Change is a loaded word. Take 30 seconds to write down all the words that come to mind when you think about change. I’ll wait.
Here are a few on my list: People. Progress. Systems. Failure. Processes. Improvement. Vision. Strategy. Beginning. Ending. Learn. Unlearn. Continuous. Journey. Leadership. Teamwork. Success. Stakeholders. Complex. Communication. Commitment. Buy-In. Readiness. Resistance. Goals. Measurement. Forward. Backward.
That last word may raise a few (metaphorical) eyebrows. Yes, dare I say it, the way we’ve been thinking about change is backward. ‘Change management’ is still the prevailing term we use to describe efforts to improve efficiency, effectiveness, performance, growth and profitability. Yet, it’s an incredibly boring, stale and misleading way to look at change.
Change management, at its core, refers to a set of basic tools and structures intended to keep change under control. The focus is often reactionary. Even when change is planned, it is usually segmented, imbalanced and driven only by measurable quantitative outcomes. Change is treated as an event. A singular experience, rather than a series of transitions. It can be cold, impersonal and extremely ineffective. Change management, as a core competency, is on life support and fading fast.
The truth about change? Recently, I had the opportunity to lead a conversation about change management with a group of senior leaders in the manufacturing industry. The topic was straightforward, but as I prepared for the event, I realized that my response was not.
The circumstances surrounding any change program, like DNA, are unique to the situation, organization and people. What you must do to transform your organization cannot be detailed precisely by any model, methodology or book. That is, perhaps, the most daunting aspect of the work we do to facilitate successful change.
Rather than talk about the mechanics of managing change with this group of leaders, I chose to focus primarily on how we think about change and the philosophy that drives the work I do with organizations. As a consultant, I believe it’s critical to connect with clients around the fundamentals of change first before talking about change strategies, activities and tools.
Our lives are driven by change. Some of it is planned. A lot of it just happens. We experience change in many of the same ways, but our individual experiences are also uniquely different and deeply personal. It’s those experiences – both the similar and dissimilar – that provide the foundation for effective and lasting change.
The conversation evolved into a discussion built around my observations, insights and the best practices I’ve accumulated helping facilitate change with organizations over the course of nearly 20 years. Throughout my career as both an internal leader and external consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to work with top industry leaders and discipline experts from Arthur Andersen, KPMG, MIT and Harvard along with pioneers in the field of organizational development and change including Edgar Schein, Chris Argyris and William Bridges. I was, in fact, one of the primary authors of Arthur Andersen’s Change Enablement framework and methodology.
Yes, I shared some suggested strategies and tools with this group of leaders. The true power of the conversation, however, was largely shaped by the experience itself. It was a conversation I ‘jump started’ but was ultimately driven by a group of leaders who suddenly had a lot more to say about change than I did. In the end, the conversation was not about managing change. It was about enabling change.
Successful change has a lot to do with what we learn from both our triumphs and our failures…and how we share that forward. So, here’s a look at what I’ve learned:
I ended the conversation the same way I started this article. Change is a loaded word with the power to move us forward, take us backward or go nowhere at all. But in the end, the story of change always has one common theme: change is rarely consistent, but it’s always constant.
Until next time,
Connect, Collaborate and Create! ®