Why traditional change management fails

Dec 06 2008, 00:25 IST
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SummaryMost organisations today would have had to initiate some change effort in order to remain relevant. All have been affected by the global meltdown and industry specific forces of change, and all have struggled to respond in a way that preserves or enhances overall organisational performance.

Most organisations today would have had to initiate some change effort in order to remain relevant. All have been affected by the global meltdown and industry specific forces of change, and all have struggled to respond in a way that preserves or enhances overall organisational performance. However, traditional change management approaches have not been adequate to help leaders and organisations navigate the choppy waters of large-scale change because of a variety of limitations. Too often, we treat change as a linear event to be managed from start to finish. Change is seen as something that people at the top of the organisation tell the leaders in the middle to do to everyone else. Change management is perceived as being removed from the ‘real work’ of the organisation.

Change is messy

Many of our traditional ideas about change management were built on Kurt Lewin’s model of change, which said that in order to change, you needed to ‘unfreeze’ the current state, go through a transition phase, and then ‘refreeze’ into the desired future state. This model looks like ‘the good old days’ to us today—there is rarely a chance to ‘refreeze’ before the next wave of change hits the organisation. Instead of changing from ‘ice’ to ‘water’ and then back to ‘ice’, what we’re left with is a constant state of transition that never has a chance to solidify. Instead, then, of focusing on getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’, we need to focus on going from ‘A’ to Agility. Organisational agility is having the attitudes, processes, and energy to execute new business strategies quickly and effectively. An agile organisation is one that sees change as an ongoing reality and the change process as iterative and sometimes ‘messy’.

Change is good

It has been said that people naturally resist change, and while this seems to be true in many cases, it is also only a partial truth. Most of us like change if we initiate it and are part of it—but not if it is “done to us.” This suggests a need for a different approach that emphasises greater involvement in the decisions that lead to change, as well as a new emphasis on an old concept, namely communications. We have all heard that it’s impossible for leaders to communicate too much, especially in times of change. Consider a different twist: it’s impossible for leaders to listen too much during times of great uncertainty and change.

People need information, and people need to talk about it and be heard. This suggests the need for robust three-way communications around change: up, down, and across the organisation. The biggest temptation for leaders is to delay communications until they have all the answers; in times of uncertainty, it’s better to be visible and say, “We don’t have all the answers yet.”

...And not an ‘add-on’ initiative

Too often in the past, ‘change’ has been organised outside of the existing structure and real work of the business. As with quality improvement efforts in the 1980’s, this approach has limitations. When people are given change work to do in addition to their ‘day jobs’, when the change initiative lacks real senior management involvement, and when it is viewed as a discrete event to be survived and then forgotten, change efforts lack leverage and simply don’t produce the intended business results.

Effective change management is a “need to have,” not a “nice to have” component of a major organisational shift. It’s particularly important, given the unrelenting nature of change efforts in a broader context. What have we learned from this change that we can apply to the next one? Where and how are those learnings captured? How have we built our organisational and personal agility so that we can move through the next major change more quickly and smoothly? How can we reduce the cycle time for the next change?

It’s important to address these questions and move beyond the traditional change management approach to building agility in the organisation.

The author is country head & market general manager, Right Management India

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