Why Does Change Management Keep Getting Put in Time Out?

by

Buzzword Soup, Anyone?

If I use words like “Transformation” or “Change Management” in a meeting, everyone nods like they get it. But in reality, there are usually as many understandings of those terms as there are people around the table. In today’s soup of ambiguous buzzwords, change management is easily one of the most frustratingly misconstrued — and at an immense cost.

How So?

Most companies are willing to invest serious financial, temporal, and thought equity into strategic planning. But when they see their project’s budget slashed and scope start ballooning, what’s one of the first things they cut? Change management. Some mistakenly consider it nonessential. Others resolve to “just do it internally.” There’s always a “so-and-so in communications who should have extra capacity to do change management.” Change management is often mistakenly seen as fluff. Why? First, because it doesn’t have a clear quantitative value assigned to it, but, also, it has to do with people. Upper management often assumes they can simply tell people what to do, and they’ll do it. If only it were that easy. The sticky truth is that technology is easy, but people are infinitely complex. Behind every transformation — whether technology is involved or not — there are people. People who have to change their minds, routines, ideas, attitudes, work habits — you name it. If you’ve ever tried to change just one person, you know the challenge. But we’re not talking about just one. We’re talking about hundreds — maybe thousands. When change management is misunderstood and undervalued, the change is destined to fail. Without it, the transformation fails and the strategic vision crumbles. In the aftermath, it’s easy to point the finger at change management. But of course it failed. Because change management was virtually nothing — an afterthought! It needs to be a before thought, a during thought, a handholding through the crisis thought, a course-correcting thought (a whole ensemble of thought, anyone?), and that’s just the start.

So, What Is It, Really?

According to the Association of Change Management Professionals’ Standard for Change Management: … [A] critical, natural link exists between strategic planning processes and change management. Strategic planning establishes a vision, and its component activities determine the future state and ongoing organizational changes required to successfully operationalize and sustain it. Change management drives individual and collective adoption, thus ensuring achievement of expected benefits and return on investment.

But Consider an Analogy…

Any organization, no matter its size, is like a ship. Some are small and nimble. Others are large, cumbersome, and slow to change course. A large, organizational transformation is akin to taking that ship through unfamiliar waters. Real, successful transformation is a matter of organizational life and death, and the change manager is the captain of the vessel on this stormy sea of change. Their job is to ensure leadership is on board, plan meticulously, know the waters, hold employees’ hands, and navigate the unpredictable terrors ahead. Real change management is part engineering, part design, part problem solving, and a ton of human psychology.

Preparing for the Voyage

A savvy change manager sees how the embedded corporate culture might endanger or sustain this transformational journey. They allow stakeholders to poke holes in the hull, then patch the holes stronger than before. They get buy-in from the crew and plan for the inevitable change fatigue. They also assess the forces and factors within because it’s not just the reefs, monsters, and storms putting this endeavor at risk — it could be the mutiny brewing on the lower decks. Consider how engrained the status quo is. There’s going to be resistance — and not all without merit. Authentic adoption requires hearing from everyone, understanding their concerns, and bearing the tumultuous changes alongside them. Change management is simultaneously the most tricky, most crucial, most ticklish, and most delicate part of any transformation. Done right, it’s the one component constantly fighting to ensure the transformation’s success.

Don’t Go Alone

The promises of a transformation can be blindingly irresistible. They often demand we start now and forge ahead fearlessly. But a successful transformation requires planning, foresight, experience, and honest reflection. In short, it requires proper change management. As daunting as it sounds, it is possible and worthwhile to navigate such a transformation if you have an experienced navigator by your side. Someone who knows the pitfalls as well as the peaks, someone who confidently plans for the worst but aims for the best. Probably not “so-and-so in communications.” Guided by a real change manager, the transformation is no longer a deadly voyage. It’s a thrilling adventure. So, who is yours?

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