Change Management is not meant to be a closely guarded secret, yet few understand the full extent of its application and impact. This two-part blog series is aimed at clarifying the role of change management and how to recognize and understand the best applications for a multitude of situations, because as Heraclitus says, “The only thing that is constant is change.”

“The Only Thing that is Constant is Change” – Heraclitus

Between ongoing disruptions in technology, acquisitions and divestitures, regulatory changes and organizational restructuring, today’s companies are in a constant state of upheaval. Every change impacts productivity and there is a growing understanding that businesses need help through periods of evolution. That’s where change managers come in, who are skilled at assessing impacts and identifying and implementing suitable activities to help transition the organization to their new normal.

Despite the heightened interest in managing change, I’m constantly amazed at how little understanding there is of what change managers do or how they add value. Time and again it is said that “50-70% of change initiatives fail.” [1] I can’t help thinking that the misuse of change resources is a contributing factor. The starting point is for clients to understand the complete scope of change management capabilities and when resources should be brought onto the initiative.

Part 1: The Scope of Change Management

How many times have we joined a project requiring “a senior change manager” only to find that the job was to execute communications and training materials, under the direction of the project manager? Or that we are brought into a complex effort too late to define the transition strategy? Or even that the project team has no idea what we do and uses us to manage meetings and issue project updates?

While change management has been around since the 1980s, there seems to be a limited understanding of how we contribute to change success. Even our most enlightened clients view the job as a series of tasks: stakeholder analysis, communication plan, training materials. As a result, we are often brought in toward the tail-end of a project, which restricts our ability to strategically manage change.

Explaining the extent of what we do is complicated by the fact that change management scope varies by the level of impact and complexity of each initiative. A simple change, such as an adjustment in reporting relationships, may be handled through communications alone. But a truly transformational initiative, such as merging with another company, requires a lot more planning and effort to manage a successful transition.

Here is the Venn diagram on the levels of change management support that I’ve shared with my clients. The breadth of our activities is depicted progressively, starting with the narrowest role of Communication & Training Execution, to the all-encompassing job of Business Transformation.

Communications & Training Execution

Change Planning

Program Partnering

Change Mitigation

Business Transformation

Change Review has also been included as a separate scope item, as it is often overlooked in many implementations.

Since our contribution depends on when we’re brought into the project, I’ve applied the PMI project stages as reference. Suffice it to say that the degree of change support, and likelihood of success, increases the earlier we are included in the initiative. Let’s begin with a look at Communications & Training Execution and Change Planning.

Communications & Training Execution

This is the one that gets the most head nods: everyone agrees that change managers are responsible for developing and implementing communications about the upcoming change and training the organization to function in the post-transition environment. The justification is that these materials may be quite complex or require a slick, professional appearance (e.g. videos, interactive training modules, webinars, etc.), requiring special expertise.

Here is the rub: the ability to create complex materials is not part of the required skill set for change managers, nor are we the experts at developing those materials. Being brought in at Project Execution to solely develop materials is not the best fit for Change Managers. While change managers can and do create communications and training materials, our value lies in analyzing the impact of the upcoming change and determining the best way to transition the organization.

Example:

I joined the launch of an HR performance management system after the first implementation attempt had failed. The original change manager’s role had been to support the project lead in the development communications and training. The priority was on technical delivery and the change support focused on producing instructional materials to explain to users WHAT needed to be done and HOW to do it. Key aspects of change management, such as explaining the reason for the change, highlighting user benefits and reasons for compliance were not communicated due to time constraints. As a result, users did not understand the point of the online system and continued to use their old manual ways-of-working.

During the second project launch, we implemented change management activities explaining to users WHY the change was important and how it helped them, as well as consequence management for non-compliance. By empathizing with users, and having them understand the need for change, we were ultimately able to modify user behavior and transition the organization to the new system.

This example shows that it is not enough to have a change manager in name only on a project: change managers need to be able to use their skills in understanding and addressing user needs to improve change success. If brought in too late to apply their skills, the project may be better served hiring communications experts, instructional designers, and graphic artists who can execute that work better than change managers. These are the resources that will be needed to leverage and to supplement the change manager’s skill set, which may come as a shock to the project team.

Change Planning

Companies typically bring change managers into the project during the Planning Phase so there is time to assess the change and develop (as well as implement) a suitable change plan. This is consistent with numerous change management methodologies. While this level of support may be sufficient for many initiatives, it limits our activities at the tactical rather than strategic level.

Change strategy is particularly critical when implementing complex or difficult changes as it defines the implementation approach and provides the framework for the change plan. Without an overarching strategy, there is a greater risk of the tactics being insufficient or inappropriate to effectively manage the change.

Example:

One of my colleagues successfully implemented new procedures at an agricultural plant, after three previously failed attempts. Despite thorough end-to-end change management activities, numerous change consultants had been unable to implement sustainable procedures and the plant workers continued with their old ways-of-working. It turned out that the issue had not been the change planning or activities, it was with the overall approach, aka change strategy.

My colleague spent considerable time at the plant understanding their environment, culture and concerns. She learned that the group viewed their workers as “family” and their practices were a sacred part of the plant culture. They were mistrustful of outsiders, particularly corporate management, who they felt lacked understanding of their day-to-day operations. She determined that the team-oriented culture called for an inclusive, internally-driven change strategy rather than the directive, corporate-driven approach used by previous change consultants. By spending time onsite, building trust, and having the personnel understand and own the need for change, my colleague was successfully able to implement the new practices. Months later, the new procedures were embedded and became part of the plant culture.

You may wonder why the focus can’t be both strategical and tactical during the Planning Stage. It could, but the appropriate change strategy may not be executable because of the way the project has been established.

Coming up in part two of this blog we will take a look at how to enable stronger change management transitions by integrating program partnering and change mitigation skills into the process. Also, we will take a closer look at why change review is so important to the overall success of any change management program.

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[1] Source:  Michael Hammer and James Chappy: “Reengineering the Corporation”, 1993.