Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Will “Change Management” become extinct? The evolution of Change Management. Post 3 of 3

“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”—James Belasco and Ralph Stayer, Flight of the Buffalo (1994)

Holding on to the pastIn the last two posts, Jennifer Frahm and I considered the costs of the old “change the people or change the people” mindset, and then we looked at the environment of continuous chaos and thought leadership in developing nimble organizations.

This begs the question, “If we ever move in the direction of nimble organizations, will Change Management, as we know it today, become extinct?

Will “Change Management” become extinct?

Is this radical? Are any organizations really thinking about becoming nimble? It seems to us that many are. We see an increase in the reference to “People” and “Culture” in titles at the VP and CXO level, as well as an increase in initiatives that address organizational culture.

Organizations are also increasingly, if perhaps a little slowly, dipping their toes into enterprise collaborative platforms that encourage symmetrical interactions and reduce hierarchy. Technology tools like social media and gamification are unlocking this power by providing platforms that scale and enable dialogue.

This tentative tapping and experimentation with the speed of information sharing, clarification, engagement, and momentum is both exhilarating and threatening to many. As we all become more comfortable with the transparency and learn how to ride the vast waves of information that come to shore on employees desktops, we are evolving new cultures and new social contracts with each other.

Those in hierarchical positions of power have much to lose in the contractual redefinition. Could it be more palatable to “change the organization” via muscled-through change than face a redefined social contract that redistributes status? Jennifer did a great post on this: “A collaborative workplace culture? Six questions to ask first.”

Early signs?

We see an increase in the tension around questions such as, “Is change management a competency or a process?” “Where should change management live in an organization?”, (e.g., in HR or in the PMO), and “Is change management tactical or strategic?” Like in the example of Ricardo Semler’s “Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace” referenced in Post 2, the trend is to integrate change management, as in the development of change capabilities within line managers and individual employees.

Is it possible that some organizations will no longer require discrete change management approaches and methodologies as we know them today? Surely this makes sense. If change management is part of the organizational DNA then we do not need to be shown how to do it. Breathing is instinctive to humans; does change also become more instinctive in organizations?

Surely we need to move from reactive, tactical, and prescriptive change management approaches past even OD-rich notions of employee “buy-in” to rolling, integrated, iterative, and engaged change where:

  • Employees observe and participate appropriately in real-time strategy development, planning, and execution
  • The organization is co-constructed in response to external stimulus and internal impetus—a hyper-connected organization
  • An organization’s effectiveness is defined by its dialogic competence and its ability to have conversations of change that address the quest of relevance

We can take a lesson from Zach Brown, Executive Director, West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness. In a blog post on the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness blog, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly first,” he speaks to the need to evolve their approaches to ending homelessness:

“Now, let’s be clear that I am not advocating that we run off half-cocked, trying random things at every turn—plus, we already know many best practices that should drive our strategies. What I am advocating for is a thoughtful venture into the sometimes scary lands of progress that challenge our conventions, linear thought, safety nets, and our fear of failure.”

Time and timing

It is possible that, if this current economic cycle can continue long enough without another catastrophic pothole, we could see some real traction on advancing and evolving the ability of organizations to adapt. It’s that catastrophic pothole that provides the legitimacy to senior executives to move back into well-rehearsed and understood routines of command and control, change the person, change the organization.

Meanwhile, as we meet organizations where they are in their own journeys, we may find ourselves bringing the best of what we currently know about leading and managing change. We may actually need to “change the person,” just not the “person” who is usually changed. Irony huh? Or perhaps we nudge our leaders and sponsors and follow the evolution of the organization into a brave new modus operandi; one could call it a changed organization.

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Jennifer Frahm for joining forces on this series.  It is always a benefit to have a “thinking partner” to expand, challenge, and refine ideas, and although we are in different countries (hemispheres, even) and have never met, it has been amazing for us to collaborate. You can find more from Jennifer on her blog at “Conversations of Change.”

Well, where do you land? How long will we be implementing Change Management in structured Project Management models? Can old industrial cultures ever convert to more fluid, dynamic organizations?

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5 Comments so far
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A very interesting and excellent series Gail (and Jennifer). I think there is a level of consideration that ultimately forms a quiet background for the questions you pose: Will people in an organization ultimately act to preserve the organization or to preserve themselves in it? The answer may seem obvious. It bears on your question of the fate of change management.

If the primary goal of action within an organization is to preserve the organization then we need to understand how humans will act (based on the neuroscience of our behavior) to account for how choices will be made. This is the neuroscience of choice behaviors. Change management can evolve and flourish under this paradigm. Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, can be a resource in this regard (for those who wish to fathom it).

If the primary activity is people seeking to preserve themselves within an organization (where preservation of the organization is subservient to personal interests) then change management will remain subjugated to the giving of self-aggrandizing orders. In this context change management might ultimately fall.

Within each of us there exists a balance point between what we do to serve ourselves and what we do to serve those around us. Arguably both ends of the spectrum are areas of trouble, and “healthy” minds orient around some form of middle ground. This becomes reflected in the issues of organizational change. For example, to put the question in a crucible of challenge, what percentage of CEO’s would advocate a change for their organization that would result in making themselves obsolete?

We need to be reasonable, and understand the practicalities. Yet, I think (as would be argued by authors Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, Leonard Mlodinow, Shankar Vedantam, David Rock, and others) we need to understand how the brain works, and how this ramifies to offer perspective on the question you posed. Personally, I am more than hopeful for the discipline of change management (or change leadership, or other preferred term). I think it will not only continue but will flourish (perhaps under a different label). As we gain greater and greater neuroscience insight during this era of rampant social evolution we must accept the realities of our evolved brain, and work with this in entirely new social contexts.

Comment by limbiczen

Profound insights, John, as always. I was going to write that, for me this also goes to the culture of the organization but that feels flat.

Perhaps it goes more to “who we are” in the organization – to your point, how our personal agendas and values intersect with that of the organization, starting at the top (where the power is).

Much, much more meaty context that begs for deeper discussion.

Thanks so much for taking time to write.

Comment by Gail Severini

I think it’ll take another generation or so, but in it’s current form I think change management should become extinct. Reason being, I often feel as a change agent that people in the organization think I’M responsible for the change when in fact they’re the ones who have to do things differently. I’m there to facilitate change and I think leaders and managers should be the ones developing change capability.

The other reason is that kids today (oh gosh, I said “kids today!” I’m officially my dad!) are consuming data at an alarming rate and expect change to happen more often so they are more equipped to do that compared to my generation and the generation before me who are now C-level execs.

I, and many others grew up in a corporate “don’t rock the boat, keep things stable” mentality and today’s youth are growing up in an environment that changes much more rapidly.

Comment by jasonlittle (@jasonlittle)

Thanks, Jason. With two teenagers of my own I have been known to say to them, “Welcome to the rodeo!”. Best for the holidays.

Comment by Gail Severini

A point of view from Chris Worley, Research Scientist at Center for Effective Organizations at The University of Southern California

Comment by Gail Severini

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