Am I just being pedantic? No, I believe this is an important point. Once we start thinking of change management as one thing, there is a tendency to think of all changes as the same. They aren’t. When we start thinking of change all the same, there is a tendency to think we can handle all changes in the same way. We can’t.
Some example changes
I am just one practitioner in a world that is awash with change management practitioners. Search on LinkedIn and you will find thousands and probably millions of us. But for a moment stop thinking about the practitioner and think about the things we work on.
In the last fifteen years or so that I have run my consultancy Enixus, some of the change initiatives I have worked on are:
- Technology led process change and business transformation – e.g. an ERP implementation
- Roll-out of Agile across a major international bank
- A business expansion project: doubling the customer base and turnover without increasing the cost base
- Rapid headcount reduction: reduce the IT headcount by 1,000 in 4 months
- Building a central change and internal consulting team
- Improving the pace of new product delivery to market
- De-merger of an organisation
- Post-merger integration
- New business start-up
- Converting a business strategy into an execution plan
The fact that I have worked on such a wide variety of change initiatives is what makes my job so interesting. But think about these projects for a few minutes. It’s fairly easy to see that the requirements and pressures of each of these pieces of work is very different.
Now consider, this is just my personal experience. If you added the experiences of a dozen other experienced change management professionals and I’m sure we could come up with a much longer list of types of initiatives.
An aside on language
The philosopher Wittgenstein is often regarded as someone who dealt with some pretty tricky ideas. But with a little thought we can get the gist of a few of them. One of these is the idea is that we group things under a name and assume that because we have grouped them there must be some common feature to everything under this name.
Instead, Wittgenstein argued that the things thought to be connected by one essential common feature are connected by a series of overlapping similarities. His famous example is of the word “game”. We all know what games are, but when we think about all the things we call games we won’t find a single feature that links them together. Instead he argues a concept like “game” is linked by whole series of overlapping similarities. Similarities he called “family resemblances”.
Hold that thought for a moment.
(As another linguistic aside, there are people who question the title “change management”. From a literal perspective I have a lot of sympathy as we don’t really manage change. But it’s a widely accepted term. I will stick with it because whatever the rights and wrongs of the name, it’s the one in widespread use and the one we understand).
So, what makes change management something?
The easy response to my long list of change initiatives is – ok then, if you do all these different things, applying such a wide range of tools then Change Management isn’t really anything. Well, here I’m going to disagree. Change Management is something, even if it is more like a “game” in Wittgenstein’s example. What links all the different parts of change management is a family resemblance.
There are some things we always tend to do when we are trying to perform change management. We usually worry about things like communications, engagement, understanding and capability development. But there are lots of things we do which we may do in one change situation, but not do in another. Sometimes for example we worry about processes, others systems, other times about organisation and organisation design, sometimes about organisational values, sometimes about performance management and often about leadership behaviour. But we don’t worry about these in every different change situation.
I believe that fundamentally what holds change management together is a bundle of related behaviours and tools. Change Management needs to be focused on outcomes and the people effected by that outcome. It is not so worried about dates and deliverables, but an outcome in terms of a sustained alteration in the way individuals, teams and organisations behave.
We need to recognise change is not one thing, and as a result effective change management will never be one easily delimited thing. It can still be hugely important and value adding.