In an Era of Acute Change Fatigue a New Approach to Change Management is Needed

In an Era of Acute Change Fatigue a New Approach to Change Management is Needed

Mar 03, 2017
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It’s often said that people like improvement but hate change! It seems that change resistance is a widespread phenomenon – irrational to some, perhaps, but in many cases, entirely justified. I once attended a leaving party for a member of staff at a Government department. In his departing speech, he wryly stated that in his 20 years with the organisation, his job title and / or his department had changed 19 times (nineteen!), yet he had done fundamentally the same things with the same customer groups every day of his working life! He added that he had given up trying to make sense of it by the third of fourth change!

This and other examples suggest that organisations:
•    Inflict unnecessary change on people.
•    Seldom manage the process well.
•    Don’t prepare people adequately, for example by helping develop in them the resilience they need to manage the seeming constant of change.

The impacts of this can be acute and widespread: increased stress, lower productivity, worse outcomes all round – A lose-lose!

So where are we going wrong?

Existing Approaches to Change Management

If we review much of the academic and practical literature on change management, we might quickly form the conclusion that uncertain political and economic conditions make change a constant of organisational life; that the key to managing and adapting to that change is to have the right tools, frameworks in place, and the greatest barrier to successful change? People of course!

But haven’t we lost sight of something? Organisations are all about people – they are run by people and for people, so surely people should be at the heart of the process?

A myriad of models are available to help us manage change, from Lewin’s classic yet (perhaps inexplicably) popular Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze, through the ever-popular Kotter’s 8 Step model, to some of the more complex frameworks employed (one of the Big 4 Consultancies has a change model with no fewer than 23 steps! – More on that later!). But are these models really adequate to help us achieve successful, and perhaps continual, change?

Here are three commonsense challenges to these models:

  • Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze – How, exactly do we ‘unfreeze’ an organisation? Surely, many are in such a state of flux, the assumption that they are ‘frozen’ seems flawed in the extreme!
  • The N-Step models (eg Kotter) – If our organisational life is subject to the turbulence created by macro-environmental uncertainty and constantly changing industry dynamics, then is a linear, step-by-step model likely to provide an answer? It seems unlikely!
  • The Big 4 approach – Whilst these might be commendable for the high levels of structure and detail, a number of the stages appear to be overly simplistic and perhaps even naïve. For example, a stage from one of these models is headed “Align organisational culture to the new change vision” – this bothers me on so many levels! Here are just a few:
    o    In so many organisations it is extremely challenging to even identify a single, coherent view of the culture. It’s therefore (almost) preposterous to assume we can manage and control it sufficiently to ‘align it to the new change vision.’
    o    Are people really that gullible? So open to manipulation? And so willing to passively accept ‘the new vision’?

Nb. There are numerous other models that can be included and critiqued, both individually and collectively. For example, in “Beneath and Beyond Organisational Change Management” (2003), Sturdy and Grey, challenge the widespread assumption that change can and should be managed, and note a number of objections to conventional approaches, including:

  • Limited critique / presentation of alternatives.
  • Practical/theoretical difficulties or the harmful consequences of change and its management methods.
  • Change and continuity are not alternative objective states.
  • Mechanistic understanding of change is ubiquitous in OCM.
  • Pro-Change Bias.

That these models aren’t really working is suggested by a number of empirical findings. For example, in Change Management in Practice: Why Does Change Fail? Jonathan Palmer suggests that only 15% of Government Transformation Programmes fulfilled their objectives, and a further 20% failed to achieve their objectives but were regarded as satisfactory. So what of the other 65%?

Moreover, just speak to someone that’s recently been through an organisational change process!

A Better Way Forward?

So, what can be done about it? How can we improve our approach to change management in a way that brings out the best in people and organisations?

Well, let’s start by putting people firmly at the centre of the process. Kanter (1983) asserts, perhaps idealistically, that “Change is disturbing when it is done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us” – in order to achieve a position where we are all participants are positively engaged with change, three things need to happen:

  • A recognition of the centrality of leadership in change management;
  • The adoption of genuinely inclusive approaches to change;
  • A greater emphasis on the softer skills rather than the hard systems of change management.

Ultimately, we need to engender Resilience. Resilience at an organisational and individual level. But what does this look like? A good starting point is in viewing organisational change from the perspective or the employee, as well as the organisation, and understanding how these perspectives inter-relate:

Figure 1: Issues and Challenges Arising from Change

Developing Resilience for Leaders and Participants in Change
o    Recognising what we can and can’t influence (the Serenity Prayer!)
o    Handling personal stress triggers
o    Managing internal organisational stress challenges
o    Managing sources of stress external to the organisation and handling them for damage limitation.
o    Turning negative experiences into positives.

This is not proposed as a complete solution, but rather an effective starting point in better managing organisational change… Only if we get the people bit right, can successful organisational change follow.

Career Profile / Change Management Experience

Change Management forms an integral part of my work with the Open University and private consultancy. I have developed and delivered change management courses for Devro PLC, Fife Council and other private clients, and deliver training modules incorporating Change Management for PwC Consulting (as part of the Core Consulting Skills programme)

  • May 2009 – Present: Associate Lecturer delivering the Dynamics of Strategy (BB835), Management Perspectives and Practice (B716 – single presentation contracts), B628 Managing People and Organisations.
  • November 2007 – Present: Founding Director of Eriskay Associates – a consultancy and training company based in Glasgow. Delivering over 100 engagements for SMEs, Local Authorities, PLCs and one of the Big 4 Consultancies.

More details are on my website and Linked In Profile:

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