Compared to other disciplines such as project management or functions such as HR or finance, change management can appear as a nebulous bundle of bits and pieces. Depending on who you talk to, different bits and pieces may be promoted as core to change management. There can sometimes be the suspicion, especially when consultants are involved, that change management is just another form of management snake oil – creating work where none is needed.
If you sometimes feel like that I am sympathetic to your feeling, and change managers don’t always help in removing these feelings. But change management is a very valuable discipline that reduces risks, improves outcomes and speeds benefits realization.
Change management is an increasingly mature discipline with, for example, codified competency and organizational maturity models from groups such as the Change Management Institute. It has been around in one form or another for a long time. For instance, key elements of change management thinking can be found in the writings of Kurt Lewin from the 1940s and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross from the 1960s.
If you read a lot of the material you can get a comfortable sense that change management is important and useful. This is helped by platitudes like “there’s no constant but change” or “the pace of change is ever increasing”. But if you are put on the spot and asked what’s the point of change management it can be a struggle to explain. And that’s a shame as this can devalue what is a very valuable capability.
So what is the point?
The best way to explain what the point of change management is, is to consider what happens when a change occurs.
Change happens when people start doing something new, or something old in a new way. There seem to be countless examples of change possible, and in our lives we undergo some form of change in many ways. Change management is mostly applied in the organizational or business context.
In a business context, change is usually planned because we have a performance level of say “x” in doing some task, and we think we can get to performance level “y” by making a change. If only it was so easy! In practice, when change is implemented a few things tend to occur:
1.Before the change is implemented some people may not like what is being done to achieve performance level “y”. They create noise and disruption in the organization.
2.At the point of implementing the change there tends to be a dip in performance – below the original performance level “x”. This dip comes about for a varied reasons. It may be to do with understanding and skills, it could be because of mood and motivation, or it can be because a change has a negative impact on something no-one has thought about. Additionally, change may lead to dips in performance in other parts of an organization not originally considered as part of the change.
3.It takes some time to get over this dip, and for performance to rise to a new level “y”. Sometimes “y” is never achieved.
4.Even if “y” is achieved, change has a habit of unravelling and being forgotten. Often, sometime after the change is implemented, performance has returned to what it was before the change started – i.e. back down to “x”.
If we consider these four things it becomes easy to define the point of change management as:
1.Analysing the noise and disruption that comes about during change and working out if it is a reasonable rejection of a poor change or an unreasonable rejection of a good change – and taking appropriate action.
2.Making sure the dip in performance after change is implemented is as short and shallow as possible – ideally removing it altogether.
3.Making the journey to performance level “y” as quick and painless as possible, whilst minimising collateral damage on other parts of the organization.
4.Making sure that the improvement is sustained once the change initiative is complete and everyone is focusing on the next set of projects.
This may sound like magic. It isn’t. Change management is a practical discipline with its feet firmly on the ground. In achieving these four things change managers listen a lot, assess what is really possible and manage expectations. They work out how well prepared an organization is for change and how capable it is of achieving it. They determine what the impact of the change is and what needs to happen so points 1, 2, 3 and 4 are achieved. They try to make sure an initiative or project implementing the change takes account of all those things that need to happen. They bring some tools and techniques that help in achieving this.
And that is of great value.
(As an aside, I have avoided the discussion as to whether you can really “manage” change. If you use the word “manage” in a specific way, then you cannot. But then there are a whole load of other things that you cannot really manage, if we are using “manage” to mean control completely and to give predictive certainty. Anyone who has been involved in change knows you cannot manage it in this sense. That does not mean there is no role for change management, as long as we accept that change management is about guiding, helping, reducing risk and increasing the likelihood that we achieve a desired outcome).
Richard Newton is an author, consultant and program director. He has written 12 books, which have won awards and been translated many times. His latest book “Managing Your Team Through Change” explores the challenge of delivering change for team leaders and middle managers. It was published in December 2014.