Change Happens

There is no such thing as change management.

Frequently, in my field, we talk about change management. In fact, many of my peers are expert in this process and frankly I've turned to them for help in particularly odious cases.

Yet the manner in which we talk about change oft implies we have some sort of choice about it. Some sort of illusory debate about whether or not to actually do it.


Here's the key to life and management for that matter: change happens.


Viewing change management as a freeway we can get on and off at anytime is a fundamental flaw in how we go about our business. Change management is not an orderly highway with well-lit signs and clear exits. It's a third-world city with rubble, rocks and no sense of direction on what passes for a street. You either keep moving or get hit from behind.

It's true as consultants we need a mental model for engagement, a way to frame the work world and how we plan to service our clients. But keep in mind as Nero fiddled, Rome burned.

The problem with viewing change as a process to be entered, managed and then exited is that it assumes a static position. It assumes we can objectify and hold change up as a distinct element and then put it down again when something else piques our interest.

Would that it were so…


As an HR geek and an OD nut, I presume everything starts with and comes back to people. What motivates them to do what they do, act as they will and take on the stances and views they do. As I've said before dear reader, business is the greatest drama in the world – people are just fascinating.

And the truth is during massive change events people often don't – perhaps can't – recognize their place in the midst of the waves of change. In those moments, change isn't at all a discrete process, it is an unknown and unwelcome foe forcing people out of complacency and habit.

The fallacy in change management theory is that somehow we can isolate these factors and then manage them against a plan reminiscent of Taylor's school of management. It isn't so. Put people in the mix, with all their assumptions, biases, predilections and perspectives and change is as manageable as an angry badger.

People thrash about in the midst of a change process making even the most mundane issues bigger than they need to be.


So how do we handle this?

It's helpful to acknowkedge two factors. First, change is not a process as much as an ongoing organic element like lava coursing down the mountain side. Try to guide it as much as you want but recognize it will go where it wants and your best bet is to be nimble.

This is point one: don't assume you will manage change – coping with it is a more suitable metaphor.

The second point is this: much as we practioners want to surgically disect change to bite sized pieces, to the average worker going about their day change is just a bitch. It's one more thing to deal with in a world that won't quite settle down.

Recognize people do not see change management as a science. They see change as a tax on their system and are looking for ways to handle it. Change is much more emotional than we practitioners admit.

The world evolves and our response to this sometimes painfully stretches us: that's how we know we're alive. Yet, if you want to help your client, take a fresh look at change as not simply a process but a truly personal challenge.

Managing change is really about meeting people where they are.



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