What is Change Management?
“Change management” is a structured approach to change when it takes place (both from within, such as a change in attitude or perspective for a person, or from without, such as a change in the external business environment). Change can therefore affect individuals, teams, organizations and even societies. A change management approach seeks to smooth the transition from a current state to a desired future state. The “change” referred to in this context includes a broad array of possibilities. From an individual perspective, the change may be a completely new behavior. From a business perspective, the change may be a new business process or new technology. From a societal perspective, the change may be a new public policy or the passing of new legislation.
Although we can address individuals, for the most part, attempts to manage change are made at team or organizational levels and apply mostly to task-based and project work or what we can more conveniently describe in overall terms as processes. As the diagram below indicates, processes can be likened to the flows or ‘pipes’ between a source supply of some kind and a particular outcome. Rather than flowing in a straight line from A to B, these so-called process pipes may twist and turn in many directions in a current design. Although this may be necessary in some instances, this often means that the opportunity for wasted effort, duplication, confusion and inefficiency are often very high and change is necessary to bring about greater efficiency or effectiveness.
As the above diagram also depicts, in human terms, most people bring a supply of energy to any organization of which they are a part—we might therefore call this a ‘reservoir’ of the potential contribution. The amount of work output that people actually achieve will largely depend upon how much of their energy is maintained as their efforts flow through the processes or organizational ‘pipes’ they face. If these processes are poorly designed or ‘leak’, people experience a range of frustrations that can manifest themselves in numerous ways. Process change aims to design straighter or at least better designed ‘pipes’ with the direct assistance of individuals and teams (as long as they can appreciate that current processes can and should be improved in some way). In other words for change management to occur successfully, people have to change alongside the process in question. In this regard, the successful management of change requires more than a redrawing of current processes to a new and better design (whether it is a faster flowing system, a new technology or new way that things need to be done in the future. Successful change management interventions typically require both careful strategy and planning and the engagement and participation of the people involved.
Change management approaches
At the most simple levels there are two schools of thought related to what may be considered to be the most effective change management approach. The first of these is the centrally planned and “forced” change approach, which broadly advocates that a change is “brought about” by describing what the future will look like once the processes have been redesigned – a “grand vision” as it is sometimes called. Individuals and teams are then “recruited to the cause” progressively (and usually in increasingly assertive ways as time goes by) until a majority of people have made the transition or are willing to do so and any still resistant minority have little choice but to go along. The second approach is a more consultative one in which the broad drivers of change are described but individuals and teams are invited to think about and plan how it is to be accommodated and over what time frame.
This “push” and “pull” approach to managing a given change are very different, and create highly varied human reactions of course (and bring about quite different working cultures). The former often has the benefit of speed of transition but the negative impact of bad feelings in some quarters, as a few people’s needs are not well-accommodated. The latter approach has the negative impact of typically having a given change initiative happening at a much slower pace but with the benefit of higher levels of commitment once the transition does finally take place. There is no ready answer to the question, “which approach works best in the long term?” as it naturally depends on each situation. Many organizations therefore take a project by project approach and quite simply adopt a “pull” approach if there is sufficient time and a “push” approach if there isn’t.