to examine the law firm’s communication style.

After observing some of their initial client meetings, the reason they were losing business to other firms was apparent.

The attorneys’ job was to uncover critical information in order to form a case.

Initially, the clients were willing to open up and talk.

As they were speaking, though, the attorneys were jumping in, telling them what they had done wrong.

The clients’ reaction to this, understandably, was to clam up, cross their arms and feel very judged.

These attorneys were shutting down communication with their negative words.

Nobody wants to feel like they’re on trial when they’re already in the midst of an emotional and often scary situation.

The attorneys were seeking to assert their superiority when the clients needed a partner and a guide.

The process

The attorneys went through improv training sessions and learned the principles of saying, “Yes, and.”

They were taught how to lean into discomfort and to have more collaborative conversations.

After their improv training, the firm instituted a five-minute “Yes, and” period for all of their initial client meetings.

The attorneys were instructed to listen and respond to their clients with language like, “Yes, I bet that was really hard! And then what happened?” or “Yes, I understand why you chose that action. And I’d like to know more about the other person’s response.”

The result

After implementing these improvisational techniques to client meetings, the time the client was doing the talking more than doubled.

The training also paid off financially – one of the firm’s offices earned $750,000 in extra work in the first six months after beginning to use improv principles.

4. How to prepare for change

Have you always assumed that improv performers just jump on the stage and go, with no preparation?

That’s not how it works.

Their life can be summed up in three important words: rehearse, practice, repeat.

Creative, innovative environments don’t just happen.

Improvisers are tenacious enough to put in the time, hard work and to endure the failures before they hit a breakthrough.

Here are the foundations of good innovation.

A. Brainstorming: What NOT to do

It’s no secret that brainstorming is the best way to get all the ideas on the table.

Creativity and brainstorming are linked and pave the way for innovation and effectively managing change.

And yet, brainstorming can often feel like a useless activity.

If your idea-gathering sessions look like this, you need to course-correct:

  • Lots of ideas are presented and written on the board and that’s it.
  • Someone tosses out an idea that is quickly shot down by a manager, so they stop contributing to the conversation.
  • People don’t want to share their ideas because they want to use them to advance their own careers.
  • A few people monopolize the conversation and no one else feels able to contribute.

Once you’re aware of some of the pitfalls of brainstorming, it’s easier to turn things around.

B. Setting the right environment

Your physical surroundings, the resources at your disposal, your personal interactions all have an effect on how innovative you are.

If your environment doesn’t work, how can you?

Surroundings that are conducive to creativity allow you to focus better and to innovate.

Do what you can to make your working environment optimal.

C. Preparation and practice

Creating the right environment is one way to be prepared.

Preparation is a huge part of dealing with challenges.

Consider the example of a professional athlete.

They know that success only comes when you practice, sweat, fail, pick yourself up, start over and try again.

Athletes know that practice is an entirely expected part of their excellence.

Why would you think you’d be able to be creative or innovative without putting in some time and effort?

Practice creativity. Every day.

Get used to the process of trying, failing and getting right back up.

When challenges come, you’ll be prepared to face them because you’ve put in the work.

Case study: Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola is worth more than $180 billion dollars.

But, they didn’t get there without facing some major challenges that required improvisational thinking to overcome.

The problem

In the 1980’s, Pepsi was rising as a legitimate competitor to Coca-Cola’s soda empire.

The response was a new offering – a sweeter version of their soda, aptly dubbed “New Coke.”

Unfortunately, the public didn’t care for this new version of their favorite drink.

The company had to use improvisational thinking to solve the problem.

The process

Coca-Cola could have floundered if they weren’t willing to be flexible.

Instead, they were open to making any corrections necessary to keep their customers coming back.

They made the choice to go back to their original formula and continued their upward trajectory.

The result

Coca-Cola is still the king of sodas and they consistently add products to keep up with the preferences and trends of their customers. For example, they now offer healthy options, like Dasani, Vitaminwater and Evian.

5. Play: Having fun with change

Improvisational techniques are the foundation of managing transition effectively.

And play is a vital element of improvisation

Stuart Brown, in his 2009 book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, found that mammals need to play.

Brown’s studies found that humans and animals need play.

The anticipation, interaction, competition, pleasure, surprise and engagement of play teach valuable lessons that last for your whole life.

One of the most interesting facts that Brown uncovered was that murderers often had childhoods that were devoid of play and fun.

On the flip-side, happy and productive professionals enjoyed fun and play constantly.

Brown also contends that the improvisational nature of play allows us to synthesize ideas in unexpected ways.

You’re constantly changing up your thinking and your behavior, causing your brain to make connections that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Therefore, play provides you with the necessary change-management skills.

A. Focus

Did you know that your brain wants to focus?

The unfortunate truth is that you are rarely “in the moment” in your day-to-day life.

But innovative people have the ability to focus.

They know how to be in the now and watch without preconceived notions.

Because improvisation is such a deeply absorbing process, your “inner-critic” is shut down.

Allowing the brain to focus on a task and stop multitasking frees up your subconscious capability to think on a higher level.

B. Teaming up

Great innovation – like great improvisation – happens in groups.

You may have a picture in your mind of the great innovators huddled in their laboratories alone, suddenly struck by a lightning bolt discovery.

That’s not exactly how it happens.

For example, Thomas Edison was funded by a corporate sponsor, was surrounded by scientists and had at least 30 assistants.

Steve Jobs didn’t fly solo. He also had a team of innovators working alongside him.

The truth is that great ideas grow stronger in the right types of groups.

C. Commitment

Play is an essential component of creative problem solving.

Often, improvisational thinkers find solutions and go about their daily tasks without consciously attempting to be innovators.

When they run into roadblocks that others would accept, they find a better process to implement and go on.

Here’s how a company called Lightwell used play to manage change and encourage innovation.

Case study: Lightwell

Play is an essential component of creative problem solving.

Often, improvisational thinkers find solutions and go about their daily tasks without consciously attempting to be innovators.

When they run into roadblocks that others would accept, they find a better process to implement and go on.

Here’s how a company called Lightwell used play to manage change and encourage innovation.

The problem

Lightwell is a business that serves the tech industry.

They have offices in Ohio, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

Paul was an Italian engineer who was working in the Belfast office.

He had grown frustrated with a testing process that was a part of IT and development.

The flawed system was time-consuming, tedious and held up new products from getting to the market.

Some organizations resorted to sending this type of work overseas, but Paul didn’t like the idea of giving up control or waiting for the testing to be done by someone else.

The process

In true innovator fashion, Paul took matters into his own hands and decided to come up with a solution.

He created a testing tool that pulled all the work together, eliminating a majority of the time and issues that plagued the original process.

The testing that used to require 2,000 hours of work has been reduced to only 200 hours.

The result

The owner of the company was deeply impressed by Paul’s idea and decided that it could be a product in and of itself.

The whole Belfast team was brought on board and they assessed, brainstormed, tested, failed and played until they had a new product that could be offered to their clients.

Lightwell’s owner credits her team’s predisposition to finding solutions that work, instead of band-aid fixes for the success of the organization.

The environment is one of collaboration, questioning and innovation.

Their company mantra – “Why not?” – pushes them to ask questions, communicate with each other and find creative solutions.

6. Change management requires thinking upside-down

Creative innovators approach change with an ability to look at things differently.

They move beyond what’s obvious to find the best solutions.

You don’t have to work in a studio, in your casual clothes, playing ping-pong all day to come up with innovative and creative ideas.

A. Creative constraint

Have you believed the fallacy that if your world or profession is constrained, you can’t enjoy wild creativity?

Because the truth is that there are many benefits to having boundaries when you’re working creatively.

Without boundaries, the pool of possibilities can seem too large.

The fewer resources you have, the more you have to rely on your ingenuity to come up with innovative solutions.

Constraints are good when they move you toward clarifying your purpose.

Rather than being frustrated by compliance, legal, or financial issues, embrace them.

Case study: Suncorp

Suncorp is a leading financial services provider in Australia and New Zealand.

As they grew, they realized that to meet their corporate goals, they needed to provide their employees with workspaces that allowed them to produce at their highest potential.

The problem

As Suncorp looked at their existing workspaces, they came to the conclusion that their current arrangement didn’t allow for the collaboration and new ways of working that would increase productivity.

The plan was to move 2,000 of their employees to a new office tower in the heart of Brisbane.

They would be moving from small group-based environments to a much larger open floor plan.

The process

Suncorp knew that the right preparation for the move would make all the difference in how well the employees handled the transition.

Their goal was to maintain business continuity while they were preparing for this massive disruption.

They also wanted to begin fostering the collaborative and sharing behaviors that the new workplace would encourage.

The resistance to change many employees felt was addressed by using prototypes of the new work area so that they could get a feel for what their new space would be like.

Other tactics used to prepare employees included:

  • Videos for each stage.
  • Tours of the new site.
  • Briefings.
  • Newsletters.
  • Guides.
  • Welcome kits.
  • Celebratory events at key milestones throughout the process.

The result

Because the company recognized the need to prepare for change on the front end, the transition was smooth.

The relocation happened on time and the employees were able to get to work with no issues from day one.

Employee engagement and collaboration increased and the same method is being used for additional Suncorp relocation projects.

7. Change-management tools at work

Life is full of unexpected situations.

You need the right change-management tools in your arsenal to handle the unanticipated with the ease of a seasoned improviser.

It begins with the ability to embrace the unexpected.

Though it seems like an oxymoron at first, preparing is a vital component of thinking like an improviser, intentionally focusing on being in the moment.

When you learn to think upside-down and use the elements of play, you open yourself and those around you up to creative and innovative new ideas.

Following these principles of change management will ensure that you’re ready for whatever curveballs life and your work throw your way.

Your Team's Transformation Starts Today!
We Can Transform Your Team