How to Handle Change in Your Community: 5 Lessons from a Change Manager

Jamie Langskov
Senior Manager, Community at Contentstack

We often hear the quips “nobody likes change” and “change is hard” — but few seem to know how to make it any easier.

Many of us are working in vendor communities, supporting products that our members use in their work every day. This means that we are also the major face of changes for those products — and the impact that those changes have on our members. For example, when a new product feature or a change in process or policy is announced, we’re often the ones responsible for helping our members navigate that change.

If we’ve set up our community right, it will be the first place our users will go when they have questions (or opinions!) or run into trouble. So, we’re also expected to quell tempers when users find the changes unfavorable or if there are bugs or usability issues in the new release. We need to assist those same members with finding help so they can get back to work feeling supported. In these times, we can utilize some key lessons from the change management discipline, a study in people’s behavior and attitudes about changes that impact their daily lives.

The PROSCI model for change management, which is where I earned my certification, is summarized by the acronym ADKAR, which stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. For Community Managers, especially in tech, this often translates to:

  • (A) Announce the change is coming
  • (D) Try to get people excited about it
  • (K) Build educational materials to help them understand the change
  • (A) Ensure that the processes and systems are in place to allow people to achieve the change
  • (R) Relying on the community and/or technology to reinforce the change

In this article, I will focus primarily on the application of these principles to launching a new community or project, but these principles can be applied to any change affecting your community to help improve adoption and satisfaction amongst your members.

1. Identify your stakeholders early in your planning

This could be your internal stakeholders in the case of launching a new community, or your community’s power users or influencers. You’ll often find that it’s a combination of the two. Here’s a step-by-step guide for this phase:

  • Start with a RACI. One of my first steps in planning any project or change campaign is to build a RACI (also called a DACI in this fantastic guide by Atlassian) chart. This is a chart that defines who is ultimately Accountable for the success of the project and various tasks within it, the people Responsible for doing the work for each task, the parties who need to be Consulted on each task for their input, and those who simply need to be kept Informed about the status of tasks and any decisions made. Once you are confident that you’ve covered your core tasks and the responsible parties, share it broadly with all of those parties in case you’ve overlooked a task or you’re missing a key decision-maker or responsible person. This will save you surprises later.
  • Keep your list of approvers small but comprehensive. You don’t want to accidentally exclude someone who needs to sign off on your project, only to have to get them on board at the last minute. You also don’t want to make every decision by committee, so don’t include anyone who doesn’t need to have sign-off.
  • Get an executive sponsor. Preferably a “true believer” in community, but definitely someone who will stand up for and defend the community against detractors at the leadership level.

2. Help your stakeholders narrow down their needs (not just their wants)

It can be challenging to help people differentiate between their actual needs and the things that they would like to see happen. I find that mapping out processes via a workflow mapping tool like Lucidchart, then identifying bottlenecks and gaps and prioritizing solving those together, is a good place to start.

For example, if you’re launching a new community, you’ll spend a lot of time in the early days of planning, meeting with your internal stakeholders to understand what needs they want or expect the community to solve for them. This means mapping out processes like the customer support flow or the product feedback flow, working with those respective teams to identify how you can help and what is in and out of scope for the community. From there, I’d advise you to:

  • Narrow down your scope. Once you’ve identified a big wishlist of needs and wants, you’ll need to narrow down your scope to what is actually the minimum viable product (MVP) for getting your community launched. To be successful through this process, you’ll need to listen actively, ask lots of questions to ensure clarity both for you and your other stakeholders, and take lots of notes.
  • Create a document hub. Find a centralized location to share notes, decisions made by the group, and the final set of agreed-upon success criteria for your MVP.
  • Find common ground. Sometimes you will find that various stakeholders have conflicting needs or wants. You’ll need to find some common ground - a shared goal or motivation - that gets them to agree to the final set of criteria. This takes both empathy and the ability to set appropriate expectations for what is and what is not pragmatic for your first iteration. It can also be helpful to remind your stakeholders that just because you’re launching without their most desired feature or function doesn’t mean it can’t be implemented later.

3. Communicate broadly, frequently, and consistently

When launching a new community, you’ll need to identify your audiences. For a technical product community, I typically have two primary audiences: internal employees and external members (customers, developers, partners).

  • Think about the channels and formats that each of your audience groups prefers to receive information and the best options for each message you need to deliver. This will ensure greater reception of your message.
  • Get to know the cultural norms within your organization and your community, especially if you’re new to one or both. While one team may prefer Slack updates, another may rely heavily on email. Ask questions, listen with empathy, and let go of your preconceptions.
  • Give relevant and consistent updates. Never leave your audience feeling like they’re in the dark about the status of your project. Even if it’s a “no update” update, they will feel connected to your project. If you’ve gone dark on them, the project will often lose the enthusiasm of your would-be greatest evangelists and supporters.
  • Plan your roadmap. This is also a good place to start thinking about roadmap planning for your community. If you speak in both present and future terms, this can help you bring onboard stakeholders who might otherwise have been detractors because they didn’t feel their needs were being heard. Find a “home” in either your internal intranet (Confluence is a great tool for this) or in an employee-only space in your community to share updates and reference materials, like your roadmap, where your colleagues can get a feel for what’s happening with your community, what’s coming in the future, and how they can get involved.

4. Partner with your influencers, share ownership, and empower individuals

Identify who the key influencers are in your community and your organization. Within your company, this could be but may not be your executive team. While you absolutely need to get your executive team on board, you may find that the most influential person or people in your company actually sit at the individual contributor level. This depends heavily on the culture within your organization, but this is an important step. Don’t skip it! You will live and die by your influencers.

  • Build a shared sense of ownership – it’s the best way to gain buy-in. This means that the most impactful messaging is the kind that doesn’t come from you or your company. Community is so powerful because we thrive on peer connections. You must utilize this to help move the sentiment of your company and your community towards accepting changes that you are responsible for evangelizing.
  • Share resources. Ensure that you are aware of and able to share resources and tools that will help your members adapt to the new change. This could be training materials (such as videos, demos, tutorials, documentation, or FAQs), support processes, or anything that will help you keep your members happy and productive during this change.
  • Know your escalation path so that you are not left feeling powerless with a problem that you can’t solve yourself. Who can you go to in your company for help? How can you help your community help each other? These are the questions that should be answered before anything is launched to your community.

5. Be willing and ready to adapt

This is the most important thing to keep in mind. Especially in a fast-moving tech environment, the ecosystem within your company and within your broader industry may change quickly. Your stakeholder needs may change drastically. Your company may be hiring quickly and you’ll need to bring new people up to speed and/or gain their buy-in quickly. You may also need to modify your plans with these changing requirements. Check in often with your core stakeholders (everyone on your RACI chart, at least once a week!) and share updates regularly with all of your stakeholders. Your flexibility and an iterative mindset will keep you both sane and successful in launching your new community.

The hardest part of any change is bringing people along with you. Following these principles from the change management discipline will make your job easier, whether you’re sharing a new product update or launching an entirely new community.

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