Change management: trying or doing?

I've been involved in several change management discussions this week. The project I'm involved in is a large scale change in the way of working. We have a lot of good business reasons to move from what we're calling 'old ways of working' – compartmentalized, individual, space entitled, fixed location, single function – to what we're describing as 'new ways of working' – shared, collaborative, no space entitlement, dynamic, and cross functional.

We're struggling with manager incomprehension about the whole thing. As a colleague said, "I think we have a major hill to climb in obtaining management receptiveness to this. I believe they are generally wary of this form of change, this degree of change, and this need for change. They are reluctant through a combination of:

  • 'rather leave as is' = 'life would be a lot easier'
  • 'I am not sure how to do any of this'
  • 'this sort of thing has failed before'
  • 'I am very wary of being caught in the middle of something which could turn nasty'
  • 'I am convinced the unions and staff will not go for this'
  • 'I am not entirely confident about my leadership team and where they are'
  • 'What? This as well as everything else?'"

For some reason people at work don't seem to be the same as the people not at work – although they look the same, have the same names, give the same addresses, and have the same family. It's a Jekyll and Hyde life. At work people are 'change averse', in their personal lives they embrace change – and often find it exciting. Out of work they can handle significant change like marriage, divorce, learning to drive, moving house, and less significant things like the bus not showing up, suddenly falling off their bike and breaking a wrist, dropping their i-phone in water, and moving from paper money to debit cards.

At work they find seem to find the thought of hoteling, or mobile working, or digitizing their files too much too bear. It leaves them as another colleague said, "Spinning in various states of confusion ranging from clueless to edging creativity"

So what's to be done? If we're to be competitive, reduce corporate real estate footprint, meet carbon emission goals, attract and retain young people into the organization, encourage people thinking of retiring to stay on with perhaps a more flexible schedule, draw on a wider labor market pool, retain our 'employer of choice label', etc., etc. we have to change our ways of working.

So I seized on an article that dropped into my in-box from Accenture this week. It announced a new white paper "Are you change capable?" which opens with the words "One of the most significant workplace and management challenges is trying to perform and lead as well as we can, knowing all the while that the presumptions by which we're working are likely to change at any moment. The state of constant, profound change casts serious doubt on many of the approaches and tactics by which organizations have conducted what is generally referred to as "change management."

The paper goes on to suggest that "Today, companies can no longer afford to think about organizational change as something separate from everything else they do. Change management must be an internal – and eternal – capability, present within the company at every moment. Organizations now have to be "change capable" all the time." The article follows by outlining five ways of getting to this using Cisco and Nokia as case studies.

1. Create an enterprise wide change network
2. Develop change competency across the organization.
3. Create effective change leaders
4. Measure progress
5. Keep on target

But none of these seem innovative or different from the usual, tried and tested, stuff about change management (see, for example, the Harvard Business Essentials book Managing Change and Transition, or my own Approaches to Change ). They are all programmatic and structured in their approach. This may be ok – at least it's what we're using to doing but I'm now wondering if there are other, more experiential ways of changing.

For example, do we need to announce 'change'? Can't we just do it? I'm reminded of Yoda's advice to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars 'Try not. Do or do not. There is no try' which I came across again today reading Mindfulness Matters and then watched Yoda speak the words in the YouTube clip.

Or could change managers learn from marketers and advertisers? What, for example, makes people want to change from a rotary landline phone to an i-phone? Are advertisers and marketers really change managers in a different garb?

Or are we taking the wrong tack looking at behavior and culture change in relation to change management rather than structure, system, and process change that then changes the behavior. After all people in the UK are behaviorally capable of driving on the right hand side of the road but they don't while they're in the UK because everything is geared to left hand side of the road driving (structures, process, systems). Brits who travel abroad and rent a car have very little difficulty adapting to right hand side of the road driving because they can't do otherwise.

Or should we take the John Kotter line and lobby for change leadership instead of change management?

I'm of the view that we need to do all of the above: just do it, act as advertisers for the new 'product', align the systems, structures, and processes, and have some form of consistent organizational language and toolkit of change, and (somehow) create change leaders.

Finally I think all of us in the change management field need to give up on the notion that people resist change. For the most part they are excited by it. We severely damage our chances of 'managing' change by this belief. Remember Henry Ford's phrase "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." If we think that people are totally change capable with our without our intervention we'd be in a better place to help them be change capable. We might even get over the hurdle of '75% of change efforts fail'. No one can be a credible 'change manager' if this is the case – who would even want the role?