What businesses get wrong about change management

Change management doesn’t have to be a horror show

The phrase “change management” may conjure up an unpleasant vision of an army of consultants roaming around your office and a large monthly bill hitting your bottom line, but in truth it’s something that applies to all businesses and projects, small or large.

If there is one scary thought about change management, it is that change is very rarely manageable. As pointed out by Michael Jarrett in his 2003 paper, The seven myths of change management: “…the rapid development of change and its divergent antecedents means that change is not something that can be managed with certainty. Outcomes can be both divergent and unexpected.”

Which, in layman’s terms, means that you never know exactly what to expect when you begin, and things never run as you intended. Still, change management isn’t as scary as it sounds. By following some simple rules, it’s possible to successfully introduce changes into a business with a minimum of fuss and inconvenience. Equally, it’s very easy to exacerbate this situation, which explains the origin of all those horror stories. Here are seven things that businesses get wrong about change management.

Change management mistake #1: Businesses don’t understand readiness to change

Let’s start with a fact: your business can only take on a certain amount of change at one time. The specific amount may vary from organization to organization, but it remains true for all. If your business is at its limit, you need to wait before forcing more change, or make the decision to substitute one project for another. How do you know if you’ve reached capacity? The most obvious symptom is a drop in efficiency, as your employees struggle with new systems or new ways of working. But it can also be seen culturally. Employees may become stressed and the overall happiness of the organization can drop; watch out for fragmentation between departments and back-biting towards leadership.

Change management mistake #2: Assuming everyone is the same

Darth Sidious may have commanded a clone army, but you’re not Darth Sidious, and your employees aren’t clones. Businesses that don’t understand this are setting themselves up for a fall. To implement change programs successfully, take time to learn the motivations and fears of your employees. Accommodate for the fact that everyone approaches change differently. Include employees as early as possible; a consultative approach will allay fears and enable the different personality types within the organization to get on board with the change.

Change management mistake #3: Failure to plan

Even though Jarrett rightly pointed out that change management is rarely manageable, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try at all. If you don’t plan, you will definitely fail; if you do plan, you have the basis for successful change management. Implement a strong team to control the program, giving them clear marching orders and a clear decision-making structure. Ensure they meet regularly and have access to all necessary resources. This is especially true of human resources; they must have access to the right people. Make sure your leadership teams understand the program and the team’s tasks before the project commences.

Change management mistake #4: Sticking too rigidly to the plan

Okay, it’s better than not planning at all, but if you can’t flex your plan to react to project changes, you will fail. Budgets can overrun, functionality will have to be redesigned, a third party will miss a deadline, all these things will change the environment in which your project team will have to work. A team that can stay nimble and plan for change will be more successful than those that stick slavishly to the original plan. That’s not to say things should be allowed to run wild, though, as we will see in the next mistake. There’s a difference between a project that is out of control and a project that is in control but taking longer to finish than expected – and the outcome of an out of control project is usually on the bottom line.

Change management mistake #5: Underestimating the risks

It’s good to be an optimist, but a few pessimists can be valuable for a team. Change management projects don’t always run to plan, as we saw in the section above, so make sure you plan for the worst as well as the best. A successful change management program will have flexibility planned in from day one. You have your best case scenario, but with a series of contingency periods built in around the key risks. Ensure that you have not underestimated the impact that the change will have on the organization, both on processes and on your actual people.

Change management mistake #6: Thinking you’re surrounded by psychics

Assuming that everyone understands the plan is a recipe for disaster. The truths:

  1. Most people aren’t involved in the project at the same level as the core team
  2. They’ve most likely forgotten everything you told them at that kick-off meeting a few months back
  3. They probably don’t care about your project anyway, unless it affects them directly

Communicate regularly, clearly and concisely. Once you’ve told everyone what to expect, tell them again. There is no substitution for good communication.

Change management mistake #7: Businesses think change is only about process

Some businesses think change management is only about a system or process. They make sure that everything works from a technical and procedural viewpoint, but they forget about the human element. Any business change, large or small, has an associated cultural impact. Not taking this into account leaves a large part of the project unmanaged. Dealing with the human side of change can be messy and difficult, but that’s precisely why it must be addressed. Most resistant reactions to change come from a sense of insecurity about the future. “Will my role still be needed?” “What if the system does my work for me?” Effective change management will involve clarity about the future state of “business as usual.” Be transparent and address insecurities out in the open.

The golden rule: be prepared

Change management isn’t as scary as it sounds. But if it’s not approached carefully, it can be a little like herding cats (as EDS showed us on Super Bowl Saturday back in 2000), turning a small change into a big headache. Avoiding these seven pitfalls will make sure you’re well on your way to a smooth transition.

Are you in the midst of change? What lessons have you learned from the process? Have you ever fallen into one of these holes or do you have a rock-solid process for managing change in your organization? As always, let us know in the comments.

Post by James Gardner

is a digital technology strategist. Now working in the pharmaceutical industry, he previously worked at Volume, one of the largest independent B2B digital marketing agencies in the UK. Throughout his career, he has dealt with everything from social media and cloud computing to storage area networks and virtualization, giving him a broad view on the technology issues facing businesses today. In his spare time he can be found making cars out of Legos - with his two kids obviously - or dreaming of a walk-on part in a Romero zombie movie.