by Beth Banks Cohn, Columnist & Featured Contributor
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap] MUST ADMIT. I’m sick of that question. Personally, I never ask it. But I see many articles that do. I’m also not sure why this question keeps getting asked. Because, change management is always changing and evolving (or at least it should be). So ‘is it the end of change management as we know it’? Yes, yes it is. And no, no it isn’t.
I’ve said this in previous articles but I will say it again. Good change management principles never go out of style, nor should they. How we execute using those principles however can and should evolve as the business climate evolves.
This latest article that I read had some pretty interesting statements in it. The article, by the way, with the same title, is by Willem Mulock Houwer and appeared on LinkedIn.
Effects of Change Management Unclear?
The first interesting statement says that “the effect of formal change management has been unclear and controversial” and then goes on to imply that it is a complete waste of money. This makes me sad because I know many of you will be shaking your heads in agreement. I have one ‘formal change program’ in mind myself which I know was seen as a failure. But the critical piece of information about this ‘formal’ change program that you need to know is that the idea itself, the reason the change program was even instituted was fatally flawed. You can’t have a formal change program to implement a terrible idea and expect it to work. The program failed because the idea was unimplementable. Was that the fault of the change program? No, it was the fault of senior leadership who decided to move ahead with this idea, even though they were warned.
You might be thinking that this is a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario, but it isn’t.
Change programs should not exist alone. Mr. Houwer goes on to say that “the track record of even well-funded change projects is spotty at best”. My question is: Why are we funding “change projects” to begin with? We should be funding business initiatives. We should be funding projects that move our business forward in some way – new ways of operating, new processes, new products that require new ways of selling. Those are worth funding because those ideas make money. But “change projects”?
News flash. If you are a business and you are funding “change projects”, you are wasting your money. Fund things that will make you money or save you money. I’m not talking about something like a culture change project, which can be seen as a ‘change project’. There is a direct correlation between a healthy culture and profitability, so if your culture is unhealthy, a project to improve it is warranted.
Focus on the Business
But back to my point. And Mr. Houwer does make this point as well. The focus needs to be on business projects. And as such, the business needs to be involved in all aspects of it – including the change management piece. It is naïve to think that you can change the way people work, sometimes in very dramatic ways, and not need to pay some attention to this. It is also naïve to think that this can be done by someone other than the business themselves. Which brings up a very unhealthy trend I see in business today, where the change management part of the project is outsourced to a Big Box consulting company and separated from the business. This is definitely a recipe for failure. If change is part of the business initiative then the business needs to be intimately involved with the management of that change.
Some companies have recognized this and now require change management expertise of their leadership. Notice I said some. Probably I should say just a few. We need a few more to get a trend going, a trend I can definitely get behind by the way.
The Blind leading the Blind?
One last point Mr. Houwer made I found especially chilling. In talking about change management specialists or experts he likens us to “blind men focusing on different parts of an elephant and disagreeing on the nature of the beast”. Ouch. I actually think he meant to say that many of us are too smart and know change too well for our own good, or the good of our clients as it were. Sadly, I can see his point. I don’t think every change management specialist is like that, but I know plenty who are. They know so much about change and how it works, human behavior and how that works that they can’t get out of their own way to help a company as they could. As a profession we need to own that reputation, because we earned it. But we also need to battle against it, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Early in my business I talked with an HR Director at a company about doing some change management work for them as part of a larger business initiative. One of the questions was which model or theory I would employ as part of my work. I told her that I used the ‘Beth Banks Model of Change’. At first she was impressed that I had my own model. But she became less impressed when I told her that I would combine parts of many different models to create a framework that would work best for them. She had wanted me to ascribe to one model or another and when she discovered I was model agnostic, she became concerned. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
And that is our problem. We need to pay more attention to what the business needs and pay less attention to models and theories. Models and theories are great. I know about a lot of them, but every change is unique and requires a unique approach. If I pick a hammer as my tool, everything will look like a nail. That isn’t the way businesses work, and that isn’t the way we as change specialists need to work as well.
So ‘is the end change management as we know it”? I think it depends on what ‘we know it’ means. If it means the end of change for change’s sake, or the end of not being able to get out of our own way then I’m all for it. If it means that we will throw important change principles out the window and stop spending money to help our business achieve their goals, then clearly I can’t get behind it.
But most of all, I’d really like to stop asking that question and get back to the business of helping companies make more money through business changes that work.