Change management really isn’t

There are many purported experts on the subject of “change management,” most of whom have only advised on the topic, rather than invested their own money in an effort to change an organization consciously. You can instantly tell if someone has been personally involved in an organizational change experience or not, from the leadership perspective, and whether or not they have placed personal assets at risk in the process.

The pundit perspective is based on books, survey research, academic debate and the examination of other people’s experiences through packaged case studies. The invested perspective is based on the economic and personal imperative that drove the need to make the changes. The first is observational, the second intimately experiential.

What becomes clear as the fundamental difference in these two approaches is that the peripheral advisor believes that organizational change can be planned, staged and implemented in a methodical sequence that considers the humans involved as mechanical elements easily controlled.

The experienced, personally involved leader of organizational change knows that humans are dynamic, changing ingredients of themselves, resistant to prediction or strict control.

Change management reached the status of a named industry in the early 1980s, led primarily by the large accounting firms who began to develop lucrative consulting practice groups. McKinsey also led the way, whose consultant Julien Phillips first published a change management model in 1982 in the journal Human Resource Management. Since that time, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on hiring consultants to assist in the act of changing an organization’s functional, structural and personal design.

Most formalized “change management” recipes include:

Assessing the organization’s “readiness” for the changes (which may involve personal interviews or surveys); Identifying the motivational factors which would smooth the adoption of the changes (what’s in it for the people affected);

Involving the affected parties in designing the changes, establishing the metrics for evaluating the success or failure of the changes implemented and allowing for adjustment to correct “errors” resulting from the changes.

Some consulting firms also recommend providing counseling and emotional support to the people who perceive the changes as personally threatening or disquieting.

All of that sounds reasonable and appropriate, if you ignore the reality that while the change management process is proceeding, the business can’t stand still.

Changing organizational structure, adjusting employee responsibilities and teaching people new methods or processes must be done while the business continues generating revenue and profitability.

It’s like changing the tires on a car while it’s still moving. If the prescribed models of the change management industry were followed to the letter, the company involved would have to shut down the affected groups to do it right. Or they would have to accept much higher operating costs and reduced business performance during the change effort.

Only extremely large companies could afford that type of duplication of effort and loss of financial results. And if you talk to the people involved in such managed change, most of the time their view of the process is cynically negative.

One person I talked to years ago put it this way, “We had to do our regular jobs, plus spend lots of time with the consultants, complete surveys, attend additional meetings and provide all kinds of input, not much of which was ever used. We would have rather our leaders explained the need for the change, told us what was going to be changing and asked our help to get it done. We would have saved countless hours and dollars.”

If the leaders in an organization have led well, they will have continually involved their staff in the work and shared information. They would have continually educated employees on the nature of the business and included them in as many decisions as they could. They would have spent lots of time and energy ensuring that the people in the company fit the business and its culture. They would have created an environment of adaptability and readiness for change.

These are things good leaders do all the time.

If a company’s leaders act with this type of philosophy, it’s not necessary to delegate the “management” of change to outside consultants or to employ some detailed project structure to the act of retooling the organization. The time and effort should be spent truly assessing the business need for the changes. As the old cabinet maker once said, “Measure twice, cut once.” Before the change is implemented, it’s necessary to ensure that the changes anticipated address fundamental strategic needs of the business. It might take years to continually assess organizational fit to the industry and market developments.

Leaders and their teams being continually challenged to question structural and functional design don’t need to fill out a survey. They’ve been analyzing the question as an ongoing part of their daily responsibilities and are invited to share their opinions all the time.

But once clarity is achieved that changes are required and identified, change must happen as quickly as possible, so that the business experiences minimal disruption and everyone can quickly move on to new accountabilities, methods and processes.

There will still be emotional attachment to the past. There will be both anxiety and excitement about the future. That is human nature and normal. People don’t need to be counseled to reduce their human responses. Leaders need to acknowledge them and keep the illumination on the future.

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at

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