by Bob Lewis

8 dark secrets of organizational change management

Feb 05, 20207 mins
Change ManagementDigital TransformationIT Leadership

In the digital era, organizational change management is crucial to business success — far too crucial to be dogged by its misconceptions and false assumptions.

dark secrets of enterprise architecture men meetng in dark tunnel
Credit: SolarSeven / Getty Images

Organizational change management (OCM) has gained visibility, slowly but surely, among those responsible for making change happen, which is to say, just about every manager in just about every business.

It matters because, as you’re doubtless tired of hearing, the only constant in business is change. That reality bumps up against a competing one: More often than not, business change efforts fail to satisfy, and that’s if they don’t fail entirely.

OCM provides well-defined methods for overcoming change resistance — the popular if poorly defined root cause of change failing to happen on schedule and on budget. Those methods can, however, leave pitfalls in the shadows if you aren’t fully versed on the following dark secrets of organizational change management.

OCM isn’t ‘someone else’s problem’

IT delivers a new application. It satisfies requirements and meets the specifications. Your job is done — it’s up to your so-called “internal customer” to make productive use of it.

Except for this: In case you haven’t heard, there’s no such thing as an IT project. Every single project is about intentional business change or what’s the point?

Which means that if you rely on your internal customers to make the business change happen and they don’t succeed, IT will be left holding the bag, and the blame.

IT needs to make intentional business change a collaboration, not with internal customers but with change partners. As a practical matter this means helping your change partners understand everything necessary for intentional business change to succeed, including OCM, which, starting right now, your business analysts should build into their toolkit.

Employees don’t just naturally resist change

The book Who Moved My Cheese was popular in management circles because it made employees a convenient scapegoat when change efforts fail. The problem, it suggested, is that they just naturally resist change, so they make every change an uphill battle.

Except employees don’t just naturally resist change. If they did, they wouldn’t be carrying smartphones around, riding Bird’s motorized scooters, or, for that matter, reading the Taste section of the local newspaper looking for interesting new restaurants to try.

Not convinced? Here’s a thought experiment: Offer each and every employee a company-paid new car, whatever make and model they want, complete with all fuel, maintenance, and insurance covered for the next five years.

Think your employees would resist that change? Me neither.

That isn’t the kind of change we’re talking about though, is it? Most employees’ experience with business changes entails invalidating hard-won skills and having to learn new ones; layoffs and disruptive reorganizations; and most likely increased workload besides.

That’s what employees just naturally resist: changes they expect will be bad for them personally.

Organizations do just naturally resist change

Typical business changes are defined in terms of modified or wholly new process flows, supported by enhanced or wholly new applications. Install and configure the software, give users a half-day training session, and you’re good to go.

No, you aren’t.

An organization is a system of interconnected parts. Envision it as a collection of balls connected by springs. You’re trying to change one of them — to metaphorically move one of the balls.

But every other part of the organization — metrics, facilities, policies, processes, and assigned accountabilities, to name just a few — all operate based on how the part you’re trying to change currently operates.

Change just it while ignoring its interconnections and it’s like trying to move just one of the balls while leaving the rest alone. The entire rest of the organization will conspire to force the ball — the element you’re trying to change — back into alignment with the current state of things.

Successful change doesn’t require support from the top

If you’re trying to change something in the organization, support from the top will certainly help grease the bearings.

But a lesser-known change guideline is that executives shouldn’t sponsor more than three major change efforts at any one time. Exceed that limit and they’ll dilute their influence too much and won’t accomplish any of them.

Which means that if support from the top is required for change efforts to succeed, the executive suite will be a change bottleneck, not a facilitator.

On top of which, change efforts are middle-out at least as often as they’re top-down. They’re too small in scope for an executive to do much more than provide encouragement.

Support from the top is nice, but not having it is no reason to abandon a change effort. Most successful change is the result of someone deciding to make it happen, and then leading, not from authority but through the arts of persuasion and influence.

Support is conditional

One of the tools of the OCM trade is called a Stakeholder Analysis. It assesses individuals and groups from the perspectives of support status (whether they’ll support, resist, or accept the change), reason (why their status is what it is), and impact (the extent to which their support will help or opposition will hinder).

The reason cuts both ways. Even the most vocal enthusiasts will change their minds (and status) if they conclude the change you have in mind will be unpleasant for one reason or another.

Proponents of a change aren’t the good guys; opponents aren’t the bad guys

It’s a bad mental habit: You’re either for me or against me. If you’re for me you’re an ally. If not you’re my enemy.

If you think of your opponents as your enemies, here’s a history lesson: In World War II, it was the Nazis who tried to make change happen. What did we call those on the ground trying to stop them?

That’s right: The Resistance.

When you’re trying to make change happen you do need to deal with those who, for one reason or another, try to prevent it.

Do deal with them. Don’t vilify them. Remember: When the change succeeds, you’ll benefit personally. Your opponents probably won’t. So as you deal with them, show them some respect.

Yes, you need it for this change too

“We don’t need OCM for this change. Everyone is behind it and understands why it’s necessary.”

I’ve heard this time and time again. The speaker has always been wrong.

From here on in, think of every change you’re leading as, metaphorically, knee replacement surgery. Even if it’s necessary, and even if you and the body you inhabit will be happier once you’ve fully recuperated, getting from here to there will be unpleasant.

Think of OCM as physical therapy for business changes.

Neither dark nor a secret

Organizational change is hard. It’s hard the way neurosurgery is hard. It’s also hard the way digging a ditch is hard.

It’s neurosurgery because, properly thought through and planned, even seemingly simple changes have a lot of moving parts and no shortage of ripple effects change leaders need to identify and plan for.

It’s ditch digging because stasis is the natural state of an organization. Change stops happening the moment its leaders stop pushing it forward.

OCM is a crucial discipline within the business change toolkit.

Far too crucial to be dogged by misconceptions and false assumptions like those listed here.