Change management is hard but essential for survival

Change is not an easy thing to manage. It would be wonderful to have a set of rules, plug in the variables, and bob's your uncle, change managed!


Change management has a long history - evolving from the 70s.

There is no standardization of change management -there are many approaches, but because we are dealing with the messy stuff humans create, it is not easy to automate.

The main problem with change management has been that it has been reactive and ad hoc. Things are settling down around the agreement that change is unique and must be addressed on a case by case approach.

That is a great step forward, but it does explain why it is not easy, and we see many companies sort of 'ignore it' - or put it to one side.

When things go wrong - the cracks appear, the management's weakness is exposed, and the business gets exposed—there are many sad stories of companies going down because management put 'change' into the hard basket.

The discipline needs improvement.

The main objectives of change management are to continually keep an eye on the firm's direction, structure, and capabilities. To ensure that customers' ever-changing needs are met, any external economic events are managed (at least have some contingencies in place).

The organization wants to survive into the future, and change management is there to ensure that happens.

A great objective. However, we now know that, as reported by many studies, there is a 70% failure rate of all change initiatives - clearly, something is not working.

The Model

Change management is based on the work of Kurt Lewin in 1947.

The model is seriously flawed; it is linear and static and assumes that one can design and rationally plan for change. Yes, that desirable automation dream!

The big problem is triggered by the assumption that 'change itself can be controlled'. That is the contradiction right there. It is like saying that you know what will happen at your five-year-old's birthday party with 50 sugar-hyped children. Anyone who believes that one can manage change through control and design is living with the fairies.

Systems Thinking

The paradigm for change management is stuck with systems thinking (first-order systems – I will explain this in another post).
Let me quickly clarify - There is 'systems thinking' and 'complexity.' 'Systems' is used in both, but the assumptions of how they behave and managed are different.

Systems thinking talks about emergence and interconnectivity. It fundamentally believes that one can design 'the system' – control it and plan to produce the intended outcomes. There is a contradiction. It assumes that all people will always behave rationally - the change manager believes s/he knows what people think and can have the organization change in the planned way. The future is knowable and 100% predictable!

The problem is that people do not march to the manager's sound of music, not even the manager.

Intuitively we know this, yet we plan and believe that if we do 'x' and 'y' and then 'z' will happen, we are innocently surprised when it does not happen. For this reason, when talking about systems, we really need to look at how to manage 'complex adaptive systems'.

Systems in 'systems thinking' is about 'control' (external designer). In complex adaptive systems, the 'system' evolves - it is about the evolving process and trajectory (learning and guidance).

The Problem

So, what is the problem with our thinking?

Change management deals at the core with people. It is not about managing self-contained neatly inert objects. One deals with 'agents' (individuals) who behave in a way that is not predictable. As soon as some small change happens (often not detectable), there is a dramatic amplifying effect on the agents' behavior. Individuals will make decisions based on the information they have just received, and that same piece of data will be interpreted differently by different agents in different circumstances.

Change Of Attitude Required

Sounds like chaos – remember the 5-year old's party? That is what one is dealing with. The attitude one should have is how do we manage highly complex and chaotic systems. This attitude is fundamentally different from accomplishing, something that we think we can control and predict rationally.

It is not that difficult. It merely requires a fundamental internalization of the way things behave and how to manage them. Once you realize that people are complex adaptive systems, the management approach must be different. You cannot use the same tools that you would use to manage highly predictable and fully-understood behavior (utopia).

Control and micromanagement is a sign of ignorance. Management by algorithms is a joke. People who like closure and cannot sway with constant uncertainty need to change jobs or, better still - consider soft skills.

The tools for high performance are ideally suited to assist with diagnosing and managing change.