Why Change Management Matters
Our family of five needs more space, and we’d really like to find a new house, but every time we find an interesting property advert and ask our eleven year old daughter whether this is a house she would want to move to, her gaze hardens and she gives us a hundred reasons why this won’t do. Even if it were just to the house next door, she refuses to even think about it.
Then one day, she comes home from school and tells us about a “for sale” sign in the neighborhood. And she wants to move right away! She has dreamt up long stories about how we can decorate the house, which room is going to be hers and how the big room in the basement is perfect for slumber parties. She has had a complete change of heart, and she is totally motivated for change.
In my office, I have a drawer full of little boxes of business cards. I have had eight different titles, and there are four different company logos on the cards. The only thing that hasn’t changed at all is the office address: I’ve been in the same place for thirteen years. Some of the people are the same, but my tasks and responsibilities, and just about everyone else’s, have changed radically. We’re developing something very different now, for an entirely different market, and we’ve gone from a being a tiny company of 20 engineers to being part of a multinational giant of over a hundred thousand people.
I’ve been a manager for eight of these years. It has been like being in the middle of a river of change. Sometimes I’ve been like a life guard; a big flood is washing over us, and the best I can hope for is to save as many people as possible from drowning. At other times, it is more like being in a sturdy boat: We’re sailing along, softly and quietly, and good oars and strong arms get us to where we want to go.
What is the difference? Why does change sometimes feel like an uncontrollable flooding and other times like a safe boat trip? And why did the eleven year old’s attitude change so suddenly?
I believe that a good chunk of the answer lies in two words: involvement and control. Virtually every kind of business relies to a certain degree on what is inside people’s heads, and at least in my line of business, which is absolutely dependent on unlocking people’s intellectual potential, change by decree is extremely risky. Imposing change without consultation and without the involved people having at least some sense of control over what is happening is a sure fire way of locking away a lot of that potential.
Isn’t that what happens when you feel like you are being washed away by that river: you feel paralyzed and powerless against an overwhelming force? And couldn’t that also be why the eleven year old changed her mind? She started a discussion based on something that she herself had discovered and started thinking about; yes, the basic “we need to move” didn’t come from her, but when she gained a clear sense of control over aspects of this change, her attitude turned around completely.
And for me, this is the essence of why change management matters. Wikipedia defines it as “an organizational process aimed at helping change stakeholders to accept and embrace changes in their business environment or individuals in their personal lives”. If mastered, this is what can make participants in a change process feel involved and give them some control. There are countless techniques, tools and frameworks for change management; each organization and situation may require a different approach, and different managers may take different paths towards learning about it. But take it from someone who has spent a good deal of time both in and on the water: Do change management well, and you may be in for a rather calm boat ride. Do it badly or not at all, and you better make sure those lifebelts are within easy reach.