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Making Sense of Change Management

Organizations are rapidly shifting and in today's volatile world it can be difficult to make sense of change management. As a result, traditional change management consulting has lost some of its efficiency.

Among change management consulting experts, there was this idea that there was a secure way of foreseeing the environment where you can make plans, getting there step-by-step. Change management plans have been around for the last 30 years starting with John Kotter and his eight steps. So there’s a lot of literature, but they all have taken the position that you need an 80- 90% secure environment where you can make plans. My thesis is that the future is filled with uncertainty, and we need to find new ways to make sense of change management.

Simply put, management methodology and the tools and methods that have been used over the last 20 years have not been sufficiently robust to meet the challenges of today’s environment. Nonetheless, many change management consulting experts are playing from the same outdated rulebook.

First, take a look at the managerial repertoire of taking the crowd along the same path. One of the fundamentals of change management consulting is you must have the engagement of all the people around. And then most of change cases still fail because of the fact that the leader of the change management fails to take the crowd with them.

In classical change management consulting cases, you have to tell people what’s going on. If you don’t tell them, there is going to be resistance. Even when there is no change management, the basic thing that you have to do is take the crowd with you. You have to inform your community.

A central fault of traditional change management consulting is its method of planning. For example, in the DDR they tried to have a five-year plan, and a three-year plan to steer the economy. The idea was that a central intelligence – a committee – would plan out how everything should look over the next five years. Change management consulting from my point of view has the same mental model: that we are intelligent enough to plan a proper change project and execute it. Therefore, we will guide you – the people, the workers’ council, the participants in the organization – with the aid of this intelligence.

But, flexibility is the mainstay today in the real world. Instead of setting plans with fixed targets, plans must resemble corridors with minimum and maximum targets, with the whole organization oscillating between these minimums and maximums.

I would also like to emphasize the concept of good enough planning instead of waiting for perfect contradiction-free plans. I once worked with a company where the management said, "we don't want to communicate something with the possibility that we can't agree on it. It would make no sense to tell the world what we are talking about. Let’s wait till we have more facts’.” This was a good idea but did not work.

The new change management model is to look at resistance as an asset that can be used to benefit an organization. 

 People within a company generally have a gut feeling when change is underway. Management’s fear of resistance and attempt to hold on to information – especially in the era of social media – will hurt the organization. Instead, leadership should try to bring the company into the decision-making process earlier, bringing people rough concepts that are good enough but not yet 100%. Think of it as a kind of change management group. Tell the organization that there is something going on. Use this newly formed change management group to move things forward.

Your employees are adults. They will know that something is going on. Stop treating them like children. Waiting until a change is completely "ready" will lead to distrust and confusion.

Another important point to address is the diversity within teams. In the classical change management model, there was the idea that if you have differences on your teams, especially differences on the topic of change management, you have to smooth them over. Don’t talk about them—instead focus on similarities.

This is like being on a bus filled with people that are trying to make a turn on a dangerous road, but everyone on board is looking in the same direction. Diverse teams and opposite points of view can be used like the individuals with different perspectives in the large turning bus, to navigate the difficult terrain.

Thus, resistance – with either workers not supporting the proposed change or out-and-out resisting it – can be used for the overall benefit of the company. The older view of change management was that if there is resistance, you have to deal with it so that the resistance is diminished. But, contrasting viewpoints is essential to any kind of change process.

Though resistance is typical, the focus of traditional change management consulting has been to deal with it by arguing over it or even attempting to break the resistance. When the old management world was focused on a new direction and making a proper plan, if there were people standing on the sidelines or even standing in the way of the new process, efforts were made to push them out of the way.

The new change management model is to look at resistance as an asset that can be used to benefit the company. The people or part of the organization who are resistant to a new idea, or are telling you some kind of organizational truth that you don’t have in mind, should be listened to and taken seriously.

The  new change management consulting involves seeking a change in poles – to use an electrical analogy – changing from negative to positive. It is not to be expected that you will have a pole change if you try to break resistance. You have to deal with it. And there are a lot of methods on how you can deal with it but not break it.

All of this – from flexible planning corridors to integrating resistance – can be summarized in what I call the three i’s: iterative, incremental, and interactive planning.

Iterative Planning is opposed to the old managerial world where you have a big picture plan or program, which had steps from one date to another date years in the future, with intricate details for the closest steps. This older model is not very agile. Iterative doesn’t mean steps. It’s more of a sprint for a short distance after which you make a new assessment of the situation.

Incremental planning takes into consideration that Rome was not built in a day. This is step by step, but not the kind of process that results in a brand new building in three years. With incremental planning, we would build a prototype of the building and then ask the people who want to live in it if they're happy with it. In organizational terms, this means building small concrete and obvious outcomes and processes, presenting them to the organization after about five weeks, and saying: this is our prototype. What do you think of it?

Interactive planning comes back to the point of using diversity. Being interactive requires using a lot of information on the outside world so you avoid group thinking and blind spots. In the new change management consulting model, you act interactively by getting input from all corners of the organization. The idea is that we keep the diversity high to avoid blind spots.