Managing change in high growth startups | LinkedIn


Over the last 4 years there have been a variety of changes at InVision, as is the case with many unicorns startups. Our skyrocketing revenue has been accompanied by a massive influx of employees: we've grown from 130 to almost 800 people. Our Sales and Customer Success teams have expanded from 24 to 200, including dozens of managers. We've re-arranged teams, hired new leadership, adjusted incentives, launched new products, approached new international markets, and much, much more. A common refrain is that "change is the only constant."

When we hired a new Chief Customer Officer (Seth Shaw) a few years ago, he brought with him a few books that he suggested we read, one of which was ADKAR: A model for change in business, government and our community. I have to admit that my first reaction was to roll my eyes. Firstly, I didn't realize at that time how much change was coming, and second, like many business books, it's hard not to cringe at the front cover.

However, I was proved wrong: the book has proved very useful as a simple change management framework that anyone can grasp. As such, I'm sharing the basics as a quick reference point for others as you consider introducing change to your own organization.

ADKAR is an acronym that represents the 5 recommended stages for change management: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement.

  • Awareness of the need for change
  • Desire to support and participate in the change
  • Knowledge of how to change
  • Ability to implement required skills and behaviors
  • Reinforcement to sustain the change

To quote directly from Hiatt's book:

Awareness represents a person's understanding of the nature of the change, why the change is being made and the risk of not changing.
Desire represents the willingness to support and engage in a change. Desire is ultimately about personal choice, influenced by the nature of the change, by an individual's personal situation, as well as intrinsic motivators that are unique to each person.
Knowledge represents the information, training, and education necessary to know how to change. Knowledge includes information about behaviors, processes, tools, systems, skills, job roles and techniques that are needed to implement the change.
Ability represents the realization or execution of the change. Ability is turning knowledge into action.
Reinforcement represents those internal and external factors that sustain a change. External reinforcement could include recognition, rewards, and celebrations that are tied to the realization of the change.

Creating "awareness" is similar to providing the "why." The general sentiment is that it's helpful to bring teams along for the ride before you make changes by giving them the context for a decision. In some cases it's obvious that an adjustment is needed: a team is underperforming, goals are not being met, a product is not selling. In that case, people will be less surprised. But in other cases, the changes leaders make may mystify those that are further away from the decision making process. Creating awareness around the need for change, the consequences of not changing ("if we continue on this path x will/could happen") generally garners more goodwill towards the change. This step seems obvious but it's easy to skip when you assume everyone will be on board. As Hiatt puts it, "Meeting the human need to know "why" is a critical factor in managing change. At the first evidence of change, people begin to seek this information...Employees will ask their peers..."why is this change necessary? Why is this change happening now? What is wrong with what we are doing today? What will happen if we don't change?" An additional point that Hiatt makes later is the "WIIFM" ("What's in it for me?"). At InVision, we've found this important. As our constituents have become more diverse, we try and focus not just on the global WIIFM, but tailor it for each audience - i.e. sales people vs. customer success managers vs. people managers, with unique messaging for each.

On desire, Hiatt notes that there's a difference between understanding why something needs to happen and wanting it to happen. Creating desire for change basically comes down to empathy - understanding a person's context: how it will impact them, what motivates them, and their wider environment.

Knowledge is where employees are given the education needed to make a change. Examples could be things like training on new software or understanding new responsibilities when adjustments have been made to a job function. There's a catch here in that it's assumed that you know how to teach the new skill. Naturally, there are some circumstances where you know something is not working, everyone agrees on that, they all want to change it, but no one really knows what to do. In larger organizations, that's likely going to lead to a fair bit of disarray. Hiatt cites the core variables for knowledge as the "person's current knowledge base," "the capacity of the person to learn," "resources available to provide education and training," and "access to, or existence of, the required knowledge."

Ability is paired with knowledge acquisition. The point here is that there's a difference between knowing how something should be done in theory and actually being able to do it in practice: "someone who recently completed lessons with a golf pro does not walk onto the course and par every hole." Admittedly I don't know what "par every hole" means. The last (and only) time I went golfing I wasn't allowed to leave the golf cart (thanks Meeker, Burke, Shaw). But no doubt you get the point. Or if not, try this quote: "ability is the act of doing, such that the desired objectives of change are realized."

Reinforcement is my favorite of all the ADKAR letters (what's yours?) because it's the biggest lesson I took away from the book. It's really easy to set up an announcement, do a training for reps, and think you're done. You think you covered all the steps then wonder why nothing changed. It turns out that having a plan around reinforcement for whatever you're trying to change is one of the key things to get right. Completed teaching one training on a new skill? How are you measuring if people 'got' it? What are you doing 30 days later to see where they stand? As Hiatt puts it, "reinforcement includes any action or event that strengthens and reinforces the change with an individual or an organization." Another way to think about reinforcement is around rewards and recognition - tying either of those to the completion of an activity or successful adoption of a behavior. One of the implicit components of reinforcement is having some kind of system of measurement for the change. This drives accountability and tells you whether you have more work to do on any of the earlier ADKAR steps.

We've found ADKAR to be a flexible framework to keep in mind for a wide range of changes. When we realize we're going to make an adjustment we often refer to it in short-hand, which has created more discipline around ensuring we're catering to each of the steps in the journey. Whether you choose ADKAR or another of the many frameworks, it's helpful to have your management team adopt one methodology and stick with it, so that you speak a common language.