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How to “Do” Change Management without Doing Change Management

I have to confess – I don’t quite “get” change management as a stand alone discipline.

My confusion is probably fueled by the fact that, when you look at successful organizations, one of the hallmarks of their success is that they seamlessly integrate critical and powerful “how” elements into “what” they do.

What exactly do I mean by “what” and the “how” elements? Well the “what’s” are all the business activities an organization may choose to execute as part of its operations. From strategic planning to accounts payable process execution to business project management to a merger or acquisition – these are all fundamental business processes or activities. “How” elements relate to the way an organization goes about executing its business activities including the people side of the equation and the tools, resources, and infrastructure required to get the job done (and to do it well).

Basically, what I’ve observed is that successful organizations design people involvement and appropriate resourcing right into their business activities. And, in my experience, by building appropriate and meaningful involvement of their people into business processes and activities, successful organizations virtually eliminate the need for ”change management” in the way people seem to conceptualize it.

More importantly, what I’ve learned is that when you seamlessly integrate the principles of successful change management right into your organizational culture (i.e. into the way your organization fundamentally works), change management as a stand alone discipline just doesn’t make sense/isn’t required.

Change is a constant in organizations today. An evolving economy demands it. Changing customer and stakeholder expectations require it. Rapid advancements in technology enable it. And the internal drive for operational excellence/cost effective operations supports it. Today, it’s widely agreed that agility, or the ability to pivot and change direction quickly (and often in a transformational way), is the key to survival for many organizations. Change is the new normal for organizations and their employees.

In my experience, leadership often starts looking for a change management expert either when their organization and its people demonstrate resistance to change or when the executive team fears that this will be the case. However, focusing on neutralizing employee resistance to change is, in my opinion, applying a solution to a symptom. The key to making a real impact and ensuring lasting business performance success is identifying the root causes of resistance to change and then taking action to appropriately address them in the “how” elements of your business activities.

First, let’s agree that some people embrace change more eagerly than others. A great article in the July 15/13 edition of The Globe and Mail on what motivates employees shows that approximately 9% of any given workforce is intrinsically motivated to seek change while almost one quarter of employees are most comfortable with stability. It excites me to know that this finding means that just over 75% of the workforce is more than likely receptive to change – under the right conditions.

When it comes to the most common drivers of employee resistance to change, consultant Torben Rick offers a list of twelve typical root cause issues: Misunderstanding about the need for change/when the reason for the change is unclear; Fear of the unknown; Lack of competence; Connected to the old way; Low trust; Temporary fad (belief that the change will be short-lived); Not being consulted; Poor communication; Changes to routines; Exhaustion/Saturation; Change in the status quo; and Unclear benefits and rewards.

In my experience, these root cause problems can be bundled into an even shorter list of key issues:

Communication: Much of the time, resistance to change is a product of poor or unclear communications. Recent research has shown that 70% of employees don’t understand their company’s business strategy – we can safely assume that this also applies to any significant change in the way an organization does business. In my experience, the reason for any given change is usually unclear to employees and the benefits and rewards associated with making the change are either not compelling or the case hasn’t been clearly articulated for them.

A Status Quo Culture: Many organizations have great core values that talk about embracing change, innovative thinking, and business agility however, when it comes to walking the talk, the organization, including its leaders, may demonstrate the exact opposite. Some organizations actually unknowingly reward status quo behavior despite having change-oriented core values! When this is the case, it’s no wonder that employees fail to embrace and actively participate in change. In fact, many employees will simply “wait out” a change when a status quo culture is the norm.

Organizational Management and Leadership: While this is really a large bucket of related issues, in my experience, the primary drivers of resistance here are (1) a lack of prioritization of the work of the organization, leading to employee exhaustion, burnout, and low capability to take on/tolerance for net “new” activities; (2) a failure to adequately support new business directions with the required resources, tools and technologies, and employee training/skill building investments; and (3) a diminished level of confidence (on the part of leaders) in employees and their ability to contribute to improving business activities and effecting change. The outcome of any (and all) of the drivers in this bucket is low levels of employee trust in organizational leadership.

Employee Fear: When facing change, most employees wonder, at some level, “What does this change mean for me and my job?” In addition, almost all employees will have questions about the change that reflect their own personal situation and concerns. When the answers to these concerns aren’t clear, the fear of the unknown can be crippling for an employee – causing them to avoid engaging with an impending change rather than embracing it.

So – how do successful organizations deal with these critical issues and thereby virtually eliminate the need for stand alone change management interventions? It turns out that there is one significant thing they do that any organization can begin doing right away:

Make meaningful employee involvement part of the “how” of doing business.

What if you did more than consult employees when it comes to a change in any part of your business – what if your employees were actually in on/contributing to the change identification, definition, and decision-making processes? In my experience, allowing employees to participate in a real and meaningful way in defining the new future of your business (or an important business process or activity), and creating the solutions required to get there (1) produces a better vision for the future that employees truly understand, (2) delivers a roadmap for action that is actually executable; and (3) eliminates the need for additional/classic change management activities.

In fact, taking
this one action ALONE is the most powerful thing an organization can do to enable agility because
it neutralizes most of the elements outlined in each issue category mentioned
above. For example, employee involvement as described above inherently makes
the need for change and the associated benefits of that change clear; puts organizational core
values related to change into action; allows leadership to walk the change talk
by engaging employees in change discussions and decision recommendations;
allows employees to identify and request the resources that are actually required
to implement real change; and virtually eliminates fear because employees are
able to actively define what the change looks like and what it will mean to work processes.

It’s my experience that, when this process is allowed to happen and employees are enabled by courageous leaders to really engage through the “how” of doing business, employees naturally transform into passionate advocates for all the changes your business may wish to undertake. In fact, they actually become powerful advocates and effective influencers amongst their peers and other employees.

And, when coupled with a dedication to clear, ongoing two-way communications across the organization, and consistent leadership behaviors that can be trusted to enable employee-supported change, organizations that design employee involvement right into their business activities – the “how” of doing business – generally find that, in the end, they don’t need to “do” change management at all.

1 Comment

  1. Howard Armitage
    Jul 17, 2013

    I found this to be a very insightful, pragmatic and actionable article. The identification of the common impediments to change and the single most important way to remove it is something that almost all of us can relate to and work on.
    I think that designers and instructors of “change management” courses could also benefit from this insight. Too often (and I have been guilty of this), the topic of “change management” is taught more as a separate body of knowledge, and less as a root cause/solution approach as outlined here.