Jumpstart change management when you’re facing an unexpected change

The first steps to managing a change that is already underway


This article expands on a recent webinar, Adapting Change Methodologies to be Successful in a Virtual World Reality (April 22, 2020). LaMarsh Global CEO Sheila Fain shared her insights on learning and implementing change management during and beyond the COVID-19 outbreak, along with other change management leaders. Members of the Association of Change Management Professionals can view the full webinar here.


Change is inevitable. Change may be deliberate or unanticipated (or somewhere in between).
Either way, we cannot avoid change.

Improvement – however – is not inevitable. The results from a change can be better or worse compared to the situation before, and improvement is not dependent on whether the change was planned or unplanned.

Our preparation for and response to change is a direct contributor to achieving desired outcomes.

We work with clients to apply change management practices to improve their success and ease implementation. For planned changes such as software upgrades or mergers and acquisitions, change management is employed as a tactical, proactive approach to achieve the required benefits and reduce risks. Change is the process for improvement.

There are other cases where change is far from planned. Unexpected events or circumstances necessitate change and is thrust upon us. The COVID-19 outbreak is a circumstance that has become an epitome of unexpected change.

Even if a change is not planned, it can still present an opportunity for improvement. 

If you are a leader, change practitioner or anyone helping your team navigate unexpected change, use your change management skills to identify the how you have adapted in a positive way and preserve those as you plan the next phase of work.

Characteristics of an unexpected change

At the core, planned changes are pursued to achieve an objective. Improvement, in some shape or form, is the purpose.

Unplanned changes are the product of new conditions or circumstances. The perception of unexpected change is often negative, but that necessary pivot can be used to position us for future success.

As a result, unexpected change has different characteristics compared to a planned change.

Current state is altered

Change is the process of going from a current state to a desired state. Unexpected change can result in an unscheduled departure from a current state – an abrupt jump into a temporary state.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, the temporary state was in many cases quite different from the previous current state. Few individuals can boast that nothing changed in Spring   2020, and the lasting impacts of the pandemic will ripple through every industry and organization.

Desire to return to the current state

From a temporary state, there are two general directions to move: back to the previous “normal” state or towards a new desired state. In some scenarios, that choice is not even possible – the only path is into the unknown, with the goal of arriving at a new state.

It is natural to yearn for returning to “normal.” However, we have gained new skills, potentially become more productive, efficient and cost effective. In some cases, employee satisfaction has improved. As you define the new normal, consider the gains you are experiencing before you decide to revert to the old normal. 

Broader range of people impacted

For better or worse, change has an impact on individuals whether that change is planned or not. The type and degree of impact has a direct influence on how challenging it is for people to accept and adopt a change.

An unexpected change has the potential to impact a broader range of people. In the COVID-19 outbreak, no one was exempt from the shifts in routine, habits and lifestyle. We all experienced the change at the same time and faced the same uncertainty.

Perceived as unmanageable

Even if a change is unanticipated, the option is always available to understand, accept and adopt the change. Unexpected changes can be managed. This will not erase the challenges or risks, but it is possible to optimize for the best possible outcomes considering the situation.

Managing an unexpected change

Change management is a toolkit and approach for planned or unplanned changes. Preparation can contribute to more preferred outcomes or provide a better path to achieve those outcomes but change management does not necessitate laying the groundwork before initiation.

You can apply change management to a change that is already proceeding. The Managed Change method for change management delivers a process that adapts to your situation and the status of the change.

For leaders

With unexpected change comes uncertainty. Leaders should recognize that uncertainty is present and that they may be experiencing the same impacts as the people around them. Their role is not to dissolve or skip over the change, but rather understand it and consider the organizational improvements that are possible.

Acknowledge the unknowns

Like your employees, you may be facing personal impacts by the change. Cope with unexpected change by accepting and adopting it.

Identify the new current state

An unexpected change can shift the current state, so assess the situation to have a clear understanding on this new temporary state.

Define a desired state

One path is to return to the previous “current” state and go back to normal. Another path is to define a new desired future state that recognizes what you want to retain from the previous and temporary states, and what you want to leave behind.

Create a plan

Take control of the change. Use a change management methodology to introduce structure (through tools and a process) to offset the uncertainty.


“Leaders are experiencing this change in the same way we're all experiencing it. In many ways, it is worse for them because – at least in the normal leadership situation – they can draw on other experiences. Leaders don't have other experiences to draw on in this situation.”
Sheila Fain, Adapting Change Methodologies to be Successful in a Virtual World Reality (April 22, 2020)


For change practitioners

Change practitioners should rely on the change management processes and methods they are experienced with. In-progress changes may require an expedited approach, but outcomes are improved by basing decisions on data and process – like any change project.

Support your leaders

Leaders may be navigating unfamiliar territory. Understand the challenges they are facing, giving consideration that they may also be impacted by the change.

Understand the human elements of a change

Recognize how people respond and react to a change. In an unexpected change, the breadth and degree of potential impacts can extend throughout an organization.

Guide the process

With the support of a change management methodology, assist your leaders in navigating the unknown – from the temporary state to a new desired state.


“One of the things that is challenging for newer practitioners is to make sure they are well grounded in the human reactions to change – the process that we all go through mentally. If you get that nailed down, then you can choose a method, toolset and steps that help to enable them through the change.”
Sheila Fain, Adapting Change Methodologies to be Successful in a Virtual World Reality (April 22, 2020)


For anyone impacted by an unexpected change

Even when change is thrust upon us, we have control over our response. There can be undesired or damaging impacts, but change can also bring opportunities for improvement.

Accept and adopt the change

Accepting an unexpected change does not mean giving up. It is a process to acknowledge the reason for the change, recognize the desired versus unwanted impacts and consider the aspects that we have power over.

Support each other

No one is invulnerable to unexpected change or the undesired impacts – not even leaders or change practitioners.

Watch for opportunities

When change is inevitable, opportunities for improvement are plentiful. Change is not guaranteed to result in desired outcomes, but the first step is to seek positive prospects within a change.


“When we do get back to business as usual, it won't be business as usual. It will likely be quite different. How do we frame that new desired state and put a plan in place to capitalize on the things that are better in this less-than-optimal situation that we've been pushed into?”
Sheila Fain, Adapting Change Methodologies to be Successful in a Virtual World Reality (April 22, 2020)


Leverage your unexpected change

The COVID-19 outbreak was an unexpected change that will have ripples in business and in our lives for years to come.

LaMarsh Global provides support and training for organizations that are preparing for a planned change or experiencing something unexpected. Here are three options for our change management consultants to assist your organization in managing the cascade of changes that result from the COVID-19 outbreak: 

  1. Virtual training for new and emerging change practitioners: If you are new to change management, applying a change management methodology to a current project is an immersive means to learn and practice.
  2. Virtual training for organizations: To improve your organization’s change capability, LaMarsh Global offers virtual change management training.
  3. Remote support: Custom consulting engagements delivered directly to your leadership and change management team.

Change may be inevitable, but your organization can be prepared to leverage any change for growth and improvements.

Listen to the complete ACMP webinar

Adapting Change Methodologies to be Successful in a Virtual World Reality (April 22, 2020)

Members of the Association of Change Management Professionals can access the full webinar from April 22. Listen to the complete webinar by logging into the ACMP online community.

Subscribe for exclusive insights for change leaders & practitioners 


Related posts

The three stages of organizational change describe the state of an organization today, the desired...

Focus on a solution’s acceptance to calculate the ROI of change management.

Determine the degree of mitigation activities necessary by measuring the gap between the current...

For leaders, change practitioners and anyone affected by a change, the process to implement it can...