9 minutes read.
When I joined the team to lead a complex agile transformation, everybody was gossiping about her–she was resistant. She was the head of one of the key departments in the company. Her attitude was irritating and disturbing. She did not collaborate with any of the agile coaches, and I was warned not to expect a warm welcome when working with her department. Let us call her Tammy.
When I join an initiative in the middle of their transition, the best way for me to learn about the tricky areas and resistant people is -of course- to take a careful look at the readiness, resistance, and risk assessments of each stakeholder group. However, truth to be told, these reports are often missing from the change management plan! The alternative is to research and learn from the environment. I put my ethnographic researcher hat on and begin to observe and collect data.
Tammy’s department was the subject of my research. The change management office (where I was located) requested that each department hire a change management consultant to work with me directly during the agile rollout. As predicted, Tammy was resistant. I wondered why she was so reluctant to get help when she had the budget and support. I assumed I need to lecture her on the great benefits of change management or educate her on what change management is all about. Usually, these kinds of education sessions are needed for resistant decision-makers. But not for Tammy! She was different. Here resistances were more hidden. I needed to act as an organizational therapist for a deeper dive. After some meetings, I found out her reason. Not long ago, Tammy was sponsored by her VP to take a workshop on change management. Although her role did not require change management, she believed that she had become a change expert after this workshop. Now, having participated in a three-day workshop, she was confident she knew what to do in terms of change management, and does not need any change management consultant supporting her department.
OK, I trusted Tammy did not need my usual lectures on change management and how a change practitioner can help. Still, I was also skeptical that participating in a three-day course and experiencing many changes are substitutes for an experienced change practitioner’s knowledge and skill, especially for such a transformational change like agile. As you can imagine, the project did not go well, and Tammy eventually was pressured into hiring a change management consultant. However, she refused to accept that she lacked the expertise, time, and priorities to do a change management practitioner’s job. She kept accusing scarcity of time and resources, but not her own competency and skills. After all, Tammy was the head of the department. Typically, when people are high on a hierarchical level, they are not challenged for the claims or decisions they make until something seriously goes wrong!
Do you know why I remember this story? Because this behaviour is intensified these days. The pandemic is causing massive disruption and change to organizations. Being a qualified change practitioner is not only a privilege these days, but essential. People in different professions labeling themselves as change management professionals are not helpful and perhaps even irresponsible. Now, why is that a problem? The short answer is simple: because each field needs dedicated Subject Matter Experts.
Maybe I am a bit biased, but I believe change management is an exciting field! It is a multidisciplinary discipline and lies right in the middle of HR, strategic management, project management, leadership, Etc. It can be classified in the fields of industrial and organizational psychology as well. So, it is not surprising that those who worked purely in these fields often choose change management for a career pivot. I myself come from IT Management field. Wait! This is not a problem yet. It only becomes a problem when one jumps into a professional field without clearly knowing what this is and how it works.
Almost all of us in business have gone through change and disruption in a way or another. And many of us dealt with it in a way or another.
I quote the HBR article called “All Management Is Change Management”:
“If sales need to be increased, that’s change management. If a merger needs to be implemented, that’s change management. If a new personnel policy needs to be carried out, that’s change management. If the erosion of a market requires a new business model, that’s change management. Costs reduced? Productivity improved? New products developed? Change management.”
Furthermore, the article states that “The job of management always involves defining what changes need to be made and seeing that those changes take place… Once every job in a company is defined in terms of the changes to be made (both large and small), constant improvement can become the routine… The organization becomes a perpetual motion machine. Change never occurs as some sort of happening; it is part of everyday life.”
The article concludes:
“As an increasing number of people take on the role and mindset of the change management professional, instead of striving to make innovation and improvement routine, they naturally encourage the treatment of change as something special. Managers start to view change as an extraordinary event that must be dealt with using change management techniques and special skills. And then it’s easy for people to become resistant to change.”
I agree that change is an underlying phenomenon of each business, and organizations should be resilient and equipped enough to leverage it like a surfer tames the crazy waves. This is what I call the Change DNA for organizations. I also strongly agree that “change” is not a project which should be controlled. I wrote an article about change DNA and change as a project here. However, I do want to challenge the idea that viewing change as an “event that must be dealt with using change management techniques and special skills” causes “people to become resistant to change.”
First, people are resistant to change for many reasons—more on that in a different article. Second, if all the people in the company claim that they are change management practitioners and do not benefit from experienced change practitioners and SMEs in the field, something seriously goes wrong. We all can call ourselves whatever title we want. However, when everyone claims that they are change practitioners and cannot do the job properly, problems arise. Then the field becomes so ineffective and inefficient, and you need to impress upon leaders that change management works IF it is done correctly. I have found that it is one of the causes of leadership resistance to being influential sponsors of change. Third, even though some changes do not require formal project governance, they are far more than simple or routine changes. They are strategic changes and usually cause a massive disruption in the organization. We call them incremental and transformational changes. They need dedicated change resources to work closely with all levels of organizations. Therefore, back to the HBR article, yes, in many cases, change is something special that needs treatment.
Let me make a simple illustration. Stress is the cause of many health problems. Most of us have had our doctor’s experience telling us to reduce stress to treat a health problem or a disease. The doctor might even give you instructions on how to manage your stress. However, I don’t think any cardiologist, orthopedist, or dentist would try to determine the root cause of your stress or instruct you on how to treat your stress systematically. They would recommend a neurologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, or so to you. Each expert has its own skillset and toolkit to handle a specific set of diseases. It is not that other experts do not know anything about stress. They know about it and studied it, and maybe handled their own stress, but how to treat your stress is not within their expertise.
Well, the same applies to change management. Having years of experience in management and business fields and dealing with change in their area does not make one a change management practitioner or expert. Reading a couple of books or getting a certification during a few days does not make one a change practitioner. One might be born a change leader, and yes, in the ideal organization, each person is a change leader, change enabler, change catalyst. However, still, all those change leaders are not change practitioners.
Many factors are required for someone to be able to call oneself a change management practitioner:
Experience. Experience plays a tremendous role in one’s career. Personally, the one reason why experience is essential is that it enables the professional to select the appropriate approach for the context. It can be one approach or a hybrid approach (well! don’t get me started about how some professionals are so rigid using only one method for all the contexts). Back to the stress test example, the doctor examines the patient and prescribes something appropriate to the patient only. Does only one prescription apply to all the patients?
Besides all the change agents, catalysts, and leaders, the organization needs change management practitioners to apply their years of experience, education, and intuition to help with transitioning and transforming the entire business. Organizations need subject matter experts for the field, and it should not be taken for granted.
Education. I keep saying that a degree or a certification does not make one a change management practitioner. However, any source of knowledge is essential. So, it is not enough, but necessary. Unless you could apply a systematic approach to change management, you cannot claim to be a change practitioner. Education does not necessarily need to be formal, but it provides the change practitioner awareness of practical ways to apply what is required. There are tons of theories and approaches out there, and experience plays a crucial role in adequately using the appropriate method for the change assignment at hand.
Dedication. Change management is a full-time job. It is a massive job and needs a dedicated personto take responsibility and accountability. The change management practice is not a cosmetics practice.
Mindset. A change management practitioner needs a growth mindset. They should be aware that each initiative is different and not a single methodology and approach fits all. They should be open to learning from failure, iterating, and course correcting.
Now, let me clarify some points here.
- Experience. I don’t mean that change practitioners with tons of experience and knowledge under their belt are the only ones that add value. There are professional young and fresh people and minds entering the field, which is very promising. I mean, we should carefully assess the change before assigning a change resource to it. Each level can do a specific job. Early practitioners can benefit from working with experienced ones. Moreover, change management, like other disciplines, has different job levels.
- Career pivot. I love changing careers. We are not destined to have only one job for the rest of our life. It is evident that we all have breakthroughs, and our preferences evolve. However, jumping into another career takes lots of research and education. Merely claiming that you have the competency to do one job is not enough to do well in another.
- Culture. Change management is one of the professions that has many interpretations across the globe. Depending on a country’s culture and, consequently, organizational culture, each region translates change management. I call people in different cultures to have an open conversation on this topic to broaden my knowledge.
- Multiple skills. A person can be a subject matter expert in various areas. I am an advocate of multidisciplinary fields, especially in business, for two reasons. First, knowledge and expertise can expand the horizon of possibilities and open new doors for creative problem-solving. Second, it helps the practitioner save themselves from rigidity and dogma and all the prejudice that can appear when someone is knowledgeable in one specific field.
To sum up, not all management is change management because:
- Not all changes are routine and straightforward changes.
- Like other fields, the change management field needs subject matter experts like specialized doctors for disease treatment.
- For some specific types of changes, you need dedicated resources with a defined scope of work who are experts and can hold accountability.
- The nature of work requires subject matter experts to act as glue and harmonizer to change between all other departments.
Eventually, I ask those seeking resources for change management or leaders who are wondering about change management to educate themselves on the field of change management, the scope of the job for a change management practitioner, and how they can help. My message to leaders is that you can’t benefit from change management if you don’t understand it. No one can take for granted that a change initiative needs dedicated resources. Successful transformation results from cumulative and collaborative work between change management, program/project management, leadership, and HR. These are the specialized doctors of change management.
To those interested in change management, please be kind to yourself, to people, and the organizations you serve. If you have experienced many changes during your work’s life span, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can also help people and organizations embrace the change and successfully transform. It requires experience, education, dedication, and mindset. I want to say that if you’re going to enter the field, you should specifically do whatever it takes. Because we are dealing with an area famous for failure, let us not be the reason for failure because of a lack of competency and dedication. If stakeholders are fully aware of the job’s nature and scope and change resources know how to do the job, it works.
I am looking forward to hearing your perspective on the topic.
This is post #5 of the “Human Side 4.0™” series. See beginning of the series here.
I want to be clear about definitions to avoid us being lost in translation.
Let’s begin with the definition of Change management: “It is a collective term for all approaches to prepare, support, and help individuals, teams, and organizations in making organizational change.” Basically, it’s taking care of the people side of the change.
I have written many change management job descriptions for my clients. Because there is no standard definition or consensus on the titles below, I am offering you mine
- Change Management Practitioner Category:
This category includes all the people who practice change management as their profession. They make a living practicing change management for organizations. They have a diverse background, at least a couple of years of experience, and education on change management methodologies, theories, practices, etc., via formal education and/or certification or executive programs and work experience. They know the tools and techniques and have a good understanding of both human sciences and business and have enough insight on when and where to use what. Titles include but not limited to:
Change Management Specialist (different levels), Change Management Consultant (different levels), Change Management Lead (different levels, usually senior), Change Management Manager (management level), Change Management Analyst (different level, typically junior), Change Management Advisor (varies, either very senior level or a complementary role to other practitioners).
- Change Leadership Category
This category includes all the skills and competencies everyone in an organization needs to make a resilient and innovative organizational culture. This category is when people of an organization develop the mindset to be flexible and accept changes as normal phenomena. Change is in the DNA of such a company. Change leadership is more than a practice, methodology and technique. It is a mindset, competency and characteristic. It expects people on each level, especially on the decision-making level, to have a vision, leverage resources, and sponsor changes as they occur consistently. The concept of Change Agent, Change Catalyst, Change Enabler, Change Advocate lies under this category.