“What does the Change Manager actually do around here?”

Allan O
Analyst’s corner
Published in
6 min readNov 14, 2020

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Why is change management non-linear? How do we describe this non-linear concept to project boards and decision-makers?

Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Managing people through change is far from linear.

“Why can’t we just ‘change people’ in a couple of steps? Why don’t they ‘act rationally’, and see the good in what we are trying to do here? Why don’t people just adapt to the change?”

As change professionals, we engage stakeholders to inform, persuade and work with them. We also manage the ‘project plan’ for the people side of change. We tell project teams of current and potential future people-related risks and issues. What about our many meetings with vocal, resistant or actively-engaged and curious stakeholders? These stakeholders are often unafraid to negotiate certain outcomes. This is where we need to tread a fine line! Other stakeholders ask detailed questions which often need subject matter expert support. How many of these activities are linear and quite black and white?

People need to ‘feel’ ready — in their thoughts and feelings — about your change. They need adequate support in various shapes and guises. This support diminishes obstacles to adopting ‘pro-change’ behaviours. Learning what successful readiness looks like — in their eyes — takes time. The art of working with people is complicated — like developing and embedding the future state itself!

How many stakeholders does your project have? How many are likely to resist your future state? How long does it take your project team each month to deal with their complaints and reservations? How many people can and will escalate to leadership? Do you have the time and energy to respond to the escalations? So, one or more groups decide to refuse adjusting to your future state? What is the cost to your project if you experience this ‘stakeholder mutiny’?

Are project leaders incentivised to only deliver the future state? Does it matter to them how much your stakeholders oppose it at the end? Is the business case for your entire project looking for a return on investment? If so, wouldn’t a higher return means the change has to ‘stick’ and be sustainable?

Or in other words, can you get people onboard with your future state in a neat, linear way?

Change activities seem linear and sequential….

Many change activities and deliverables appear on project plans as line items — ticked off at regular intervals. These line items belie the reality.

The reality: fighting fires, raising risks, working with resistance. Longer-than expected emergency meetings to help groups adjust to change. Or to vent! None of these change activities are linear. People need to feel ready — in their feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Finding out what this successful readiness looks like takes time. The implementation of the future state itself is often lengthy and complicated. So is the messy, circular art of checking to ensure everyone is coming along with you!

The difference between doing change ‘to’ people, and doing change ‘with’ people — an important Change Management concept.
Source: Author and Flaticon (under licence)

…even many change models are far from linear!

Change professionals can choose from many change models to apply to their project ¹ ². Even the change curve is not linear. The change curve adapts from clinical origins to organisational change. This curve suggests that we move from one stage to another in adjusting to change. Yet in practice, it’s likely that we may regress at times to previous stages ³ ⁴.

People grieve in their own unpredictable way. They may kick substance abuse habits in a unique way. And adjusting to your change at work? Again, this depends on their capacity to adapt as a person, and as a team member. Will they read your communications? Are they interested in your change? Do you ‘sell’ the change in an enticing way? Have you adequate support in place? How does their team feel about the change?

Teams are interconnected, requiring professionals with a systems thinking mindset ⁵. Why? Project teams need a clear understanding of the ‘people’ impacts of future changes. Of course, project teams will clarify a ‘technical’ layer, but the ‘people’ side is the piece de resistance. The ‘people’ layer illustrates team operations now, in future and the difference. Change professionals have to articulate change impacts to team processes and operating systems.

Image by Eluj from Pixabay

Decisions create ripples, and people are unpredictable

Project teams create ripples through the organisation. It’s likely they don’t mean to. But decisions and actions have consequences. Other projects running at the same time, organisation changes and other factors create further ripples. People’s thoughts/perceptions/behaviours from each ripple then create a shared meaning ⁶.

Ripples from delays and surprises

Your project team’s actions create both expected and unexpected consequences ⁷. Project delays and mis-managed expectations are examples of these actions. At other times, communications don’t ‘land’, and were not read or understood. How many project teams have sent many well-planned messages to their community? Project go-live is almost upon the team, and they feel assured their communications are sound. Yet, Helpdesk, Human Resources and anyone who will listen start to receive frenzied calls. Yes, from those very people who say they don’t know about the change. Stakeholder groups cry out that they weren’t consulted.

Or your project team discover shortfalls in their future state, adjusting project scope. Stakeholders may discover dis-benefits from the future state. This sometimes happens as a last-minute surprise! Project teams then have to investigate. Change professionals adapt to draft communications to mitigate any fallout.

Trust and change adjustment takes time

It takes time and effort to sit with impacted people, and walk a mile in their shoes. This empathy and clear understanding needs to be of both current and future state. The time taken compounds when we have an emerging future state. Imagination becomes important, as does checking in with people. This activity is hard to represent on a project timeline, in discrete, “done/not done” ways.

Recap

Winning over people to your change is fraught with emotions. It is hard to estimate how long it takes to build a relationship, or win someone over to the idea of your change. Many change models seek to conceptualise how people adjust to change. These models are simple, and easy to remember while limited. People’s responses are challenging — if not impossible- to predict. We have the capacity to move ‘backwards’ in adjusting to change, before moving forwards again. And people’s change adaptation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Ripples from project decisions and other factors play a part in how your stakeholders perceive your change. Therefore it takes time and regular check-ins with stakeholders. The intangible yet powerful outcomes of this time and effort to circle back to stakeholders doesn’t display on a project plan.

Your call to action

How do you convince your project team of the circular, back-and forth nature of working with people to win stakeholder hearts and minds? Can you articulate to your team how you make it easier for people to adjust to changes from your project?

My book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out my online course on Change Management.

Reference List

1. 6 of the Best Change Management Frameworks. https://change.walkme.com/change-management-frameworks/. Accessed October 31, 2020.

2. Change Management Models Comparison. https://changeactivation.com/change-management-models/. Accessed October 31, 2020.

3. University of Exeter. The Change Curve. Hum Resour Learn Dev. 2017:2. https://www.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/humanresources/documents/learningdevelopment/the_change_curve.pdf.

4. Cleverism. Understanding the Kubler-Ross Change Curve. Cleverism. https://www.cleverism.com/understanding-kubler-ross-change-curve/. Published 2015.

5. Westover JH. The Role Of Systems Thinking In Organizational Change And Development. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/06/15/the-role-of-systems-thinking-in-organizational-change-and-development/?sh=409294de2c99. Published 2020. Accessed October 31, 2020.

6. Elwin T. Organization sabotage and the butterfly effect. https://tobyelwin.com/organization-sabotage-and-the-butterfly-effect/. Published 2012. Accessed October 31, 2020.

7. Innovation butterfly — Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innovation_butterfly. Accessed October 31, 2020.



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Allan O
Analyst’s corner

Senior organisational change manager. Psychologist. Author of The Change Manager’s Companion. www.humanfactorsadvisory.com.au