Challenges for change management?

change mgmtDespite having been a supporter, follower and practitioner of the art that is ‘change management’ for many years, I only recently reflected on why it is worth doing.


I first picked it up as a formal discipline in the early 1990’s, and simply used the insights and lessons that it provided because it made sense to me. They seemed to fit well with much I had  learned about what really helps creativity and innovation, where the learning and adoption of new products, processes and structures clearly depended on both finding great new ideas and persuading others that they were worth pursuing.

As a consultant who became heavily involved in the ‘re-engineering’ of business processes, it became obvious to me that merely ‘having the right answer’ even with an ironclad business case, may not get you very far. Change management seemed to offer ideas, approaches and frameworks that helped with this sort of difficult change in organisations.

Helped meant ‘helped made things work’. As such the ‘why’ for change management has always been for me – because it helps make other change work. Not paying attention to it makes it more likely that changes will fail.

Perhaps that was enough for me.

Yet with the increasing pace of technological advance, the convergence of markets, and the impact of globalisation, change has become an endemic feature of most organisations now. Every year in organisations large and small there are multiple changes that need to be landed successfully and often these are big changes!

If this is the case then change management becomes virtually the same as good everyday management. Certainly it challenges the boundary between business as usual and change.

Good leadership demands an approach that presumes that changes will need to be implemented. Indeed leadership is often measured by its ability to realise these changes at speed, with depth and breadth, successfully.  New Executives come in with not just a mandate for change but a demand for change from those who appoint them. Timeframes are short. The focus is very much on results (and not normally on sophisticated measures of them either).

So, is change management still just about success? Clearly it must be effective to stay on the management agenda; so this doesn’t go away.

However I think it is being increasingly asked to work more specifically on some of the determining factors that create sustainable success.

So where should it concentrate attention and develop its focus?

The creation of agility

As the pace of change has accelerated and change has become the norm, many voices have challenged the value of models of human behaviour that suggest three ‘states’ in change (before, transition and after) based on the reshaping of people’s expectations and their acceptance of the new situation.

Is it helpful to think in terms of steady states and their transition? How much does it help to think about change management in terms of projects within a static framework? Shouldn’t it really start to pay more attention to the framework itself? If change is constant then shouldn’t we focus on the context.

Hence, why creating organisational agility is an appropriate aim.

How does change management help leaders rethink the structures and processes of an organisation so that it is more nimble and able to handle a rapidly changing context?

Many of the traditional perspectives and tools are not as helpful in doing this as they might be (as a new book by Paul Gibbons, The Science of Successful Organizational Change, identifies). What is needed is something that focuses on the context itself and how this can be designed to help people identify and adopt changes faster. Here the ideas of the learning organisation, the application of behavioural economics and insights into cultural change could become valuable avenues for more effectively incorporating into change management.

Greater specificity in frameworks

I have worked with and observed tens of change management initiatives in my working life. The typical structure is something welded onto a business or systems initiative that has specific aims. As a result the change management elements often get focused down and have very limited goals – to get the real change in smoothly, quickly, effectively…etc. They quickly lose any nuance and default to simple core methods. Wider aims that might have value are dropped for reasons of resource, time or because the business benefit is not well articulated.

The narrowed focus contrasts with ever widening risk management practices that have become more resource intensive over the last decade, not just in response to the growth of the regulatory  environment but as much in response to the perceptions of increasing complexity and risk, and a desire to enable more pre-emptive management.

If change management is about success, it is about risk and yet it has not managed to embed itself as effectively as it might in this area when the default is a risk register and a project mentality. Yet thinking through the human risks and issues is a powerful way of identifying, calibrating and addressing risk and could help ensure ‘success’ at a corporate level.

To realise this though there will need to be more development and use of detailed frameworks (such as the one developed by Burke-Litwin),or categorisations and taxonomies of change capability to help build a comprehensive view comparable to the enterprise risk management frameworks that have appeared.

A more detailed, and perhaps more generally used, taxonomy for change capability would help increase its ability to address both specific topics and organisational agility.

Building real commitment

The final area of challenge is ironically where much of change management concentrated its original attention – with the people who are the target audience for change.

Change management often concentrates on people’s behaviour: how to ensure that salespeople use their new systems in the way intended, how to ensure that staff really adopt new roles, or how to ensure leaders start to generate and action the details of a new strategy.  All this leads to an enormous focus on communications, skill development, knowledge transfer, sequencing of change, incentives etc etc.

These are important and all relevant. Anyone who has come across ‘nudge’ would underwrite the importance of getting the context for change right and making it easy for people to make the best decisions as a change comes in.

Yet there remains a deeper challenge in our individual-choice driven society: the challenge of winning hearts and minds. Gaining real commitment for something new requires people to choose it for themselves. Focusing only near term behaviour misses the need for sustainability. Forming a team needs more than simply a gathering of individuals; it needs a unit with synergy.

As organisations find coercion less effective, where volunteers and stakeholders are critical participants in successful change, and where individuals are experienced self-choosers, change management has to think about how do you really go about winning hearts and minds for change.

This is an area that needs more attention.


Success remains the bedrock for the sustainability and relevance of change management but it needs to develop its focus beyond the project orientation and look to the context of the organisation, the granularity of its thinking and the hearts of its participants. These are increasingly important for effective leadership in our organisations.