There will be a number of times throughout the year when it’s in the best interest of your business to invoke a change freeze, i.e. a period when changes are minimized, ideally ceased, to protect business operations. This might relate to busy/critical business periods, times such as seasonal holidays when fewer IT staff will be at work, times when major infrastructure changes are already planned, or similar.
What is a Change Freeze?
A change freeze is a period of time during which no changes are made to a system or environment. This can be used as a way to stabilize an environment that is in flux, or to prevent changes from being made that could cause problems. Change freezes are often put in place during times of transition, such as when a new software system is being rolled out, or when a company is undergoing change management. By preventing changes from being made, change freezes help to reduce the risk of errors and disruptions. However, change freezes can also lead to stagnation, so it is important to strike a balance between stability and flexibility.
Hopefully you’re all organized already, and you have change freezes mastered. For the next planned change freeze, you have the change freeze parameters formally written, agreed, and communicated out. Everything is good to go (well, stop).
But, if you haven’t, it’s not too late to get it done. And this blog offers five Change Management tips to preparing for your next change freeze.
1. Talk with Your IT Support Teams
In the absence of immediate business-operations-related change freeze needs, let’s consider the summer vacations as the next holiday-based change freeze. So, first things first, talk with your IT support teams to establish when they’ll be stretched due to holiday-based skeleton shifts.
Holidays such as the summer break, Easter, and especially Christmas and New Year, mean paid time off, public holidays, and vacations for IT staff – so in general these aren’t great times to be making changes to production systems/services. Thus, by invoking a change freeze, and restricting change, it increases stability by lowering the risk profile.
Outside of holiday-based changes, there’s still of course a need to understand when IT support teams will struggle to deal with the potential support impact of a high volume of changes.
2. Document Your Change Freeze Period
Once you know your change-freeze dates, and have agreed them with key business stakeholders, document the dates and times so that you can let people know when it’s happening.
When drafting your change-freeze communications, make them easy to read and understand. If you have a standard IT template for awareness communications, then use it so that it has the same look and feel as all the usual important IT updates.
Finally, when documenting your change-freeze timings don’t forget to call out the date range, if the dates are inclusive, and any time zone differences.
3. Tell People!
OK, so you have your change-freeze dates agreed, documented, and sanity checked (and ideally sanity checked again). Now it’s time to communicate it out.
Something as important as an impending change freeze shouldn’t be a one-time thing. So, make sure that you get the message out effectively by using multiple channels and messages. Use email, your intranet (if you have one), SharePoint, etc.
If you have an IT service desk area, then put up posters to help people be aware. And put a notice on your self-service portal or service catalog reminding people that there will be no business-as-usual (BAU) changes during the communicated change-freeze period.
Also remind people at the change advisory boards (CABs) in the weeks leading up to the change freeze such that no one can forget, or get mixed up over, the dates.
4. Don’t Forget Your ITSM Toolset
If your toolset supports it, then add the change freeze window into the change management module/calendar to stop people from raising changes for during those specific dates.
It isn’t a catch all, but it’s a useful visual prompt to remind people that change activity is stopped or severely restricted during the impending change freeze.
5. Plan for Exceptions
There will always be exceptions. So, plan for them ahead of time, especially such that you don’t return to chaos after a holiday break. In such holiday scenarios, the IT service desk will already be dealing with hundreds of “I’ve lost my SecurID token”/“I’ve forgotten my password”/“I need Microsoft Visio installed urgently for this new project”-type calls. So, let’s not add break-fix work that could have been scheduled better, or a security issue that could have been avoided, into the mix.
The reality is that while restricting change will reduce risk, there are situations where some work is needed even during a change freeze. For example: security updates, urgent business deliverables, or critical remedial work.
Have a formal exceptions process for urgent or emergency changes – the things that can’t wait until the end of the change freeze. Have change forms and approval templates documented in advance, because there’s nothing worse than scrambling for the right words to explain to senior management why a server needs to be patched or a core switch needs to be restarted when you’re tired, stressed out, and overstretched.
Also employ a set of criteria for exceptions such that there are clear, tangible justifications for carrying out work in a change freeze. Exception criteria could include:
- To address a legal, financial, or reputational risk
- Break-fix work to resolve a major incident or to prevent one occurring
- Meeting an urgent business directive
Finally, when planning for exceptions, ensure that the right level of sign off is obtained. In general, if something is so serious that it needs to be implemented during a change freeze, it should require senior management, potentially even board level, approval. So, make sure you have agreed your change-freeze-exemption escalation matrix in advance.
What do you think of these five tips? What would you add? How do you manage change freezes differently where you work? Please let us know in the comments.