Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.


The Big Wall: when change is incompatible with organizational culture

Often professionals agree at a high level that there is a role for people change management (PCM – our term) in transformational programs – the summary often looks like this:

  • yes, there is a role for change management, generally speaking, and it should be broad and deep
  • yes, there is a work for PCM inside of programs and projects from a tactical point of view
  • yes, Organizational Change Management (OCM) in the largest sense addresses the culture and this is fundamental to the success of initiatives particularly because business plans and programs often make erroneous assumptions about the compatibility of the culture and programs

However, one source of program failures lies in the last sneaky statement “business plans and programs often make erroneous assumptions about the compatibility of the culture and programs”.

What if we probe a couple of issues more deeply?

  1. How should a decision maker (at the Business Planning level), Program Manager or Project Manager determine if there is a precarious gap between the culture of the organization and the ability to implement a transformational change successfully?
  2. How is the work of OCM on culture different from the change work inside of programs? Where is the ‘line’? How can senior OCM practitioners (often an internal HR person with multiple responsibilities) and tactical project change managers work most effectively together?

Our firm has deliberated these and designed our own proprietary Program approach which includes a deep people change management component.  In short, we combine the experience and talent of accredited, senior professionals (strategists, OCM, change managers, project managers, analysts and other SMEs) in a structured framework that tests for and resolves these issues as early in the process as the client permits.  What tactical advice can we share? To keep my answer brief:

  1. Our tactical Change Managers use tools like Prosci’s “Change Characteristics” and “Organizational Attributes” Worksheets as our starting point and we leverage additional custom-developed analyses, including detailed Stakeholder and Business Impact Assessments. We do phased interviews to acquire a broad perspective (which also generates engagement). If we identify a gap, we immediately tap our senior OCM practitioners for collaboration and escalate if deemed necessary.  We have found that there are specific competencies required for such assessments.
  2. There is no real line – it is a dynamic continuum.  The “line” moves with every activity that affects the culture. A full and shared understanding, between the professionals, of the challenges and a commitment from the organization to address it are essential – and extraordinarily rare. Collaboration and coordinated activities are key – where the project change activities are interconnected with the larger OCM work.

The most significant challenge we usually face is denial of the leadership team.  The tacit assumption – that programs are aligned enough with culture – is an incredibly difficult barrier to overcome for many reasons.  I will, perhaps, address this in another blog post if any are interested. 

Variation also posted on the Organizational Change Practitioners Group Discussion on LinkedIn – special thanks to participants in the group who raised the questions and comments that prompted this post.


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