No silver bullet

Last week I said I was giving up writing my weekly blog at the end of the year. I invited readers to suggest ideas for the last six. Here's one that Kris suggested: 'We have been engaged by a client for "change management services", albeit along with design services and transition services. I believe we should embrace a change philosophy, and then use that as a framework to deliver. Others think that change services is merely a twist on our lean capability and our transition capability. I feel strongly there are significant differences between project management and change management and we should not consider this a "slam dunk" assignment. Although, we shouldn't create work for ourselves and I also think we should not re-invent the offering each time. Do you have a position on this?'

What Kris is asking about boils down to should companies have an off-the-shelf change 'methodology' for their work that is repeatable across clients and their issues. I remember when I first joined PriceWaterhouse in the pre PWC days of the early 1990s we had a huge 2 volume change methodology that detailed what consultants should do to solve a problem in a step by step way. It was slimmed down and in 1994 published as a book Better Change (still available but not in print). The blurb on the book reads 'The most important challenge in corporate America today is managing change successfully. Better Change is about doing just that with proven method, with intelligence, with sensitivity. Written for business leaders who understand that their company's prosperity depends on successful transformation … Large-scale change management is a special discipline, there are too many interacting factors, too many foxholes to approach it in the spirit of "business as usual." Before setting out on a bold change program, or before attempting to pull a straying change program back on course, you will serve your cause well by absorbing the message of Better Change.'

That was 20 years ago and the sentiment is pretty much what you can read on any recently published book on change management. For example, 'A critical area of competitive advantage is the ability of organizations to lead rather than follow changes in the market. This means having the ability to roll out the right changes quickly and reliably in a way that delivers a return on investment. Managing Organizational Change [published 2014] brings together all the different roles and functions within an organization that a leader has to manage effectively to ensure successful and sustainable organizational change. Centred around the Cycle of Change Model, it provides a practical yet reflective overview of the four things you have to have (culture, capacity, commitment and capability) and the six things you have to do (direct, drive, deliver, prepare, propagate and profit).'

Business Dictionary defines 'methodologies' as a system of broad principles or rules from which specific methods or procedures may be derived to interpret or solve different problems within the scope of a particular discipline. Unlike an algorithm, a methodology is not a formula but a set of practices. I think this is a useful definition because it distinguishes between a methodology that is 'A method, procedure, process, or rule used in a particular field or profession; a set of these regarded as standard.' And a 'formula' that gives right answers or 'the answer' 'In a formula, the same set of inputs always produces the same output(s).'

Unfortunately, there is often confusion between the two. Consulting companies typically sell methodologies as 'formulas' which will give the right answer to a business issue, challenge or problem. They are not selling the notion that application of the methodology may yield an answer – one of many possible answers and one that may not be the right or best answer.

However, that observation does not help Kris work out whether a framework for change management would be useful. Would looking at theories of change management yield a useful framework?

Theories of change management are many. Type 'theory' in the search box in the Journal of Organizational Change and in the first 10 results of 289 you get: Lewin and complexity theory, practice theory, improvisation theory, action theory, grounded theory, valuation theory, quality theory, duality theory, social theory. Further, as one academic says the theories 'are often contradictory, mostly lacking empirical evidence and supported by unchallenged hypotheses … and an arguably fundamental lack of a valid framework for organisational change management.' So that's not really helpful either.

Turning to the Institute of Change Management's Master Level Competence Framework for Change Managers I find under the first competency 'Facilitating Change', the module 'Principles of change' which requires masters to 'Understand and apply the principles, types and stages of change and develop approaches to suit the situation. Understand the tools, methodology and models to draw on when facilitating change.'

That's useful up to a point because it suggests a level of pragmatism when approaching change management. (Or maybe I'm reading between the lines here). Pragmatism is helpful because, there is no silver bullet on change management.

That doesn't mean that having some guidance in which to help clients do something differently isn't helpful. I think it is. I favour a principles based approach. A couple of years ago I developed one based on the idea (not, I'm sorry to say, a rigorous and tested theory) that 'we recognize that organizations are not rational entities amenable to the application of mechanistic change management formula or methodologies. Rather they are social/political systems based on shifting coalitions, conversations, and perceptions of experiences. At the root of successful organizational change lies maintaining employee engagement and individual commitment to the new deal that the change offers them, our approach involves guiding the changing enterprise to craft an evolving series of organization specific interactions that promote this engagement.'

We proposed five principles related to change and employee engagement:
1. Change is an evolving, evolutionary process working at multiple levels
2. People engage in change in different ways depending on the situation and type of change
3. Positive employee engagement is required as the enterprise changes
4. The 'deal' (value proposition) made between employee and employer underpins the level of engagement people feel in the organizational changes
5. Organizational changes impact the employee value proposition and thus the level of employee engagement.

With this set of principles came a bundle of work that involved guiding the people in the organisation to craft an evolving series of organization specific interactions designed to attract people to the change, co-opt them into supporting it, help them form and accept a changed employee deal and contribute to the evolution of the changing enterprise.

I can't tell you whether or not this approach was more or less successful than any other change management approach I've tried because I haven't done any controlled experiments but I can say there was no repeatable 'methodology' attached to it, and no formula either. The principles – they are re-usable – acted as the framework.

What are your views on change management frameworks, methodologies and principles? Do some approaches have better outcomes than others? Let me know.

PS. I am writing five more blogs before I stop at the end of the year. If you have any suggestions for topics send them to me.