Cracking the myths of change management: part 1

“The only constant is change” if I hear this well-worn platitude one more time I am going to become a hermit on Seroe Crystal in Aruba and stare out at the sea in contemplation of nature for the rest of my life. There are too many myths surrounding the discipline of change management, and in this series I would like to shake your cage as well as my own, face these myths head on and offer some practical alternatives. And get you in on the act through your responses. Shall we?

Change management myth number 1: “You can actually manage change.”

This is a complete and utter fallacy if you take it to mean that you can manage how, when and to what extent people change.

Here’s the insight that continually escapes those well-meaning process fans who throw slide-decks, required training and town halls at people who are expected to magically change their working lives once enlightened by all this well thought out information: people manage change themselves, oftentimes by themselves.

They have been doing so since birth – consider the fact that from the moment you are born you change – and to the best of your knowledge you handle this, time and again, learning by doing, by getting up after falling down, and deciding for or against taking on board what others are telling you. People do not need you to manage them through that process – in fact, you’ll disempower them if you do.

So what can you manage? The conditions under which people change:

You can ensure that the why, what and how of the change is made available in interactive dialogue form.

You can build an infrastructure of early adopters who have already seen the light and who can function as beacons for those not yet ready to take the change on board.

You can build the storyline of the change together with people who will be impacted by it and who know much more than you ever will what it will mean on the floor.

You can realize that anyone going through a change needs to first understand it, then form a perspective (opinion), share that perspective with others (alignment) and then become ready to act. Adjust your moments of communication and workshopping. Communicate accordingly and have dialogues so they can internalize the change through repetition and go through the four steps just outlined.

You can involve impacted stakeholders to create stakeholder journeys which clarify what the change process looks like over time, what actions will be taken, what outcomes are expected and so on.

Change management myth number 2: “If we follow the steps and show the steering committee that we have created the change deliverables we will be just fine: tick in the box is the ticket.”

The number of times I have seen good professionals completely space out when I asked them what they actually did with the stakeholder analysis or the impact analysis once it had been completed is too big to mention here. So I won’t. But I will say this: if you do not activate your change deliverables, then you might as well save yourself the time spent in making them.

So what does that mean? In terms of a stakeholder analysis: it actually serves as a compass for your engagement actions towards individual stakeholders and stakeholder groups. And that means that you sit down with your team on a weekly basis to walk through each stakeholder or stakeholder group, review what actions have been taken, what the response was and what needs to be done next, according to the team and according to representative stakeholders who close the loop with you every time there is an activity.

When it comes to an impact analysis, this document also contains the mitigation actions you define to help people with change impact: these can range from a coffee corner dialogue to a workshop, to peer to peer coaching, to training etc.

These actions need owners, they need to become part of the project plan and they too need to be executed and then discussed in terms what was achieved, where the gaps are, what still needs to be done. In that sense, change management is not an on-top of for the project team: it is an integral part of what they live, breathe and do to achieve lasting results.

Change management myth number 3: “Training, reward and recognition and consequences will ensure sustainable change in business results and behavior.”

Does that mean that educating folks, giving them bonuses or a pat on the back or a pat on the back or a kick in the you-know-what are useless in driving sustainable change? Not at all! But all of these tactics enable what I would like to call “the one-off”.

A solid training will enthuse people and enable them to take a few steps towards improving the way they work. At least once. At least for a few days or weeks. A reward in any form will motivate you for a while, at least until you get used to it. And being recognized that one time (as opposed to all the other times that you weren’t) for doing something will make you feel good. For a few seconds.

And then reality sets in. As well as the risk of falling back into old habits – because what we are used to doing is physically wired into our brains much more strongly than the tenuous connections that were formed through doing and experiencing work in a new way.

So here’s the kicker: in addition to training, reward and recognition, and clear consequences to not buying into a change, you need to ensure that there is an infrastructure, a cadence, and a keystone habit which sustains both the underpinning behavior and the resulting business outcome over time.

How do you do that? I like to call it the guardian system. And yes, those of you proficient in Lean will grin when you read this because it is very similar to the peer-to-peer system which upholds that particular discipline.

A guardian is anyone involved in the change who takes the responsibility of checking in with a colleague or with individual members of a team on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis (pay attention, this is the cadence) to discuss just one simple thing for fifteen minutes: how are you doing with the changes you took on and where do you need help?

That is the infrastructure: a system of guardians who don’t only own the change but dialogue it with their peers, refreshing each other’s view each time, discovering and sharing what is going well, and tackling what is difficult to achieve. Over time, these guardian interactions become a matter of habit of course, a natural occurrence – and at that stage we can speak of a keystone habit…the one habit that affects all your other habits.

An earlier version of this article is published on LinkedIn.


Looking for change management?

Find more information about Industry consulting, one of the key areas of expertise of Philips Engineering Solutions and check out our change management service:

Change management