Doors of perception: Why Change Management is so well misunderstood

Organizational Change Management’s (OCM or CM for short) reputation in c-suite corridors, generally speaking, is mixed at best.

You only have to ask 2 executives what they think CM is and how it should be applied in organizations and you will get a good initial idea of the potential for variety. You can try the same exercise between two executives in different industry sectors. Although the same may be true to different degrees with other business concepts (i.e. project management), CM certainly takes up a few points on the Clear/Not Clear continuum.

What’s more, the fact that CM exists today as a field – still – after 60+ years of organizational application – including the fact that it still has mixed results, only adds to it’s mystery. If you use something for that long and the outcomes aren’t improving, wouldn’t you wonder at it’s applicability or usefulness?

Which is indeed the case with CM (i.e. both that it has very mixed results and the study period is indeed over a long time period).

So why indeed, is it still around?

The doors of CM perception

Part of the murkiness around CM is that we like to be precise in business, and hence tend to run from ambiguity of any kind. CM, which loosely purports to help make sense of the social or human interaction aspect of organizations with its technical structures and systems, naturally only tends to make things more rather than less ambiguous. Somehow it’s hard to remove the variability when you have to include the people bit in CM.

Another part of the problem follows from the research story above – the fact that after 80+ years of academic, industrial, consulting and other research in the field, the results still really are mixed. It’s not clear what works and what doesn’t, with any consistency, in which types of cases. Somehow what not to do is clearer than what to do.

At the same time, there is a full on and growing cadre of change management guru’s (from self-declared to extrinsically validated), named faculties and schools, masters & PhD degree programs on the subject not to mention a whole host of certifications to pursue.

The incentive to get in on the game is huge, given a growing $100Bn+ consulting industry segment that has sprung up around it, and literally 100’s of billions of dollars more spent on real-life hard-won (and lost) change implementation trial and error in organizations.

And yet the whiff of mystery around change management persists.

To contrast, it’s certainly not like putting in place a PMO (project management office). Or Lean Manufacturing process. Change management (or its many euphemisms – organization effectiveness & change, change implementation, strategy execution, and so on) tends to have a flavor or application that it takes on depending on where it is housed or located or owned or run. Oil and gas, Health care, Internet & IT, Financial services, Food & confectionery, Big pharma, Logistics, government & non-governmental organizations, degree granting institutions, exec-ed providers… all claim a version of change management.

So do you need CM or not? And what is the same and what is different about all these change management service offerings? And what is it that works... for you?

A hypothesis – or two.

Change Management continues to have a variety of perceptions around what it is, how it works, whether it works and whether it could work better.

Here are 4 constructs that may be at play.

Not all organizations need the same change management

Despite the fact that nearly every organization faces change and transformation, not all organizations have the same kind of change to manage, implement and yield benefits from. One organization in a Tier-2 industry position trying to get to tier one will be looking at a different change (say an M&A-driven purchase assimilate & integrate strategy) than the Tier-1 organization in the same sector trying to implement a global shift from maturity level 3 to level 5 in process excellence. The nature of change and the infrastructure to support and manage it in both cases can be quite different.

All change management in organizations is not applied the same way

Nor perhaps, should it be. Like individuals, all organizations have a preference for how they take in and internalize and make sense of information, their environment and how they relate to their constituents around change. Think of MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type profile) preferences – but now applied at an organizational level. An extreme example: it is uncomfortable for an organization which prefers to work with data to make sense of change to have to engage with each other without that data. These preferences will drive different choices around change methods and the quality, type and number of stakeholder engagement events.

Choice of change management is “situational”

Consistent with the challenge above, required change methodology, skill-sets and intervention choices should be particular to the situation – but are limited to local constraints. As example, a high engagement approach to an urgent situation would suggest a more intensive requirement of change support resources than a low engagement approach or less urgent situation. The first case may intuitively require more resources than the second (which is not necessarily true). More importantly, both solutions also may be run better with consultants – but there may not be sufficient time or budget or availability. Third, either solution might be run without change support entirely – and may also succeed. The point is, each of these represent choices which could drastically alter the cost and perceived quality and efficacy of the CM solution.

Change Management does not always mean the same thing

To make matters more interesting, change management as a term actually exists but with a different meaning in other business areas beyond strategic initiative implementation and transformation. Software development environments today and historically managed punch-lists or “change order” lists to track update processes in software testing and development. That has also come to be known as change management. It’s not a huge factor, but it is something to be aware of.

Close-out and considerations

Professionalizing change management continues in its onward journey today. Clearly the consequence of integrating the social sciences aspect of organizations into its field of study brings with it the challenge of perceiving what it is and how it might be applied. Everyone has their point of view. In consequence, it seems likely that subjective interpretation of CM may always be an inextricable feature of the application of CM.

In the meantime, organizational leaders would be well advised to be aware of the tendency to confuse the ambiguity embedded in the CM name with the possible utility of CM as an application or solution to organization change. Staying clear of this can enable a path of inquiry that can lead to more rather than less helpful applications of change management relevant to the implementation issues under consideration.

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