Is “Change Management” Dead?

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The kick off is always dramatic. The CEO or other executive proclaims, “We need to change to be competitive. It is no longer business as usual around here!” He or she continues, “This is so critical, I’ve asked (fill in the blank: the COO, the head of Strategy, the head of HR) to carve out a significant part of his (or her) time to lead the effort.” Questions abound immediately. If the appointed executive leader has been there for more than ten years, don’t waste your time. Abandon the change initiative immediately.

But maybe the change leader seems enthusiastic. The next step is to identify a batch of internal stakeholders in the firm who will be empowered to make change. Maybe consultants are brought in. The entire group will meet, maybe off-site for a day of inspiration, planning and to create a vision and mission. Teams will be formed as a part of the planning day and each will be tasked to tackle a batch of issues in a focused area. Each team will have a leader who will facilitate meetings and develop a plan. The group meets regularly and sets up timelines and objectives. In each meeting there is a flipchart for notes and at the end of each meeting the word “communications” is featured prominently on the cover page.

After months of work, PowerPoint presentations are given to senior management with recommendations. The recommendations include cutting costs in the staff functions and eliminating redundant processes. Other recommendations include making the customer more embedded in how we plan and conducting surveys more frequently.   In addition, enhanced communications is important and more transparency is a must-have. But management has been there for a long time and doesn’t want change. So everyone goes back to their old jobs and continues to plug away at making things better in their own little way.

Sound familiar? We have been at change management now for a while and almost my entire career is about change management. Most organizations around the world have been through a change initiative of one sort or another. What I’ve learned is that people don’t like change and don’t want to change. I have seen some initiatives succeed but many die of their own weight in process and meetings. The efforts always begin in good faith that change is required. So what’s the problem? Here are but a few…

  • Although it’s clear what we need to change from, it is not clear what we need to change to. The end state is amorphous so we regress to the old ways.
  • The change process is planned to take too long with too many people involved and too many meetings. Change management becomes a substitute for work.
  • Executive sponsors lose interest right after the kickoff meeting. 
  • Change management is really a polite way to say we need to cut costs.
  • Measures do not exist or are not understood.

Is change management dead? In it’s present form, it may be. But organizations still need to change. So let’s get serious about change. If change is required, here are three simple things to do.

  1. Set up a decision-making system to get it done. Make decisions quickly and implement them quickly. Don’t get bogged down.
  2. Never put long-tenured leaders in charge of change.
  3. Keep the leader involved. Involvement is not as an extracurricular activity. The leader needs to be involved as a full time change leader.
  4. Separate cost reductions from change initiatives.

Doing those four things might make change happen. Change management isn’t dead; we’ve just over-engineered it into something that doesn’t make change. Change management may not be dead but it needs to change. Hope about change springs eternal.

What do you believe is required for change management to succeed?

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