I have come across many situations where people put the blame for a failing change project or at least the difficulties in implementing the change to a lack of change management.
Of course, change management is a complex undertaking. It requires an in-depth analysis and understanding of the stakeholders. It requires sensitive and strategic communications, diplomatic talent, and not to forget training and capacity development skills. It requires patience and continuous engagement. But one key requirement is forgotten way too often:
For change to succeed, it requires a change that somehow makes sense to people.
In my experience, even the best change management cannot succeed when a change is impossible to implement operationally or when the benefits of a change are too little or one-sided.
(Senior) Management will often initiate change projects – be it large transformations or small operational changes – with a particular idea or objective in mind. This may range from improvements in output to efficiency gains to growth. Such changes usually require implementation at the operational level. The change needs to be understood by the people who are requested to change their thinking, behaviour, and routines – all the way from its wider objective to its actual practical aspects. If people fail to understand the change, they cannot implement it. Full stop.
But does that mean by default that we have failed in our change management attempts?
Good change management requires us not only to reflect on how we communicate the expected change in thinking, behaviour and routines, or the amount of training that we provide to make the change reality. It also requires us to continuously reflect on whether the change actually made sense. To put it bluntly:
A stupid change cannot be ‘rescued’ even by the best change management.
Changes in particular production or administrative processes might have made a lot of sense from top management or consultant perspectives when they were decided, but fail the test of operational reality. Changes might have made sense in last year’s business context, but fail to succeed with recently changed circumstances. Changes might have made sense with last year’s resources, but with internal changes might have lost much of their justification or potential benefits.
In such circumstances, adjusting your change management approach will have little effect. After all, better communication or training won’t change the underlying mismatch between the desired change and operational reality. Instead, it requires to take a step back and rethink whether the attempted change itself needs adjustment.
Change management has a core feedback role to play when strategy and planning meet reality.
But here, change management has an important role to play, too. Change management has the ability to close the communications and feedback loop between strategy and operations. It feeds change-related information from the commando bridge into the engine room (so from management to operations) and – reversely – should channel information about implementation challenges from the engine room to the bridge.
And here we can find the true challenge(s) for change managers:
1) How do you open up the management floor, which – let’s face it – often isn’t easily accessible for critical feedback?
2) How do you engage your operational colleagues to share their feedback, experiences and thoughts openly and constructively?
That leaves of course enough room for months of blogging. But one thing from my experience is critically important: this feedback loop needs to be in place from day 1. Good luck fixing the feedback loop halfway through your change roadmap, when managers are frustrated about telling the same story for the millionth time and when employees are frustrated about the change and the apparent lack of interest in their fate with the new processes or structures!