You aren't "managing" change


I thought I would continue in the same vein as the last post by picking on another cherished management topic. Today’s unsuspecting contestant is change management. To imply that we are managing change feels very encouraging, doesn’t it? To think that we can manage something suggests that there is likely a comfortable, consistent rubric available to guide us. A ten-step playbook perhaps. The phrase “change management” suggests that there is a linear process which, with the proper application of certain clear-cut principles, will lead us through change not just unscathed, but winners at the change game. While I am often all too eager to distill and simplify, I think when it comes to change management, this mental frame gives us a false sense of security. It is missing a crucial ingredient.

At the most basic level, we can consider that change appears to take two forms – that which comes from without (something happening in the external environment) or from within (a future we are attempting to create). Therefore when it comes to change, we are either responding to or creating it – and even when we are the drivers of change, it is often due to some external event. Whether we are responding to an emerging threat or opportunity, a competitor action, a government regulation, a technological innovation or disruption – most of the time we attempt to change strategic direction because of a change in the environment, not simply because we needed some fresh air. Thus, we are constantly being called upon to make at least small adjustments and course corrections, and often larger deviations from the path. The thing that is missing in most conversations about change management is the emotional toll this can take on people.

I have seen too many companies where employees felt jaded by what they perceived as a constant stream of change initiatives that seem disconnected from each other and disconnected from some broader purpose or guiding tenet. There are two possibilities operating here – the first is that these change plans are in fact desperate attempts to “do something, anything!” by a leadership team at a loss for how to deal with rapid-fire fluctuations in the business environment. The second is that there is a thoughtful stratagem behind the impetus, but employees are in the dark. While the first scenario happens distressingly often, the latter is the more likely. An alarmingly low percentage of employees understand their organization’s vision and strategy. Without appreciating change within a framework that they understand and support, constant course corrections are enervating versus energizing.

This lack of understanding highlights why I think the term “change management” is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Much of the time, we cannot shape the change to which we are responding – we can only shape our response. And if the people whose behavior we are calling upon to change think leadership is a bunch of chumps doling out change initiatives willy nilly, they are not likely to change their behavior to support change efforts. If we lose sight of the fact that it is human behavior that will implement the plans, we lose sight of what precisely we need to “manage.” Thus, if anything, we need to manage people, not change.

But I would go farther and suggest that while we can perhaps manage people’s performance, we can’t manage their responses to change – we can perhaps manage behavior, but not their hearts. A printed sheaf of nicely worded objectives and plans does not create change. Transformation takes more than a formally articulated communication plan. It requires that we address the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of the people you will call upon to change their behavior as a result. We need to answer for people the following questions:

  • What are the guiding principles on which we are basing our strategic decisions?
  • How does this initiative link back to what was previously articulated?
  • What do I need to do differently?
  • What’s in it for me?

People need to have a compelling reason to do anything, especially if that anything demands more of them, as change often does. Plans and timelines are helpful, but they are not compelling. They will not entice people to change their ways or put in extra effort. Change management is boring! So let’s not talk about “managing” change. Let’s talk about inspiring hearts, harnessing minds, and guiding hands to realize a vision for the future.

“Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” ~Sydney J. Harris

“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” ~Arnold Bennett

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” ~Alvin Toffler