What is effective change management?

Change management is often where the rubber hits the road for CIOs and their teams. So, how well is it practiced in the real world?

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I was never a particularly good surfer. I did manage to stand up on a board when I was a junior lifeguard. But I did become a reasonably good body surfer. As a body surfer, you would look for two things:

  1. Are sets breaking correctly?
  2. Are you correctly positioned to catch a ride?

When both are right, you can take a long ride. When they aren’t, you need to dive underneath and wait for the next wave or set of waves.

Today’s businesses are like body surfers needing to dive underneath as the regularity of waves increases. The problem is body surfers can only stay underneath so long. Something that is hard to do as the waves become larger and even more disruptive. In Geoffrey Moore’s book Zone to Win, he shares that the frequency of waves is only going to increase and how more and more businesses are missing a wave that fundamentally changes their business model. Geoffrey suggests the difference between winners and losers is that winners can get change into what he calls ‘the transformative zone’. Organizations that do so remain relevant to their customers. The question is how good are most organizations at change management? I posed the question to my weekly #CIOChat group.

Given that IT is the predominant delivery agent for business change, does change management set the perception for IT?

One CIO started this portion of the discussion by saying “let me run my answer through the CAB and I'll get back to you, assuming it's approved.” More seriously, CIOs said not solely, but yes. CIOs believe that change is one of those make-or-break factors that sets the perception of IT as a service provider. Change management, say CIOs, is most of what our 'customers' see when they think about IT.

Clearly, poor change management is a disaster. CIOs believe from identifying change to planning the delivery of the techie bits to training, testing, and selling change, skills around change management define IT. Change management, fundamentally, sets the tone for IT.  Every enhancement in technology will have an impact to the organization. It seems clear, if IT is to become a trusted partner at enabling or delivering business change, then it must exemplify successful change management in its organization’s culture and project portfolio.

While CIOs may be singularly focused on provided technology that works, change failure is really about people and getting them to use technology. This is the hard bit. Stephanie Woerner, author of the book What is Your Digital Business Model, says IT success depends on how it does change management. She challenges if CIOs are moving beyond the formal business systems to addressing culture and power. CIOs say the problem is that too many IT organizations do not think through the entire life-cycle for a change. 

CIOs believe that everything IT does should be defined to improve business capabilities or outcomes. To do this, IT shouldn’t be doing change in a vacuum. The CIO of the American Cancer Society recently said to me, “even with consensus there was genuine anxiety to change because change is fundamentally about changing how people work. Some people, in these cases, have may been using legacy business processes for years.”

IT perception, therefore, is largely based on success of change program. As well, it sets the perception of IT leadership as well. Change management makes or breaks most projects. To be fair, most technology works these days. Success comes down to whether people accept the change and it makes things better for them or their firm. For this reason, change management will fail without senior business leadership driving it. The notion that IT owns change management is a fallacy. Change needs to be owned by the entire organization and IT is just one implementer for change.

What should be included within an effective change management program?

Woerner said that MIT-CISR’s research has shown that all successful IT initiatives have strong leadership who coach, communicate and measure results. PIRRs are highly correlated with financial success. The small part of most change management is the change to IT systems – this pales in importance to business sponsorship providing leadership, communications, training and adoption. The 'soft stuff' is the hard stuff.

To the outside, this might seem to be over-generalizing, but it recognizes that everything has a life-cycle and changes constantly. One CIO in the chat suggested we are in IT and are making most changes at the behest of the business, so the business needs to be visible and engaged in all change. For these reasons, CIOs favor strong foundations, so training and agreed-upon vocabulary and taxonomy matter. There’s a need for basic organizational impact understanding. All changes are difficult on the organization and IT and all other groups need to have such an understanding to be successful.

The “change masters” understand how change increases sales, reduces costs and impacts the business. They need to lead and champion change. IT is an agent, a steward and an implementer – but IT cannot be a change owner. For this reason, there should be three to four levels of involvement in all change plans (executives, business sponsor, business user and IT). Each needs communication, education, a process playbook, schedule, test/pilot, go live and support/reinforce covered…plus implementation of technology.

Where a CAB is appropriate, it needs at minimum to have clear guidelines for the following things:

  • Participation
  • Ownership
  • The lifecycle for the change
  • How risk level was ascertained
  • Participation for all groups in IT defined as solution area owners and business champions

Clear objectives are a must for training and education, executive engagement, communications and metrics to measure success/progress. Change management changes systems, culture and habits, and often potentially decision rights. To get all these levers right is challenging at times. CIOs, for this reason, value the prioritization of initiatives. In particular, CIOs want strategic priority and resource alignment.

Planning for change can aim to save money but more importantly, it should aim to drive better business outcomes. To work, change management requires relentless communication including perhaps external publicity; training, mentoring; beta testing; and post-change support. To work, IT needs to partner with the line of businesses in all change management initiatives. Throwing things over wall to another group does not deliver the outcomes anyone wants.

What things can CIOs do with business leaders to create effective change?

CIOs need to offer technical guidance to business leaders who may not understand all the ramifications for a proposed change. Share what is possible, doable in reasonable time frame, affordable and supported by available resources. Become the technology expert advisor and partner. One CIO in the chat said that’s getting to the heart of digital transformation. Change that leads to digital transformation is hard and it’s the job of CEO and board. It requires alignment at the top level and communication with all impacted business unit executives.

Where the CIO isn't on the same page with other business executives, disastrous outcomes ensue. If business is broken, then the business must be part of the solution. Therefore, contingencies should be part of the change plan. CIOs shouldn’t be driving change (or the contingencies) alone. Business leaders should drive both. At the same time, CIOs shouldn't always have the targets painted on their back for change.

CIOs worry when a change works, the business reaps ROI/sales/NPS improvements, while IT often just absorbs additional cost and work. Clearly, executives need to be involved in driving change and ensuring the resources are there to sustain change once it is delivered. Successful change is a combination of top down and bottom-up. To work effectively, CIOs need to understand what drives their business, build partnerships so other business leaders trust them when they nudge them to do business analysis instead of just implementing "the thing they need" or to deliver communications about change management.

How does technology improve how change is delivered?

Process and culture can derail the most well-intentioned technology. Having a CAB watch an hourglass doesn't help. Change management needs to ensure change aligns to business goals. CI/CD and blue/green deployments is seen as adding value to "standard" change adoption and to helping IT organizations learn out their processes.

Some CIOs question whether technology has really made implementing change better. They have seen organizations roll out change management software and just end up filling in blanks in a form without really understanding a change’s implications. One CIO in the chat suggested that sometimes you should do change by hand for a while before buying fancy change management tools.

CIOs believe in building a good technical foundation for change. It’s a mistake to confuse technology change management for releases with organizational change management. The first can have automation when done right, the latter needs careful thought and human intervention. For this reason, change management is an intensely people-focused area for most organizations. Tooling helps, and workflow tools can improve consistency, communications, and documentation, but people should always be the focus.

Change management tools help with the administration part, but don’t help in implementing change at the leadership or business levels. Soft skills trump fancy software. Tools, nevertheless, do improve DevOps and CI/CD processes and reduce dumb errors. Linking change tickets to the CMDB, for example, allows every ticket to capture more value since it eliminates brute-force text searches to find the history for a CI.

You have to be careful about when delegates are used, who gets sent and what they think their role is. Delegates who aren't effective or don't understand their communications role can’t be effective champions. They need to understand that change involves educating, persuading, cajoling, convincing, and negotiating.

What can CIOs put in place so that ‘change masters’ are encouraged, grown and nurtured?

It’s essential to have the right people and process in place along with mentoring and shadowing for change to achieve its goals. Cultural change needs to occur across the entire organization. Part of this involves ensuring their leadership team embraces and drives good change management practices.

For some IT organizations, this may require a cultural revolution. Recognizing change, celebrating change and reinforcing behaviors that make change successful are needed. It also helps to make sure people understand what their role in change is, and why the change matters.

With the right culture, good change management practices should be baked into every person. This takes leadership, communication and training. Development plans should instantiate this into practice. CIOs that are effective know they and their team can't do their jobs without understanding the "why.” It’s important to establish experiences to give their team tools to discover that. 

Parting remarks

Several years ago, I got to meet John Chen when I was an industry analyst. He had been at Sybase for just about year, but he still needed to preach to his team that they needed to get ready for the next wave. They hadn’t responded fast enough to a wave of database change. John told his team, in front of me, that they couldn’t keep trying to catch a wave that had already passed them.

Taking this stand allowed Sybase to create early mobility solutions and what became SAP Hana. Change management clearly is about getting things into and out of the transformation zone. It’s about more than IT. It needs stakeholder involvement for change to succeed. Without this, the technology may work…but the change won’t provide the transformation needed for the next wave of digital disruption.

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