What Makes Change Management Different than Other Techniques to Improve Productivity, Engagement, and Bring about Change?

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Back in the 1990s, it seemed like every consulting firm was clamoring to create a change management practice. At the time, I applauded this. I thought, wow, all of these big firms are going to be taking the change leadership and management aspects of projects seriously. I was wrong.

In many cases, change management was treated as yet another new technique. I recall a friend, who worked for one of the large firms, saying that change management got called in when people needed a break. They came in and administered personality assessments, conducted team building activities, and taught a little about effective change management. Nothing wrong with any of those things, of course. It’s just that it sends the wrong messages. It suggests that change management is indeed just another technique. Yet another thing to add onto an already packed agenda. And it sends the message that change management is one of those nice-to-have events, but certainly not something that is central to the work of getting a new project up and running.

No wonder people are skeptical when their boss hires yet another change management consulting firm. I’m skeptical too, and advising leaders on building support for changes what I do for a living. How sick is that?

Here is a suggestion:

Understand that attention to the human part of change is critically important to the success of your projects. It makes no difference if that major new initiative is enterprise resource planning, sophisticated quality and productivity processes such as LEAN/6 Sigma, reorganizations, merger integration, or anything else that requires the support of various individuals and groups.

Think of change management or change leadership, if you will, as something you need to attend to in every meeting and at every stage of the change.

There are two basic questions that good change management approaches can help you answer:
• Why do we think people might support this change?
• Why might they resist it?

So, imagine you’re in a planning meeting, and you’ve just created a very sophisticated Gantt chart. It looks good. You’d certainly have gotten an A in that MBA session you had on change a while back. But before you congratulate yourself on your fine work, ask those two questions. Are people likely to support this change or are they likely to resist it? And don’t lump everybody into a single category. Identify key stakeholders – not just the usual suspects who will agree with anything you say – but real stakeholders. And ask, how do we think Mary and her team will react to this plan? Often I encourage my clients to slowdown and ask those questions. This can lead to pretty rich conversations about the reasons why people might support or resist this project. And, as Yogi Berra once said, it gives them “deep depth” regarding the human aspects of leading change. The good news is that with that little bit of extra conversation they are often able to tweak plans in ways that increase the likelihood that Mary’s gang will support them.

Of course there are some sophisticated change management processes out there. I am particularly fond of some of the approaches that go under the heading of large systems change, where you get a few hundred people in the room who represent all levels of the organization to help you plan the change. These large system events are complex, can take a long time to plan, and demand highly skilled facilitators to make them work. Sometimes that may be the ideal approach. But, at other times, you may not need to do something so elaborate. You and your team might be able to ask those two questions and shape a sound change strategy simply based on what you just learned about potential support and resistance.

Skeptical? Here’s a simple test. During the next planning meeting you attend, just ask yourself – and the group – are people likely to support this plan? Or, are they likely to resist? And see if, just by asking those questions, you don’t improve the quality of the planning conversation. It’s a simple test, and won’t cost you anything. I hope you’ll give it a try.