Change Management 101: Empowering Human Services Agencies to Embrace Innovation

Embracing Change Management in Human Services

Change is inevitable. And change is important. But change is hard.

This is especially true in human services, where many workers across the industry are change agents themselves. When you’re so committed to empowering clients and families to change their own behaviors, it can be challenging to flip the lens and see the value of change for yourself—especially when you’re overburdened, and your capacity is already limited.

Change is also hard because change often involves loss. Even if what you’re doing today hurts you (we call it a pain point after all!), it’s familiar, it’s muscle memory. Making a change means losing that familiarity and entering a new kind of discomfort called growth.

If you’ve ever started a new health or fitness regimen, you know the feeling: you recognize that trading in your existing habits for something better will have a positive impact on your well-being. But getting started seems so … daunting. Once you do get started, it can be equally tough to stay motivated and make your new habits stick. The well-trod neural pathways in our brains make it all too easy to fall back onto what’s familiar.

In human services, the same goes for making change on an organizational level. Whether you’re implementing a new tool, technology, policy, or practice model, it may seem scary at first. And once you get going, you’re bound to encounter some bumps in the road. But change is possible, and necessary in today’s world, especially with the right resources in place to support you along the way and ease the journey.

Northwoods has been helping agencies embrace change and embed technology into their daily work for 20 years. The majority of our services team has worked in an agency and has personal experience putting organizational change management initiatives into practice. This guide is a combination of best practices and lessons learned over the past two decades. Our goal is to help your human services agency approach change in a way that leads to lasting and measurable success.


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Not enough time and resources. Too busy and struggling to keep up. Comfortable with the way things have always been done. There are plenty of reasons that human services agencies may be hesitant to change that often boil down to the same key issue: workers are already so overwhelmed they simply don’t have time and energy to add one more thing to their plate.

On the surface, this key issue can make change seem impossible. In fact, for many agencies, the pain of change is perceived as being so great that it seems easier to simply live with the pain of staying the same. But this can be a costly mistake, as inaction can hurt human services agencies in the long run.

One of the critical first steps to any successful change management initiative is identifying the obstacles you’re most likely going to face. By knowing what questions and concerns to expect ahead of time, you can mitigate risk by being prepared to address them when the time comes. A few common examples:

Why are we doing this?

You’ve likely heard of “Start with Why,” the book, TED Talk, and general concept made famous by author Simon Sinek. If not, it’s quite simple: every individual has a personal why—a purpose, cause, or belief—that drives everything they do. If someone can’t see how a change directly connects with that “why,” it’ll be very difficult, if not impossible, to get them on board. You have to connect your efforts to each individual worker’s internal motivation and values. For example, knowing that so many human services workers are driven by a desire to connect with and help others, show them how the change you’re asking them to make can help them do just that.

How will this change provide value?

Many workers and supervisors are comfortable in the way that they practice. They view change as a direct threat to their competency or a fundamental loss of familiarity and expertise. Here’s where you’ll have to help them see that the gain outweighs the loss. Similar to connecting with each person’s why, you also need to explain in their own words how the change will help them do their job better. Think about the “What’s in it for me?” principle. Will a child welfare worker have more time to spend with families? Will an eligibility worker be able to process applications faster? Will an adult & aging worker have an easier time collaborating to streamline services? Similarly, if you need to secure budget or support for the project from upper management, stay focused on operational efficiencies, productivity gains, and the expected return on investment (ROI).

How will we make time for this?

You’ll most likely have at least one person who thinks, “this isn’t in my job description, so I’m not doing it.” Even the workers who are excited about a change may initially be hesitant to get started because they can’t imagine how they’ll find time to learn and adopt something new. You have to meet them where they are. A new process, practice, or tool should be so simple, logical, and meaningful that workers don’t have to give up their already limited time to learn how to make it part of their daily routine or be convinced why they should. (Think back to 2007 and how many people were willing to wait for hours in the rain to get their hands on the iPhone because they believed it held tremendous, unimaginable value.) You have to be able to help workers think long-term here too. Even though it may take a bit of extra time and effort to adapt to the change now, prove that it’ll be worth it by showing them how much they’ll be able to save time in the future. Showing vs. telling is especially important here, as you have limited time to influence someone’s decision to accept or reject change before you lose their attention.

How will we know it's working?

Finding ways to save workers’ valuable time is always important. But it’s likely not the only thing that matters to your agency. Beyond giving thought to how a change will impact each person individually, you also have to define why it matters on an organizational level. How does your agency define success? What financial, operational, or community-driven goals are you hoping to achieve? What specific indicators will you use to measure if you’ve met them? Nobody wants to waste time on a project that’s bound to fail, but if you can’t define what “getting it right” looks like, it’ll be difficult to do anything else.

A word of warning as you think through how to answer these questions: Stick to the facts and don’t use hype. Overpromising results will only create unrealistic expectations—which if they aren’t met, could discredit you, slow down your momentum, and stop change in its tracks.

Another critical factor for helping your workers embrace change is by tying your efforts back to a very specific, well-established problem that’s creating ripple effects across your agency. (To be clear, this problem should be determined before you even decide to make any changes.) Each person may feel those effects differently, but you can often trace all of them back to a singular root cause—think lack of staffing and resources or struggling to keep up with documentation amid ever-changing mandates).

Keep in mind that a clearly defined problem will also help you answer each of the questions above. For example, being able to demonstrate how a change will solve your workers’ most pressing problems is a compelling way to help them understand how it will provide value and connect to their why. Similarly, this problem statement will help determine what factors you should evaluate to measure success.

Divider in a guide on change management for human services


Once you’ve planned how to overcome obstacles, mitigate risk, and help your staff embrace a change mindset, there are a few core concepts that will help you succeed. It all boils down to putting people at the center of every phase of the change.

Champions: Internal Influencers Throughout the Organization

Change is everyone’s responsibility. Even if the organization is managing it, everyone has a role to play. After all, changing a business process requires individual changes on the part of every worker impacted.

Leadership may set the expectations and determine success measures, but you need people across all levels of the organization who share the vision for what change will bring to participate and champion your efforts. Supervisors are often the key here, as they’re not too far removed from the frontlines and have similar firsthand experience as workers. They can help drive the energy and excitement, as well as coach individuals on their teams through change and hold staff accountable.

As you think about the team who should manage your efforts, consider a few tips:

  • Include various internal roles and departments to help champion the change and promote it within the organization to ensure things go smoothly.
  • Analyze the entire process that’s changing to make sure you’re not overlooking anyone who needs to be involved, including other business units and support staff.
  • Select individuals who communicate well, are respected by their peers, work well under pressure, and respond positively to change.
  • The person who has the most time isn’t necessarily the best person to lead a change initiative if they don’t bring the right energy or commitment to the idea.
  • Some agencies have found success adding a person to the team who has been harder to win over in previous initiatives because it carries a lot of weight with the rest of the staff if that person responds positively.

Another way to think about who can help drive change, and how people will be impacted by it, is to break things down by job role. Here’s an example using leadership, supervisors, and workers:






  • Already struggling to keep staff
  • My team doesn’t have time to learn something new
  • I don’t have time or knowledge to train my team
  • Too overwhelmed
  • Comfortable in the way they already practice
  • Nobody knows my job better than me

Key Questions

  • What value does this add for the agency?
  • How does this translate to external partnerships?
  • How will this help my workers?
  • How will this support my ability to do my job?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • When is this change going to happen?
  • What will I need to do differently?
  • How will you support us (time, resources)?

Role in the Change

  • Set the expectation (but not actively involved)
  • Connect the change to the agency’s mission
  • Drive energy and get buy-in from workers
  • Encourage adoption and usage
  • Most impacted by new initiatives
  • Have power to stop change if they won’t adopt the new thing

Success Measures

  • Efficiency
  • Keeping momentum as staff changes
  • My workers feel supported
  • Less burnout and turnover
  • More time to focus on things that matter
  • Less stress
  • Feel more supported

How to Get Me on Board

  • Help me demonstrate ROI and smart use of agency resources
  • Involve me in readiness and planning
  • Keep me in the loop about what’s coming
  • Offer support when and where I need it

How I Can Help

  • Lead by example
  • Provide top-down support
  • Communicate clearly and often
  • Model behaviors that you want from your workers
  • Reiterate the value we stand to gain by enacting this change
  • Give it a chance!
  • Provide honest feedback


Communication: Setting and Managing Expectations

Open communication is another important, yet often overlooked, factor that can make or break a change management initiative. Communication is how you constantly reinforce your goals, value, and desired outcomes: here’s what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

However, insufficient communication is often cited as one of the top reasons strategic initiatives fail, so it’s important to develop a detailed plan to set expectations from the beginning—and maintain them as the project continues.

Don’t leave anyone who will be impacted by a change in the dark. Agency leaders can be hesitant to share progress before they have all the answers. However, this can lead workers to make their own assumptions that a new initiative isn’t going as planned.

Encourage staff to ask questions or express concerns, and then make sure you respond in a timely manner—even if the response is, “we’re still working on it.” You may not be able to completely alleviate concerns, but making staff feel heard goes a long way in building trust in the project.

The Diffusion of Innovation

Change Management Graph 1

Another helpful concept as you think through your organizational change management strategy is the Diffusion of Innovation Theory that explains how an idea, product, or behavior gains momentum over time. The foundation of this theory is that some people are more likely to adopt a new idea than others, and you’ll need different strategies to appeal to the individuals in each category to ensure the change spreads (or diffuses) through your organization:

  • Innovators: individuals who are willing to take risks, seeking new ways to conduct business, and actively involved in researching and investigating best practices.
  • Early adopters: individuals who are willing and ready to change and try new processes that have been introduced by innovators (think of this group as the “guinea pigs” or beta testers).
  • Early majority: individuals who are eager to change once the new idea or process has been tested, feedback has been provided, and some tweaks have been made.
  • Late majority: individuals who are willing to adopt change once all the kinks have been worked out, but often wait to start until they’re required.
  • Laggards: individuals who are resistant to change and will slowly make progress toward the change once it’s required, often making them the hardest group to bring on board.

All five roles can be valuable influencers in a change management project based on your agency’s needs. We’ve seen plenty of human services agencies fall into a trap of focusing their efforts solely on the early adopters because they’re willing to withstand the discomfort of change and see the value to be gained. They are likely to support the journey from the very beginning and will become your most vocal advocates to help others seeking the same rewards. But the laggards also have important, influential perspective.

Laggards are typically the people who have been with the agency the longest and have the deepest knowledge about how the job and industry works. That means they’re going to feel the greatest loss when things change. If laggards aren’t on board or don’t feel heard, they could quietly, but effectively, spread seeds of doubt and potentially disrupt your change management process. But, if you can convince just one of the laggards to go out on a limb and give something new a try (and they like it!), they can help convince the rest of the laggards and the late majority to commit too.

Divider in a guide on change management for human services