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Role of change management in an ever-changing world

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Role of change management in an ever-changing world

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I have been privileged of late to have the space and energy to learn about emerging concepts such as the Future of Work, Social Business and Emergent Change, and to talk with some of the thought leaders who promote these ideas. They share a common theme of dispersed responsibility and minimal control mechanisms, allowing people to work out the contribution they will make to their organisation. Within these circles there is a belief that ‘change can not be managed’, which has prompted me to reconsider the future role of change management in an ever-changing world.

Many of these thought leaders consider themselves to be change agents, sharing ideas they have developed based on their experiences and supporting their audience to apply those ideas within their own organisations. So they are enablers of change. However they do not follow linear, pre-defined methodologies, they do not prescribe the solution for the organisation, and they do not take responsibility for putting the solution into place. This differentiates them from what I guess is more classic consulting assignments, where you are a member of a programme team putting in place a prescribed solution which the consultant either recommended and/ or has been engaged to implement.

Traditionally, change management has been closely linked to project and programme management, and so there is a broad assumption that the role of change management is primarily in the later scenario, trying to cushion the blow for the people the prescribed solution impacts on.

I attended an unconference last week organised by Agile Elephant which explored ‘what works, what doesn’t and what’s next’ in social business. I joined a discussion on the ‘Social C-suite’ which explored how to help executives embrace social as a way of working. After listening to people share techniques that had or had not worked, and what it took to influence an executive to embrace these ideas, I summarised their learnings into a well established model for individual level change management, ADKAR. This model, which is not new, resonated very strongly with everyone in the group. This confirmed for me that change management, its models and tools, has a very valuable role to play in helping these change agents to influence and shape this increasingly uncertain world.

These emerging concepts, the Future of Work, Social Business and Emergent Change, are all based on the principle of empowering people, of giving them a voice and a meaningful role. Change management has been trying to do this for a very long time, in situations where people generally were highly disempowered. The underlying principles and beliefs fit very well with what change managers are trying to achieve, often with great difficulty as it is within the context of prescribed solutions and fixed deadlines. For change managers working in these contexts, the war is largely lost from the outset – but they battle on bravely, doing what they can to help.

What these emerging concepts reinforce in my mind is not that change management is no longer relevant, but rather that there is a strong need to be flexible on the approaches, methodologies and tools used. There is no one solution that fits every change situation in an organisation, so rather than prescribe to a particular methodology, organisations should provide their change practitioners with a broad range of options and the skills to determine which one is best for any given situation. I am rather envious of those learning the art and science of change management now who have the benefit of a handbook that summarises many of these options for them.

The challenge that the change management profession has been unable to escape is that despite all of the advances made in research, thinking and practice in recent years, there has continued to be poor success rates for change initiatives. I wonder if this is precisely because change management is so closely linked to project and programme management, it is seen as a supporting activity to mitigate the risks of the project rather than an enabler of the new strategic direction of the business. This emphasis has, for too long, been the wrong way around. Trying to fit change management into a project plan is very simply a case of trying to put a round peg into a square hole. And anyone who thinks the complexities of changing a business can be neatly summarised and managed by a gantt chart and risks/ issues log as the primary driver of change is misguided.

I believe my views are shared by these thought leaders, that there is increasingly a need – a requirement – for making engagement and collaboration the primary driver of change, giving people a meaningful role and empowering them to make change happen, providing the ideas and tools needed to do this effectively, and having a focus on removing the barriers of change for this to be successful. This is change management at it’s core, free from the suffocating confines of project disciplines and directive leadership.

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