So this week Tim Creasey, Chief Innovation Officer of Prosci had a bit of a rant about the likes of the people who like to claim “Change Management is dead”, those that protest “Change Management is obsolete”. It was a good rant – the gist of it is regardless of how the environment changes (the volatility, the uncertainty, the complexity) the need to support, and enable people to deal with change, does not change. And I couldn’t agree more. It took me back to a post I wrote nine years ago, yes, nine years. In those days, the lament was “you can’t really manage change” — and I argued that meant the person saying it had a limited view of what the word management meant, and were confusing it with control. I think it’s still applicable – so hear it is here…

 Sigh. Yesterday I read another blog piece that went along the lines of “there’s no such thing as change management, you really can’t manage change, organisations are too complex to manage change. We need to find another word for change management”.

It’s a prevalent view on Linked In Discussion boards, articles, and blogs. Particularly since systems thinking and complexity / chaos science has come back into vogue in change management forums.

Well…

 Bollocks!!

You can manage change, whether it be in your personal life, your organisational life, or your community life. If you have hired a consultant who is telling you otherwise then revaluate the terms and conditions of the contract. And find some-one who can manage your change needs for you.

I think I understand where this view comes from – it comes from an assumption that managing is controlling. And if that is the substitution, yes, I would be hesitant to say change can be controlled. But that’s only part of the change manager’s role.

How do we define ‘management?’

Let’s revisit Henri Fayol’s 1949 commonly used definition of the functions of Management in relationship to organisational change: Planning, Leading, Organising and Controlling/Co-ordinating

Plan: A change manager can plan for the intended change outcome, looking at milestones, resources, stages and what it is going to take to get to  the benefits the change sponsor is looking for. In today’s project environment this usually involves project management methodology. It’s  a way of representing what the thinking is on how the change will roll out. Will everything go exactly to plan? No, never, but that’s why you hire a change manager who is sufficiently experienced and flexible to adapt the plan as new information surfaces.

Leader: A change manager needs to lead the stakeholders and key project personnel in the desired change outcomes. Many of the stakeholders will be specialists in their own field and have no idea of the principles of change, and how people react. That’s why a change manager takes a leadership role, and sets expectations of what is appropriate through stakeholder engagement.

Organising: A good change manager organises the resources, and the activities to ensure that the change goes well. When complexity threatens to drown the change program, it is the Change Manager’s role to simplify and strip out the critical path from a change perspective and wrangle the competing demands that are creating the complexity.

Controlling / Coordinating: So do change managers control? You bet. But they control by communicating, shaping, nurturing, encouraging and empowering their stakeholders.  They control by understanding that change is not a linear process and that they will have revisit previous stages and reinforce, or amend aspect of the change plan. Co-ordination requires flexibility with the changing needs.

When we use Fayol’s definition of management, then organisational change can be managed. This is of course is a nod to scientific management thinking, which is in its essence highly linear. But just because PLOC emerged from linear thinking doesnt mean it can be only used in that context. All these functions work in complex systems.

Change management and complexity

The beautiful thing about the re-emergence of complexity theory in our thinking today is as change managers we are provided with additional tools to manage the change.

  • Change resistance as an autopoetic response? Great – find the circuit breaker.
  • Randomness, instability and diversity can be resource for change. Use them, don’t lament them!
  • Identify the organisational systems attractors and plan for the potential responses to bifurcation points.
  • Don’t dismiss the potential of small changes
  • Pay attention to the stakeholders on the boundaries of the system

Babies and bathwater

Please don’t get me wrong, managing change is not a simple task. I agree there is too much jargon associated with the field, and we could all benefit from some plain English lessons. But is Change Management dead? I think not. Should it be. Definitely not.

But I also think to get rid of the term change management, throws the baby out with the bath water. Let’s do a better job of educating clients and organisations of what change management is and what change managers can do.

The tools and templates, frameworks and models are support systems, not the panacea. Organisations are complex and therefore introducing change is a complex task.

But the first step in achieving your change program benefits is hiring some-one who understands that managing change is a complex and creative endeavour and absolutely possible to do.

mm
Dr Jen Frahm – Author of Conversations of Change: A guide to implementing workplace change.

19 Comments

  1. Jason Little says:

    I’m in the camp that is skewing to the side of ‘yes, CM is dead’, but not because it’s dead per se, but because there is an unhealthy view of thinking standards and project management thinking is what makes change happen. Take Tim’s rant with a bit of a grain of salt, it’s in Prosci’s best interest to combat that noise.

    I’ve been around most of the world and there is a very small minority of change folks who take a coaching or facilitation stance when it comes to change because they’re just as stuck as everyone else in the organization. They have targets to hit, budgets to maintain, status reports to file and more and they can’t see outside of that narrow view until they see what’s possible by approaching change a different way.

    I went to a popular change conference a couple of years in a row and the first year it was more or less a zombie nation of practitioners waiting for ‘experts’ to tell them it’s ok to ‘manage change’ a certain way. The following year, when ‘agile’ exploded in CM, it almost felt like they felt it was ok to start thinking for themselves. Too many of these professional organizations restrict what their members can learn, which sounds dumb, but I’ve seen it for years. They focus on, what a friend of mine calls, ‘complacent arrogance’.

    CM is ripe for disruption, not for the sake of sensationalism, but because the industry is changing and this is how change works. Disruptors intentionally shake things up and people start to notice, then a few more follow the disruptors and by the time the mainstream consultants and training firms catch on, it’s already too late and we’ve moved onto something else.

    So CAN it be managed? Well, sure, in some respects, but not in the ways we think moving a bunch of printers can be managed.

    • mm Jen Frahm says:

      Jeez Jason – if we’re going to use poor quality practitioners and conferences with brain washed attendees as proof, we’re going to have to line up a whole lot of professions (agile, accounting, marketing etc) as ripe for disruption. Which is probably not some-thing I would argue with.

      You know I support the need for lifting change capability across the board especially as things change. Cause change always changes! I think what your comments make me reflect on is the question of “do we really need disruption” or “do we just need practitioners to understand their craft better and not over rely on canned methodology?”

      I think we have to be really careful not to confuse the process view of change management or a project change methodology with the practice of change management (which speaks more to how we do it and what we chose to do in certain circumstances).

      It saddens me you have seen a minority who actually know how to do change management well. Equally, that you haven’t seen projects go well with change management. Dammit – come and spend more time down here!

      That’s not been my experience and for every poor quality or inexperienced change practitioner I meet, I meet an experienced change practitioner who is adept and using tools, methodologies, practices well and successfully. I fear for the “Change Management is dead” folk – it’s like they are flagging their lack of experience and expertise. Because when you ask them what’s the alternative they tell you about practices which are just plain and simple good change management for particular conditions. They’ve confused a one size fits all project change methodology with what change management practice actually is. What they are proposing is actually a way to manage change…

      • Jason Little says:

        I think what I see is mostly based on North American culture, and I’ve been more or less everywhere except China and India (although I have virtually worked with people there). In NA, there’s more of an emphasis on my own individual skills and certifications here than anywhere else I’ve been. That is one reason why I think Prosci and ACMP are so popular here in comparison to the rest of the world. CMI seems to be much more popular outside of NA because I think they provide more choice an options as opposed a standard….although as of the last year or so, I think they’re leaning more towards that.

        Here’s an example. Everyone knows communication is important in change work. When I show people how to do a Lean Coffee session, they’re completely blown away because they are interpreting “needing good communication” as making a sharepoint site and sending out a newsletter in order to check the box on the change management governance pillar.

        Sounds dumb, but when they hear the decade’s worth of stories in my workshop they see real alternatives to the project-management based thinking that I wrote about here a couple of years ago: https://www.happymelly.com/change-management-is-dead/

        Much like it’s in Tim’s best interest to maintain the status quo with his rant, it’s in my best interest to shake it up which is why I’m on the disruptive side of the “CM is dead” argument. I’d like to say the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but in this industry, there is no truth, there is only belief because none of us can prove what we do is the right way all the time.

        This would make for a great podcast!

  2. Great blog and great following comment from Jason. The issue that you are both pointing to is organizations deciding to live at either end of a control spectrum. For many years I have despaired at the number of change philosophies that advocate ‘only one way to do change’ and that is to follow their standard processes. Like Jason I feel that the world is latching on to the failure of these control methodologies and saying ‘change management is dead’. But as Jen says, that is over-simplifying. Just as believing that Agile means, no process, no controls (I.e. decision making and boundary conditions) and you just do what you want I.e the other extreme end of a control spectrum (though in some cases Agile is being sold as another process model to follow……consultants making a $!).
    So Jen is right. You need change management. Just stop thinking it means you control all things in all ways in perfect detail to match a perfect vision (as Jason says).
    Change is a human based process of engagement so good change leaders weave the change in the process or system through the human forms of engagement and enhancement of the ‘thing we need to get done differently’.

    • mm Jen Frahm says:

      Ah Martin – such a beautifully well delineated response ;- ) It’s the power and the downfall of change management practice isn’t it — it is hugely complex and diverse in practice (which is a good thing, that’s where the awesome practitioners shine) – but like any Big thing we seek to simplify / reduce until it becomes a poor quality facsimile. Every day I get more and more committed to raising change capability of practitioners and leaders – and I’m really grateful to have the likes of you and Jason in that mission. We might not always agree on the reasons why and the language – but the intent is solid! And that’s bloody awesome.

    • Sonia Irwin says:

      Good change requires the practitioner to have a flexible and growth mindset to learn the mindset and culture of the organisation they are trying to assist. Too often the organisation decides its going to impose a methodology not a mindset. Methods are useful but should be more like guidelines rather than mandates. One organisation I worked with despaired over a certain method and railed against being called change immature. I was a new CM with them and went back to them with a new language because they felt judged and asked what they needed. It may not have been by the book but they did start a nee mindset approach. Methods should not be mixed with judgements. Hence flexibility of approach. And know your audience!

  3. Paul Thoresen says:

    Jen,
    Why is Tim in big beard and old timey clothes in the photo?
    Paul

  4. David Walker says:

    Thanks everyone. I won’t enter the detail of the debate above!

    Change management (or whatever we label it) can never be dead. In my view it’s that the marker on the continuum of Art vs Science is shifting much further towards “Art”. The science of psychology, process, tools etc provide the toolkit, but the application of the toolkit depends on the scenario, people, complexity and so on. We know experience is a key enabler in successfully managing change – we can teach the toolkit but experience in dealing with people and change is hard-earned.

    Cheers

    David

  5. Helen Palmer says:

    Sometimes others write what’s on your mind so well, that you don’t need to.
    Thanks for well articulated perspective Jen and the diverse thoughts of the others commenting. Such a fierce and useful discussion. I’m going point people to it right away!

    • mm Jen Frahm says:

      Thanks Helen – one of the things I am picking up from the debate on twitter on this is that SOOOO many people equate change management with really badly executed change. They really wear the scars. Change management isn’t broken but the quality of those working in change really needs to improve!

  6. Karen says:

    Hi Jen,
    Great post as always and interesting commentary from your audience. I think I was one of the targets for Tim’s rant as I have been saying ‘Change Management is Broken!’

    It is certainly not dead and is definitely required but we need to evolve along with what is going on around us. The speed of change means we need to start talking resilience more than resistance.

    I agree with you – we need experienced change practitioners who can adopt and adapt to the changing world. But I am still seeing change practitioners try and follow an outdated linear approach to managing change which is no longer relevant for many organisations. This is what I see as broken. Change management activities need to happen in line with the cadence of change in the organisation. For most organisations taking a ‘prepare – manage – reinforce – breath / rest – rinse and repeat’ approach just won’t cut it anymore.

    I think it is broken but it is fixable. But we cant fix it if we don’t think it is broken.

    • mm Jen Frahm says:

      Karen – great comments as usual. I wish I could find the right analogy to respond. It’s floating around and I can’t grasp it! What I am still adamant about is there is a lot that is being attributed to change management that is not and never was change management. A lot of what is being proposed as the fix is actually good change management and always has been practiced as such. What is clear though from the comment storm that has come from this on other channels is that there is a HELL of a lot of bad practice out there that has come to be recognised as what “change management’ is. So it looks like we have two options — 1) accept that the bad practice is change management, say it is broken, propose a fix. 2) reject that the bad practice is change management, highlight what good change management actually is, build understanding and capability of good change management.

      Both will advance the field. Or will they?

      1) risks throwing babies out with bathwater (eg we tried change management it didn’t work, don’t come near us again, the emperor has no clothes on, you’re just trying to sell us something that you’ve said is broken.

      2) If you seriously think there is good change practice out there you are in denial and living in a self serving bubble.

      [insert hands in air emoji] 😉

  7. Sonia Irwin says:

    Jen. My gut feel is that we throw one change practitioner against a project/programme manager with weighting of sponsorship on the budget/time principle and ask the change practitioner to shift the mindset of hundreds or thousands of people with minimal investment.

    Its a no win situation. I like agile methodology because it puts the user first and the change management effort should be much lower.

    Can we plan change. Hell yes. Is it a discipline. Most definetly in my experience. You need to be a practitioner with a wide ranging skill set and professional understanding to manage the people side of change But is the organisation willing to invest in the change mindset?

    The best way to evaluate is to look at what technology is on board for change practitioners? Because when you compare the maturity of professions it’s too early to call it on change management!

    Just my thoughts as a practitioner trying to build our practice stronger!

    • mm Jen Frahm says:

      Sonia – great insights, and can’t say I disagree with much. You also raise another lense with which to see this issue — maturity of the discipline, and I think that this is very valid. It makes me wondering if other disciplines during their evolution have had proponents arguing that “accounting is dead, you can’t provide accurate reports” as they evolved? I guess once upon a time the earth was flat too…

      • Matt Moore says:

        I think it’s important to remember that professions evolve is response to changing contexts. A few comments about the analogy of accountancy:
        – Accountancy developed with the growth of capitalism.It co-evolved with the limited liability company and public stock market.
        – In many jurisdictions, there is a legal requirement around certification, licencing and professional membership.
        – They started organising in the 19th century.

        Patrick Lambe made the comment around professionalisation and knowledge management (which is in a far worse state than change management) that if knowledge managers wanted to be taken seriously, they should be legally liable for their failures. When an accountant (or a doctor for that matter) screws up, they end up in court. Could that happen for a change manager?

        One comment I would make as an outsider commenting on CMBOK and the ACMP standard is that they are heavily influenced by Project Management (PMBOK, Prince2). In some respects, PM has become the template for a whole bunch of new professions – esp. those with a technology orientation – business analysts (BABOK), enterprise architects (TOGAF), IT Managers (ITIL). I suspect the engineering origins of PM actually make it a bad fit for CM but I am open to being persuaded otherwise.

  8. Frederick Griffin says:

    Jen,

    Once again, you’ve put together an excellent post around the conversation about the effectiveness of change management.
    My key takeaway is that not enough professionals are aware of their responsibilities as a change agent. I believe, once we establish a culture of change in our organizations, we can experience the benefits of change from the C-Suite to the front line.

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