“ What is best practice in change management?”
This, and variations on the same theme seem to have appeared as questions in a surprisingly large number of the forums that I inhabit recently. And every time I read the answers with a falling heart.
Respondent A suggests the following six steps, Respondent B has a nine step process, Respondent C has a commercially secret process which they will sell you the several thousand pounds a day and so on… I can rarely resist the temptation, so I weigh in with my answer “There is no such thing as best practice in change management.”
Now I know that this is probably not what the questioner wanted to hear. Typically the questioner will be an enthusiastic, newly appointed change agent or middle manager who believes that you can manage change in the same way as you manage their process for producing widgets or appointing a new member of staff. I fear that most of these people are going to find out the hard way that change is more about leadership than management and that there is no such thing as a best practice process.
Now I am not denying – indeed far from it – that the likes of Kotter have a role to play, for indeed they do. But their role is to inform an emerging process which, if it is to be effective, also needs to be informed by the scale and scope of the change, the current and anticipated future culture of the organisation, the willingness of the participants, the capability of the change leaders and their teams and a host of other factors.
A recent piece by Alastair Dryburgh in Management Today reminded me that, in my experience, successful change rests upon adherence to some core principles rather than processes. His analogy, that if you cannot write an eight step process to guarantee winning a (deterministic) game of chess then how on earth can you write an eight step process to guarantee effective change in the much more complex and chaotic human and physical environment of a corporation? Really illustrates the point.
The current reality of any organisation I have ever experienced is that they are a mess. Now admittedly some are more of a mess than others, but even the best tend to have a mess of policies that do not necessarily integrate with each other, an even more complex mess of procedures driven by those policies, an even more complicated mess of what actually happens in practice regardless of the procedures and policies and a way of working that has very little to do with the formal organisation charts so beloved of our colleagues in HR.
You don’t have to be involved in an organisation for very long to recognise that how things should work and how things do work are two different concepts. How things do work has typically evolved to get round the problems created by how things should work, and yet how often have I seen consultants trying to work with theory rather than reality? They are doomed to failure. So perhaps this is the first of my principles for leading effective change –
work with the current reality
I guess it is a bit like me setting off for London from where I live. In order for any map to be useful it needs to know where I am starting from. And that fact is not always easy to discover. If, in an attempt to understand the ‘As-Is’, you ask me what my postcode is you might reasonably assume that I live in Bradford. However if you asked me which city I live in I will tell you Leeds. So which map are you going to provide me with? In fact, because of the detail of where I happen to live, you will need to provide me with a much more detailed map than would be provided were I to set out from Leeds or Bradford. And always remember Korzybski’s compelling aphorism “A map is not the territory”.
So, in an attempt to keep this blog to a reasonable length, I will discuss some of my other guiding principles in subsequent entries. Meanwhile, what are the core principles that you use find a leading of facilitating change? I would love to know.