Change Management: “Well , here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”

(by Joris)

Over the past few years, I have played an active role in managing important change projects. My colleagues and I drew elaborate communication plans and spent lots of time analysing risks and managing stakeholders. We applied such well-established models as described by Lewin, McKinsey and Kotter. Unfortunately, most of these change projects failed to achieve their original goals.

Each project had its own particularities and there are several reasons why things turned out more difficult than expected. It all came down to this: change never happens the way it is supposed to happen.

Think about the feelings connected to moving to a new house, taking up a new job, organising a big family dinner… Did things run according to plan ? If someone had enforced the new situation upon you: did it make you happy ?

Change or transformation is not a neat project. Change cannot be imposed, it is usually chaotic and it’s always emotional.

So rather than continue to pretend that in a business context we suddenly become exclusively rational beings, would it not be more effective to look for a realistic approach to change ?

Change can not be imposed

We all know that you cannot force people into doing things they don’t want to.
Top-down change relies on buy-in from employees but gives them little empowerment. Employees are supposed to follow their leaders and resistance is something that must be dealt with as soon as possible.
But employees that are not engaged can be very creative in acting out their unhappiness in subtle or less subtle ways.

So if you want to make important changes, rather then imposing them, why not engage your employees ? This goes a lot further than informing or communicating. It doesn’t start with telling or selling, it starts with asking questions and listening.

Start with a conversation about the reasons why you think that something needs to be changed. Ask your collaborators how they feel. Don’t be afraid to talk about your own doubts or difficulties. Show them the criteria that will be used to select a solution and be transparent about the constraints.

Once your staff has acknowledged the problem, ask them for solutions. This will only work if you agree to accept any proposal that meets the criteria and that will help you in reaching your goal.

Such an approach requires you to trust the ability of your team to find the best solution. Then again, is this not why you hired them in the first place ?

Change is chaotic

Change will move in all directions.
Sometimes you will get the impression that you are moving backwards or sideways. More often than not, you won’t have a clear idea of where you are heading to.

This is normal.

As the old Greeks already knew: Panta Rhei, everything flows. Your original vision will change over time. You will adjust it or review it totally after having set your first steps. Some things will work out better than you expected, others will become a total disaster.

The final result of a change project will not depend on the quality of your project plans or the details of your control processes. It will be determined by your willingness to challenge your own assumptions and by your capacity to make connections with different stakeholders, to embrace diversity and to deal with the unexpected.

Change is emotional

All important changes provoke emotions.
People will be afraid or angered. They will try to deny or avoid the change. They will be resistant, not always openly.

Most managers would like their employees to run through these emotions as fast as possible because they believe that at the end, acceptance is awaiting. They forget that they got plenty of time themselves to look at different alternatives from a multitude of angles prior to embracing the final solution.

Change management is often so much focused on the future that it doesn’t allow people to grieve about the past. However, for most people, each change includes a loss: moving to a new house is loosing the comfort of the old one, starting in a new job is loosing your old friends at work. Learn to accept the wholeness of every employee in your company (add a link to that article) and to give them room to take care of their emotions, including the ones you find difficult to handle.

Accept the messiness of change

As I said: Change is emotional and chaotic. It cannot be imposed.

When you’re trying to manage change, there will always be a moment when you feel as distressed, angered or frustrated as Oliver Hardy when he thought himself victim of Stan Laurel’s foolishness. As Ollie, you may feel the need to look desperately into the camera and utter the well-known catch phrase: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Don’t worry: messiness is what characterises all important changes. Your agility in dealing with it shows your capacity as a change manager. Only when you welcome the mess change usually produces, you are ready to guide your organisation toward new horizons.

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