Why ‘change management’ is becoming a bad word.

This is what five people, with different roles, from different organisations had to say about their change management experiences.

‘Change management is a bad word around here, we’ve been through 14 change managers in the last 2 years and every single one has failed. We’re kind of scarred!’ – Head of Transformation 

‘I have never come across a good change management approach… hold on (thinking)… nope! Every single time it has been a new person, who is overwhelmed and is so consumed by ticking boxes, but hasn’t actually provided any real benefit to the project!’ – Project Manager

‘I have seen a lot of top-down approaches to change, but never any granular bottom-up approaches that have truly brought people onto the change journey.’ – Head of Risk

‘Oh the change manager- yes they’re the person who sits a bit far, who always comes around asking us to fill in spreadsheets. We don’t interact with them much beyond that.’ – Agile Coach

‘I constantly face resistance from teams, who don’t get why we need a thorough change plan.’ – Change Manager

This is an unfortunate, but real problem that the change industry is currently facing. Whilst there are many examples of change management being done exceptionally well, there is significant opportunity for improvement – which is especially worrying when change managers may be responsible for taking entire departments and sometimes entire organisations through major change transformations.

I’ve worked with over 300 teams to implement change, I did a PhD in change behaviour and implementation research, interviewed leaders and change makers and have been teaching change concepts at university for the last year and from my observations and experience, these are the 5 biggest changes that change management needs to embark on.

The 5 major changes needed for change management

1. Change managers need to stop doing all the planning

Current change qualifications take you through a five-day training course, then Ta-da you’re ready to take entire organisations through large-scale transformations. After analysing the course content, I found a major focus on putting together a change plan for the project. Whilst the planning step is crucial, it is only one aspect of change implementation. Another problem arises when the change manager is putting together the entire plan for other teams? Even though the change manager asks teams to fill out the perfectly prepared templates, yet how are teams perceiving that process? Is it a tick-box approach just to keep the change manager off their backs or is it seen as a collaborative approach where the teams work together to co-design the plan from the beginning?

The theory is well known- ensure all stakeholders are involved. I argue this doesn’t cut it! When it comes to the change process, we need to go from passive involvement to active engagement.

2. Start building internal change capabilities & start with the why

Roy Ashkenas, co-author of The Boundaryless Organisation wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review saying that, ‘While the content of change management is reasonably correct, the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped.” 

A change manager may understand why a change plan needs to be completed and the complexity of change behaviour, change processes and change adoption, but those who are being asked to implement the change plan have none of this knowledge. So naturally, they will resist.

Prosci’s ADKAR model starts with ;Awareness of the change’ being implemented. This implies that the decision has already been made and teams have to start adopting the change. The reality, however, is that this leads to increased resistance and reactive approach in dealing with concerns. We need a more proactive approach to prevent resistance. We need to start by building awareness of why we need the change. Our research shows that when teams are aware of the need for change, they are less likely to resist change. It means ‘starting with the why’, rather than the ‘what’.

3. Moving from outcome-driven change to process-driven change

I was once speaking to a head of change to discuss how we can build internal change capabilities, the response I got was, ‘but we met the mark in terms of scope and requirements’. Why is it that these are the only measurements of change? What if the process to reach the scope and requirements was so poor that you lost highly valued employees on the way? What if the process of reaching the scope and requirements meant that everyone ended up resenting the change by the end and will not be committed to sustaining it?

When I was young, I was told to rote-learn, it led to great marks (temporary outcome), yet I hated the process of learning (long-term outcome). I never really tried to understand what I was learning and when the exam was over, that content was out within a day to make room for new content to remember. It has taken me years to undo that damage. I have had to reshape my way of thinking, to understand growth mindset, to develop a love for learning and a curiosity to know more. Now for my 3.5 year old, I do my utmost to make the learning process fun, intriguing, and a never-ending quest. I want it to become an intrinsic way of thinking, a curiosity where she wants to learn, not where I have to push her towards it. Now, at 3.5 she knows more about snakes, sharks and crocodiles than what all our friends know- combined. When the focus is on the process, the outcomes far exceed your initial success expectations.

4. Don’t settle for leadership buy-in, ensure leadership role-modelling

I recently  interviewed an exemplary leader who epitomises the concept of role-modelling. BPAY Group CEO, John Banfield believes that successful transformation starts with ‘leaders living the change’. His role-modelling and collaborative approach led to BPAY Group winning the Aon Hewitt Best Employer Award in 2018. These were John’s three tips for successful transformation that sticks:

  • Involve your employees along the change journey, by enlisting continuous feedback.
  • Ensure that leadership own the change, are proud of the change and are motivated and truly living the change.
  • Seek external agents who provide you with knowledge and support throughout the change process, but not do it for you.

5. Moving from change manager to change facilitator

As John mentioned in his last tip, organisations need someone to provide ‘knowledge and support the change process, but not do it for you’. This is a change facilitator.

Research in implementation science, shows that successful implementation should take into account context, evidence and facilitation, with facilitation being deemed as the most important aspect in bringing the context and evidence to life.

Even though the title ‘manager’ may sound more appealing than ‘facilitator’, an exceptional change manager is in fact a facilitator of change. How many times have you successfully “managed” to change other people? Change can’t be led or managed, it can only be facilitated. Organisations and consultants use words such as, ‘collaborative and holistic’, but are they ensuring the planning as well as implementation phases are collaboratively and holistically facilitated or are they simply consulting people on what to do?

Facilitating collaboration does not mean getting everyone in a room to make them feel like they’re making the decision, only for leadership to make the final call. Facilitating collaboration does not mean one person putting together an amazing change plan and then disseminating it across departments. Facilitating collaboration does not mean the executive team puts together all aspects of change and cascades this down the chain.

Facilitating collaboration means everyone is aware of the need for change, has the capabilities to make change happen, is engaged in the co-designing of the change process and change plan, and is empowered to both implement and embed the change.

This is not an idealistic approach, it is evidence-based approach. During a recent randomised controlled trial, we were able to work with teams through this process and achieve success measures that far outweighed project expectations and nearly halved project time frame. The key, however, is in the process.

Facilitation is the art of stimulating deeper understanding, fresh thinking and behavioural transformation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *