The Problem with Change Management

As a coach I have always steered away from ‘change management’, even though it is a huge industry and I would probably have done quite well in it. Intuitively change management has always struck me as unfair or oppressive, even when it was well-intentioned and perfectly rational. It has appeared to me one-sided, often with senior management wanting to enforce a new system or a new way of working, yet were themselves unwilling to change their own habits or behaviours. I even felt this sense of unease when I was a ‘senior manager’ myself!  ‘Change management’ renders an air of blame, injecting fear, and when things are not working it’s ‘because the staff are incompetent, or lazy, or otherwise doing things wrong – they need to change’. It is not a genuinely collaborative effort.

Change has often seemed to me to be imposed. Moreover it is rarely ever on a level playing field, and seldom a two-way process. I have observed so many situations in companies, for instance, where improvements have been suggested by more junior staff which have then simply been brushed off as ‘get on with your work’, ‘that’s not your job’ or ‘we know what we are doing’. The voices of staff are often ignored, even though they are the ones actually doing the work and would be in a better position to know. The Stafford hospital scandal is a typical case where staff were not listened to – after all “what do nurses know about management?” I personally experienced the inner sarcasm felt by the Heathrow T5 staff before the new terminal opened, who knew exactly where all the problems were long before the opening, but were simply ignored – the ensuing fiasco could well have been avoided, if they had been listened to.

Even where there is a recognition that some form of consultation needs to take place, more often than not this is done only after the major decisions have already been taken, and there is little influence staff can have. Instead senior executives are advised by consultants that they need to brush up their communication skills, the reason change is not working is because staff have not been informed well enough about the purpose of the change, what it will look like and who is responsible for what. Malfunctioning change programs are often blamed on poor communication, as if better persuasive skills would make the change work.

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.” Peter Senge

Overall I agree with Ron Ashkenas in his Harvard Business Review blog Change Management Needs to Change that the poor success rate of change management initiatives lies less in the content or strategy of change, but in the poor preparation and skills of the senior executives in implementing the change. Implementation is often delegated down to an army of ‘consultants’ and ‘champions’. For every 100 business books on strategy, 98 are on strategy development and only 2 on implementation. We are sorely lacking in implementation skills and the way implementation itself will and should inform strategy. Not surprisingly this gives rise to the deep disconnect between managers and the managed, between politicians and the electorate, between “the system” and its participants.

The same fundamental problem exists in day to day operations, never mind change management, in ordinary decisions. Decisions are taken without consulting the affected staff; these are then poorly executed or sometimes even simply sabotaged by the staff – fundamentally because they were never asked. It never ceases to amaze me how corporate decisions are made without even asking, never mind eliciting suggestions from, the staff affected, those who actually do the work. Executives expect the decisions to somehow be carried out, as if mechanically, and are then surprised when things do not get done, blaming the reticence of staff. Executives spurt out strategies and wonderful soundbites left right galore, but when it comes to implementation they are rather thin on the ground.

“Separating knowledge and decision making authority leads to bad decisions.” Mark Seuffert

The basic problem is simple: people are not asked. Strategies and change programs are developed by executives behind closed doors, and then mandated. What should be happening is that those affected need to be invited into the process, invited to co-author the new story. This is often viewed as time-consuming and unnecessary, despite statistical evidence to the contrary, even though there exist good processes or practices (like Open Space Technology) which can make this very effective. Adoptions need to involve the whole workforce, and not a few elite making the decisions and ‘rolling’ them out. All staff need to be invited, to explore what, how and why change or improvement could be executed, how we can all work on it together, and most importantly to truly listen to all the suggestions, ideas and different perspectives from the workforce.

You cannot impose (command) participation or engagement, it’s a contradiction of terms – yet this is precisely what many change management programs still try to do. Words like ‘buy-in’ send a cringe down my spine – it implies being sold to, being had or manipulated, without a real equivalent discussion. ‘Empowerment’ implies that someone has power and passes some of it on – what an insult! Even change programs which are supposed to distribute decision-making among the work force, like agile or holacracy, have been mandated, often with resulting unexpected high staff turnover. As a lean-kaizen and sociocratic coach I also need to be very careful not to impose these brilliant systems on others, but rather to invite all into the process. It is not the quality of the new system which is in question, but the quality of the collaboration, implementation and initial consent. Invitation is the key – inviting all affected to co-create the change.  The simplest, yet most difficult, thing to do is simply to ask.

Wouldn’t you like to be invited and consulted every time those around you change something?

Find out more about how we use the power of invitation and collaborative transformation at Caterfly.

Further reading:
More on the Stafford hospital crisis and simple shifts for more effective working and inclusion – click
Why telling people what to do doesn’t work – click
What is Open Space? – click