When change management itself is changing

May 12, 2016
Ivo knew he had a problem. He had chaired yet another executive committee at his government agency where he felt like he was the only one who knew what direction the organization needed to take. The politicians responsible for the agency wanted it to become a modern service center that helped the government implement its policies. And Ivo knew exactly where the digital transformation should lead them. Unfortunately, most of the employees, including their managers, remained stuck in their ways. Change management was needed.
But, at the same time, Ivo also realized that traditional change management was not going to take him anywhere. “One-size fits all” change management was definitely not what he needed. Large, monolithic, change management programs had proved the right remedy a couple of decades ago. But circumstances have altered and anyone delivering services – commercial or public –, these days, is challenged by an environment that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Indeed, we do live in a ‘VUCA’-world.

Adapting plans on the go

Fortunately for Ivo, change management itself has undergone a change too, and thought leaders in that domain now urge for a change management practice that is agile, and can adapt quickly to changing circumstances. A change management program that sets goals for the next five years, will lead you nowhere. Just like traditional 5 or 10-year plans need to be adapted on the go, change management programs will only fit the bill if they move dynamically along with the organization they are trying to change. In my view, there are four imperatives for successful change management: it needs to be people-driven, context-aware, integrated and supported by innovation.

People first

Changing structures is easy, but making people accept these changes is the real work. That’s why any change management program needs to be centered around people. Organizations have a mission, a reason to exist, and organizations can only be successful when people can truly connect to this mission, to the ‘why’ of their organization. Above all, there must be a connection between an employee’s own ambition and the overall mission. Bringing these two completely and harmoniously in sync, is what every change management program must strive towards.

Context is everything: no two organizations are completely identical, if only because the people and the business culture are different. In some environments that are still stable, a ‘command and control’ approach is the right way to go, in many other cases, where volatility, complexity and uncertainty rule, it is better to go for a ‘sense and respond’ approach. Importantly, a sense and response approach leads to less ‘collateral damage’ than command and control, as scientific research by Decy & Ryan has shown. This is not surprising, as sense and respond allows more room to cater to the ambitions and aspirations of employees and addresses their intrinsic motivation.

Co-creation and participation

Change management demands an integrated approach; setting up different ‘siloed’ projects to drive through change will never work. Only when the steering committee and project management are truly integrated, will results be positive. Co-creation and participation of all the departments and management layers involved are an essential condition. An integrated approach also entails that the different elements that make a company successful need to be looked at holistically and must be approached in an integrated manner to have them properly aligned.

The fourth prerequisite for success is the innovation that supports the entire change management process, and once again, this centers around people: allowing people to be creative and setting up experiments, will enhance the liveliness and longevity of an organization significantly. ‘Allowing’ is actually too soft a word for what needs to be done, managers have to create a safe work environment where people have been told that they may experiment, without fear of admonishment, and learn from their mistakes.

Navigating against the wind

Does being agile mean that change management is going adrift? Of course not. Because even when you adapt to circumstances, you need to keep a clear vision on the goal you have set yourself. You are steering your ship to a certain destination. The winds of change are blowing, and from time to time you will have to navigate against the wind, but you will always keep in mind what harbor you want to steer your ship into.

And what about Ivo? Well, Ivo did set the course for his digital transformation, got all his officers on board and supported by our change management consulting, moored his ship at the right pier.
Author: Ludo Van den Kerckhove. You can follow Ludo on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn
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