The people centred approach to managing change

The formation of the Transformation Office recognised the fact that change is fundamental and ongoing in the University.

Group of people sitting around a table.

Putting people at the centre of change programmes helps them be more successful. That sounds obvious — but what does a people centred approach actually mean?

Joanna Sugden is Head of the People & Change team at Leeds which works across the whole university on change projects, large and small. 

The team was established in response to feedback from the last all-staff survey, which flagged that change management was an area of concern for colleagues. It’s now part of the People & Culture Directorate and works closely with the Transformation Office to ensure the human element of change programmes is front and centre of the whole process.  

“The key to successfully introducing and embedding change is making sure those who are impacted know what’s happening and why,” she says. “Unless we engage properly with people and involve them as much as possible in the process, we just won’t get the best outcomes from any changes introduced. If people don’t understand why a change is proposed, and aren’t engaged at an early stage, we won’t get the same level of commitment and change is less likely to happen.

“Getting people involved as early as possible means they can take ownership of the process, shaping the way the changes are implemented and how they impact on teams. This makes change more sustainable, because it becomes part of the established way of working.”

What are the key issues? 

“Putting people at the centre means having clear answers to the questions, ‘Why is this happening? How will it affect me? What’s in it for me?’” explains Joanna.

The ‘traditional’ approach — where people perhaps got an email  the day before something happened — isn’t designed to engage them in the process. 

“A process or system upgrade may seem straightforward, but if the impact on the end user isn’t considered as part of the process, it can easily result in confusion and resistance: ‘Why do we have to upgrade the system? Why can't I just stay on what I’m on at the moment?’” says Joanna. “Explaining the reason for the change, in a practical way that makes sense to those impacted, is important if there is effort needed to implement the change.”

If you’re impacted by change but not involved in it, it’s understandable to be resistant to it, Joanna continues.

“It’s a big issue for the University right now because there’s a lot of change happening all at the same time. And it’s vital to understand fundamental things like whether people have the capacity to introduce that change at that time, based on everything else that’s happening.

How and why the people centred approach works

“We’ve been trying to build a picture of who the stakeholders are in the big change programmes, what the right engagement should be and mapping out where the touch points are with different stakeholders along the journey,” explains Joanna.

“Once that’s all built into the project plans, we can see when the same stakeholder groups will be impacted by different programmes – we call this a ‘heatmap’. This way we can ensure the engagement is coordinated, efficient and effective and we’re not overloading the same people with too much information at the same time.”

Leaders of change programmes and projects are realising the difference a people centred approach makes. Engagement is improving as people being impacted start to understand that their concerns are being listened to, and realise they can co-design the solution. 

We’re learning lessons and sharing good practice with other programmes, including highlighting people and cultural change in strategic communications, creating work streams within projects to focus on the needs of those impacted by the change, and integrating change management practice into project planning and governance by including People & Change elements, such as change impact assessments, change readiness decisions and risk assessments.

We're working closely with project leads to advocate for, and empathise with, the people impacted by change, and proactively engaging with a diverse range of colleagues to understand the impact on them and their needs. 

It’s already making a difference:

“We are currently delivering a significant change initiative in our planning process, which involves the implementation of new technology and significant process re-design,” says Shelley Tyson, Head of Student Number Planning in the Strategy, Planning & Performance Team.

“Having a colleague from the People & Change team embedded within the project team, with a clear focus on ensuring our stakeholders are brought along with us on this journey, has been essential both in terms of the engagement needed to deliver, but also in providing a voice and a vehicle for capturing input and improvement ideas from the wider community.”

The People & Change team has evolved from being a pilot team embedded in two programmes, to a core function within the People & Culture Directorate . We’re not just here for the big strategic programmes: some of the tools available can help teams develop their own approach to locality-based change projects. Our approach is now available via the Transformation Office Hub, including 'How to' guides and simple to use templates for all staff to access.

For more information, contact Joanna Sugden at

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