Change Whisperer – Gail Severini's Blog


Are you making a difference? Why change management?

I meet a lot more people these days who are interested in authenticity and making a difference.  I view this trend as a move in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs closer to self-actualization (i.e., money and status are surpassed as satisfactory rewards). This won’t resonate with everyone―you Gordon Gekkos of the world just won’t get this so you can stop reading right now.  However, for those interested in making a difference, we are on a mission aren’t we?

The unintended consequences of vacations

Maybe this post is a result of vacation.  Vacations are always a time of personal renewal and reflection, re-setting for the year to come.  This post was supposed to be about “the role of generosity in change management” but it morphed into this. As I untangled a mess of ideas around why generosity is so important in practicing change management (as in ‘generosity of spirit’ such as empathy, compassion, tolerance, patience) I started to think about why I got into this work in the first place.

Why do change management?

Last year, at the inaugural global conference of The Association of Change Management Practitioners, Daryl Conner used his keynote to present “The Why Behind What We Do”.  In it, he asked us to think about why each of us is drawn to change management. Yes, he acknowledged that making a healthy living is certainly a legitimate justification.  In my experience, and in conversations with other practitioners, this is not what keeps us going in the dark moments (sometimes days and weeks) of change initiatives when it seems like sponsors don’t value the depth of work we believe is essential or when resistance is particularly emotionally draining.  Something else drives us.

Daryl notes that change management is unusual in the world of management: it offers extraordinary potential to change lives; the mere awareness of the nature of change opens peoples’ eyes and has application in both their business and personal lives. Furthermore, the development of this awareness and associated capabilities has an aggregating impact for businesses and communities. He goes on to ask two additional questions: “Do we make a difference?” and “Are we living up to our responsibilities?” Both are daunting questions, but let’s stay with “Why do we do what we do?” for a couple of minutes.

What are your answers?

Fill in the blanks here:

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Everyone will have different answers.  This is a good thing.  We each add value because we all bring different aspirations, experiences, competencies, and perspectives to the table.

Real life

I was speaking with a friend early in July (who also attended this event) and she mentioned it to me again.  These were profound considerations for her also.  She shared that she had come to the realization that her current engagement was not fulfilling because it was misaligned with her “whys”.

Not only was the work incredibly challenging, it was also frustrating: the sponsors were unwilling to make uncomfortable and challenging investments in the change and the team was paying lip service to the work. Despite her best efforts over several months, she was unable to have as much impact on this situation as she required for her personal satisfaction. It is worth noting that her employer was actually happy to motor along with minimal intervention (i.e., they were satisfied, even if uncomfortable with her regular prodding; she was not). She expressed concern on least two levels: 1) that they would not generate the results they required, and 2) that she was not really being effective. She made the very difficult decision to resign, even without another job to go to. This struck me as an incredibly powerful and honorable testament to her authenticity.

I share this example because it is a story I have heard many times, with many variations.  You probably have also.

“Meet them where they are”

This is a powerful phrase that we learn early in our change management development. It basically means we should understand the situation (strategy and culture), the current state and desired state, and the gaps. The notion is that one works from the current state (there are other schools of thought and exercises to challenge this, by the way, which tend to yield and surface interesting realizations).

It is a generous notion―it accepts the current state―even while it is a bit like Stockholm syndrome.  There is a risk that, as we learn the current state, we become invested, committed to helping the group.

It is also a seductive phrase―there is an implicit assumption that it is possible to get from the current state to the desired state, and within the time permitted.

The reality is that not all groups, not all individuals, can make the transition. We serve the client best by retaining our objectivity, by being the voice of reality, by having the difficult conversations. This sets up a state of almost constant tension―how much can we push/pull the client? Will it be enough? When do you step away?

This is difficult work.  So why do we do it?

My answers

I offer these only to share.  I appreciate that each of you will think about this differently and I respect your answers.

Most of my 23-year career, of which half has been spent inside organizations and half as an external consultant, I have struggled with helping organizations implement change. Even, and sometimes especially, when the team thought this initiative was the most awesome opportunity for the organization, we fell short and sometimes were called off. Post-Implementation Reviews recorded various logistical problems, but really, looking back, many of the root causes related to governance (sponsorship) and resistance/adoption (both within the project team and the organization, especially resistance across silos). The number of project re-starts continues to astound me. I have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of time looking for better ways.

Although change management has apparently been around for almost 40 years, depending on what you ‘count’, it was not available in my various worlds (sure—it was on position descriptions, but no one talked about it, and we had no real process or interest) until about 2003.

We were at the tipping point of a multi-million-dollar, enterprise-wide, centralization/innovation initiative when our Learning and Development Department presented something on change management. I wish I could remember anything about that hour―the impact was at a more visceral level.  The presenter, with whom I have a great relationship still today, gave us a taste. She provided an overview, I’m sure, but there were so many “ah-has” related to what we were shallowly calling “stakeholder management” that it changed the trajectory of my career.

The initiative actually imploded. In hindsight, we had so many change management issues that I am amazed it took so long. However, that organization today has a world-class change management accreditation program and has integrated change management in its delivery framework. It is a testament to the long serving, hard work of the senior director of Learning and Development.

At my core, I am obstinate. In my work, that manifests as “I am not a quitter”. I will fail at a thousand solutions and still have to be dragged away from a dying project. Yes, this is both strength and a weakness, and I manage it. It makes the “wins” all the sweeter.

At the end of the day, the power of this work, for me, lies in:

  • The opportunity to make meaningful differences for our organizations and thereby our communities and our economies:  I have a core belief that healthy economies contribute to the stability and quality of life of our communities. Any small contribution I can make to that is meaningful to me.
  • Any insights or processes that I can bring to ease the pain of change for individuals: It is important to my own value system. And, to the extent that an understanding of change and how we, as humans, transition helps those individuals in their personal lives, as it has helped me, it is both an honor and an obligation.

Wow, that’s heavy stuff.  This is probably why I only have capacity to think about it during vacation.

Enough of a difference

These are the questions that haunt me:

  • “Am I making enough of a difference?” and
  • “How can I/we do better?”

Part of the answer lies in deepening competencies and, for some, in working with mentors. This led me to develop my own list of competencies of change agents (next week’s post).

Part of the answer lies in following developments in our profession and related professions and in innovating how we do what we do.

We are NOT there yet

I have the strong and persistent notion that there is still much opportunity for us to do better.

The research presented in “The Strategy Execution series” and, in particular, “What’s missing” convinces me that there is still much more to be done.

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[...] She asks, “Are you Making a Difference?”. [...]

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Great post Garrett! Thanks for thinking aloud and sharing your analysis!

Comment by Gail Severini ©

I’ve been doing change management for nearly 30 years. It was only last 15 that I even knew what I was doing was called change management. I definitely got into it for all the best motives. I figured people spend most of their waking lives at work and if I could help improve that, I would be really improving the lot of mankind. I also saw this as a “target rich environment,” with soooo many opportunities to improve!

I’ve had my successes in this area and I’m proud of them. But I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. Also, I can’t say the world of work in general is better today and I can’t say the field of change management is better respected and utilized. I can’t even say all the clients I’ve worked for are better off today, despite my best efforts.

Lately, change management is what I do because I’m good at it and I’m known for it, in my circles. It pays me better than anything else I could be doing. I still do my best to make people’s lives better. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I just fulfill the assignment.

It’s like going to a doctor, in a way. A doctor can sometimes HELP make you healthier, if you work with him (or her). But a doctor is mostly powerless to actually make you healthy. All he can really do is a professional job of being a doctor.

Comment by John Flynn

Hello John. Thanks for reading and sharing your story.

I often share your feeling that “I’ve barely scratched the surface”. For me that renders in the “meet them where they are” and how far can we help them progress – i.e. ‘will it be far enough?’ I say this without judgment; having worked inside of organizations I have a deep appreciation for the intransigence of culture. Yet still I worry about the external realities of competition and other market dynamics.

Your analogy to a doctor is one I think about often and I admit that I have a love / hate relationship with the idea. While I recognize it as a reality I concurrently worry that it is too passive. I think that level of commitment I must bring forward must be powerful enough to inspire others that this can be done (“we know how, we have done it before”), MUST be done – powerful enough to help them move. Certainly we do not usurp the role of sponsor – only the sponsor can truly effect the consequences required to make change happen. See, you’ve got me thinking about this again.

BTW I am okay with managing the polarities of these kinds of questions. Seems to me that the right balance only becomes clearer within the context of a particular situation.

Where it lands for me is that organizations should not be treating change management as one-offs in project work only. They should be working on building this as organizational capability all the way into the “nimble” organization. Let me know if you have energy for this conversation.

p.s. Apologies, I am not sure what happened the last time I tried to post this comment. This version should be right.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Thanks, Gail. Your thoughts are very insightful and I particularly enjoyed the bit about the role of generosity in change. Why do you think is this concept is overlooked for many human resource degrees in higher education? Shouldn’t this be a base-level approach?

Comment by Mary Madsen

Hi Mary. Thanks for reading and for taking time to comment. I am not qualified to answer your question as to why this “concept is overlooked for many human resource degrees in higher education”. I would tho hazard a guess that there is a difference between ‘what’ we do and ‘how’ we do it. Topics like EQ get content coverage but not application coverage, as in “let’s try that” or “here’s how that plays out”. That’s true for many topics in many disciplines.

I was chatting with a fellow practitioner a couple of weeks ago and something he says sticks out for me: “you can’t get this stuff in an MBA”. We all recognize it and that’s probably why we seek great mentors.

I have seen some leadership programs covering ‘fringe’ topics – going in the direction from “ethics” to “stewardship” and even to ‘reflection’. Seems to me that a pretty great program could be built around Nancy Kline’s “More Time to Think: A Way of Being in the World”.

“Should it be a base-level approach?” Probably. I will share with you a couple of quotes that probably wove their way into that post from Nancy Kline’s book:

“The quality of everything human beings do, everything – everything – depends on the quality of thinking we do first.”

“How do we help people think for themselves, with rigour, imagination, courage and grace?”.

“The way people behave with each other actually determines the quality of their thinking.”

She suggests 10 components of a “thinking environment” – they are each generous.

If we allow that compliance does not bring the full momentum of our people’s full discretionary effort and commitment (which we need to succeed) then we must appeal to each other’s souls. This requires us to see each other as humans first and treat each other respectfully. The outcomes are much fuller than just ROI.

Comment by Gail Severini ©




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