• Erwan Hernot

“We Manage Change”. No, We Manage Power Point Presentations!

Why, in companies, changes (mergers, IT deployments,…) fail or are so painful to manage? Consider that: all project managers have now a change management plan in their pocket. But they still fail to deliver in time, budget or quality foreseen in the beginning of their reorganisation projects. We see 2 main causes:

  1. They drive with a wrong map at hand: they mentally represent the company as a structure (gathering rules, processes and organisation charts). That is handy but that doesn’t help much. Because it is not reality.

  2. They act with the wrong logic: change management as perceived – and sold- by most consultants.

The wrong representation: the structure is not the organisation (real company)

When a company is represented as a structure. Things seem to be clear and supposed to be known and acknowledged by everybody. You can picture organisation charts, you can respect rules (or at the very least know them). You can work by processes: indeed you do! In fact, companies are much more an organisation with humans (not kidding…), relations, (oppositions, alliances) and balances of different – and shifting – powers. It is more organic than mechanic. But we still stick to the process analogy.

The wrong logic: change managed as a process We are very often lead by people coming from technical education (engineers). Management of changes is tolerated when expressed in processes. Hence the change process model representing the mindset of a person in a situation of change as below illustrated, from the Swiss-born psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler Ross. Elizabeth Kübler Ross wrote a book in 1969 “On Death And Dying” after dealing with terminally ill patients in hospitals. Her model was conceived to explain the different stages the survivor goes through when facing the death of a loved one. You probably noticed that corporate world doesn’t involve so many terminally ills patients. In companies facing a change, people have resources (even if they think first “I have no choice”). It is not like losing a child or a parent (no choice at all). And these differences change everything in the model. This model, literally interpreted by most consultants, gives 3 false ideas:

  1. There is always a happy end! People accept changes at the end. Hollywood is not far from change management 😉 In real life, they won’t.

  2. Changes, though being painful, progress steadily. This idea resonate deeply with the American mindset: “work hard then be rewarded”. In real life, it is more erratic and uncertain.

  3. People are like sponges. “They will absorb changes anyhow, because they have no choice”. In real life, indeed, they will find choices. And they will change the change in the way!

Change management is not so simple

Change won’t progress steadily until a new organisation find its own balance aka until each person will have a clear view of her perspectives, her remaining or new power and the strategy she can have to improve her own situation. People are not sponges. If they loose too much, you won’t have a happy end anyway. Paradoxically, the Kübler Ross process (literally understood) leads to consider that job is done when it really begins…

In fact, it is complicated! It is indeed a messy situation that everybody wants to ignore. And keeps the feeling that both client and consultant are in control 😉

It is complicated. Stakes are high but not always known, hidden agendas foster, conflicts arise. If you want to understand that stuff, you need to work on it for a long (months) time, talk to and most importantly, listen to everybody. And negotiate if you want everybody onboard. Generally speaking, change management is a one way and top down process.

This is time consuming. You can reduce time with a big team of highly trained sociologists or psycho-sociologists on the field. Don’t dream: the simple fact to announce to a CEO that you need people from human sciences will drive him suspicious on your ability as a change manager. Funny but sadly true.

Why such a success then ?

Companies don’t really want to manage changes. They simply want people to accept what the Board has decided. The “command and control” logic is still alive (and kicking). But they are aware that they need to do something…

But this is not the most important part in the mission. Consultancies consider that aspect as a subordinate part to their main mission (change the “structure”): implement an IT system, reorganise the sales process, etc. They don’t want to go in the “organisation” side of change: ROI is uncertain on the short term and client didn’t ask for it.

Mechanical change management is easy to sell. For consultants (coming from IT for instance), it is easy to “sell”. They don’t need to be experts in sociology to do the talk. For clients, it is easy to catch and it vaguely spares some guilt when heavily changing other people’s life through corporate moves.

Great, you have destroyed the tool. Now what can we do?

Make leaders learn to “lose”…to win at the end. Leaders are suspicious about the willingness of their staff to change and for good reasons: people are not stupid. Learn them to respect that and go for a good compromise when changing. “It is like changing the dominant mindset”, would you say. Right. But then, you’re change managers or not?

Listen and negotiate. Listen to people and prepare to negotiate. Indeed, change management team presents listening as a mandatory step. They are not very often prepared to negotiate. But you can’t just listen to people without making a move towards them. Otherwise, say you impose change (which is fine with me) not that you manage it. Oh. And people will act undercover anyway to regain some power…

Change Version 1 goes to Change Version 2. Prepare to change the change!

  1. When you finish to implement V1, start to work on… V2.

  2. When the dust settles, prepare for a feedback loop

  3. Observe impacts, sucesses and failures

  4. And change the change upon that real situation.

Les techniques managériales ne sont pas neutres...

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