Good change

The received wisdom is that the majority of change efforts fail: the commonly quoted number is upwards of 60%. Indeed I got a white paper telling me just that earlier this week.

Whether or not this is true is open to debate. Consider the introduction of the i-pad as a 'change management' effort. Did this fail? Not according to sales statistics. Is Facebook a 'change management' effort? Did this fail? Not so far anyway. Did we change our views of the financial sector as a result of a 'change management' effort? I don't think so, but society's views (at least in the UK and US) of this sector have changed following the financial crash.

For some reason organizational 'change management' is held to be a planned effort aiming to convince employees that what is usually a pre-determined management course of action is exactly what the employees should – in the jargon – 'embrace'. There may well be 60% failure to 'embrace' a subtle, or not so subtle, form of coercion. But that is more likely due to the programmatic aspects of an 'initiative'.

Just take a look at Google Images on the search term 'change management models' and it becomes clear what change management programmes look like: linear, phased or steps, levels of maturity, defined activities, and generally a kind of marshaling of the troops along the route we want them to go. It's not too surprising that these efforts fail.

But a slightly different picture starts to emerge if you think of change in four dimensions:

  • Continuous incremental change e.g. Organizational members leaving and joining an organization as part of normal staff turnover
  • Intermittent incremental change e.g. Hand written letters, typed letters, email, social media
  • Continuous radical change e.g. Stream of policy changes, leadership changes, restructurings, acquisitions, etc.
  • Intermittent radical change e.g. Whole office move to new building

People are well able to cope with both continuous and intermittent incremental change, and very often with continuous radical change. Rarely do you see 'change management' expertise called in to help with any of these three types of change.

I've observed that change managers are drawn like magnets to the quadrant 'Intermittent radical change' perhaps because it is associated with planned disruption that is time bound – like a move to a new office location, or a merger or acquisition. And it is this type of change management effort in relation to a planned intermittent radical change that I think is the target of those who think change management fails.
Note that an unplanned intermittent radical change like a warehouse fire that destroys all stock does not attract change management rather this falls under the remit of business continuity or disaster recovery planning, and it's the stuff of organizational legend how well people manage when they're pulling together in crisis mode.

So, of the four types of change mentioned only one appears problematic. That is the one where there is a wish to 'manage' it. My contention is that it is precisely the desire to 'manage' that creates the failure. Let us give up trying. Let's think about how people cope with the other three types of change (and it is generally well) and see if we can support them in getting on with managing the planned radical change in their own way as they do in their personal lives. Think about change:

  • Not as a 'thing' to be managed in 'project' way, but as a continuously present process
  • Not that people resist change but that they are innately equipped to handle change and given choice and control love change. (Who can now do without their favorite app?)
  • Not as an orderly process to manage via a methodology but as an emerging process to manage via a combination of, among other things, flexibility, pragmatism, trial and error. (How do people manage life changes like marriage, moving house, and death?) – this is where ongoing radical change develops those skills and in organizations that have continuous radical change attract people who like it.

Now think about some principles that I think are useful in thinking about organizational change differently. German designer, Dieter Ram has ten principles of good product design that are equally applicable to organizational change management (here with the word 'change' as a substitution for 'design').

Good change is innovative -— traditional change management frameworks, tools, and methodologies stifle innovative change management possibilities. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative change without the need for 'change management'. No project manager or five step program was involved in the development and uptake of apps, for example, in the general population.
Good change helps people thrive -— good change management is not a manipulative management tool to convince people that they will be better off, say, working in open plan offices rather than their own private office. Rather it is a participative process that involves people in voicing their preferences, being heard, and having a positive stake in the outcome of any decisions made.
Good change is unobtrusive -— change can be brought about unobtrusively without the need of a 'change management' initiative. The UK government, for example, is achieving significant change in the way citizens save for their pensions, by asking employees to opt out of pension schemes rather than (previously) opting in to them. See the work of their Behavioural Insights Team
Good change is understandable -— where an organizational change is obviously inevitable, for example, moving from one location to another, being clear and unambiguous about the choices that led to the decision, and the outcomes expected from it makes the situation self-explanatory. Transparency of information is one of the tools for healthy change. (Qualtrics is an example of an organization working towards transparent management – where all data is available to the whole workforce).
Good change is pleasing -— Think of a crowd-sourcing exercise, moving towards a planned new situation where neutral and restrained activity within the context of an understood purpose leaves room for employees' self-expression . This means no razzamatazz of creating a 'sense of urgency' and the 'burning platform' stuff of conventional change management.
Good change is honest -— it does portray something as more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate employees with promises that cannot be kept.
Good change is continuous -— it avoids being fashionable: 'the flavor of the month', or 'an initiative/program/effort' .
Good change is thorough down to the last detail -—nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the continuous change shows respect towards the stakeholders
Good change is people friendly -— Look at Meg Wheatley's principles discussed in my previous blog Do you have a roadmap for people centered change precepts.
Good change is as little change as possible -— Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the stakeholders are not burdened with non-essential, extra change management work. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

What are your views? Has traditional change management had its day?