How Change Management is Changing

One of the key overarching themes in my book on organisational agility is that digital transformation is far from being the linear process with a beginning, middle and an end that many take it to be. The trajectory instead should be towards creating a new type of organisation that is in itself designed around continuous change and the ability to respond to rapidly changing contexts. In that sense the process of change management never ends. More than ever we are in the business of continuously managing change.

Traditional approaches to change management have long followed fixed, linear approaches that take little account of how the environment in which we operate has itself fundamentally shifted. So our very approach to how we manage change also needs to change in some fundamental ways:

  • The balance between vision and iteration:- achieving a new level of organisational agility requires continuous iteration and adaptation but we also need a compelling vision and an understood organising direction. This means that one of the key questions we have to answer is what is fixed and what is flexible. We need to establish the parameters to understand what needs to change rapidly, and what might change far more slowly. And beyond this, to understand how feedback from faster iteration can inform the slower-changing strategy
  • Barriers to organisational change:- removing blockers and barriers to change was previously seen as one part in a multi-step process. Now, continuously shifting contexts mean that the barriers to moving fast are themselves always changing and emergent, so we need to work consistently and unceasingly at overcoming them
  • Parallel, not linear:- one of the most famous models for change management is John Kotter’s 8 steps. In the late 90s when he first described this linear approach, Kotter was setting out what is essentially the waterfall version of change management. Yet, as I talk about a lot in the book, rapidly shifting contexts require far more adaptive approaches, and that includes how we empower change. Interestingly, in his 2014 book Accelerate, Kotter updated his thinking in response to the perceived need to accelerate the change process itself. One of the elements that he talks about is the need to shift from this strictly linear approach to one in which we are enabling change to happen on multiple fronts and where we are in effect running the stages concurrently and continuously
  • Fluid, not fixed:- just as planning needs to be constantly adaptive, so the very process of change management should be subject to continuous review and the application of learning as the process unfolds. Many companies may think that they are doing this but in reality few build in the opportunity for regular retrospectives and reflection, and enable enough fluidity for the process itself to be adaptive. I liked how Jason Fried described how they treat their company like a product, constantly iterating and improving. So just as the organisation itself is changing, so does the process of change.
  • Open, not closed:- traditional efforts in change management tend to be inwardly facing, focused on the internal structures, cost-savings, efficiency drivers. All of which may well be relevant. But cost-savings and efficiences in themselves do not create a new organisation. Large companies become very inward facing over time and yet in the digital world the exact opposite is what is required. A focus on creating a truly networked organisation (through technology, data and people) creates greater opportunity. Ecosystem is a horrible word but it really is about understanding all sides of the ecosystem (customers, employees, partners, suppliers) in which you exist and the most beneficial connections that you can create. The other side of openness of-course is about transparency in transformation. GDS really did set the bar high in publicly documenting the activity associated with the transformation of services, and their ongoing performance. The government is not a business of-course, but I do think that the value of secrecy in these things is often overplayed and that there is huge value (not least in attracting talent) in demonstrating what you’ve achieved and what a great place the business is (or is becoming). As can be seen from the Coop digital blog (created, unsurprisingly, largely by the old GDS team). So a rebalance, and a new approach is needed.
  • Experience, over efficiency:- I believe that the over-arching focus on customer experience which is shaping so much organisational strategy right now can be a powerful driver for change. Truly re-orienting the organisation around the customer means fundamental change for many businesses. Yet alongside the customer experience we need to focus on reorienting employee experience. This is the human side of digital transformation. Without this it cannot succeed. Employees that are intrinsically motivated towards achieving a new vision are a powerful enabler for change
  • More leadership, less management:- that word ‘manage’. It really is quite unhelpful. It suggests that we can always be in complete control of the process. That the whole thing is top down. The shifts I’m describing may feel slightly chaotic but then I think the reality of true change is that it is always slightly chaotic. And that’s why ‘lead’ is a better word than ‘manage’. In Accelerate Kotter talks about a larger ‘volunteer army’ serving as the change engine, and there’s something really powerful about employees who want the change being the ones who drive the change. And there’s something equally powerful about a visionary leader with a compelling vision that people who want change really want to follow.

So many businesses are undergoing significant amounts of change right now. Digital Transformation might have become a buzz-word but it is a reality in many organisations. So it is important that we acknowledge alongside the need to create a new type of organisation that is fit-for-purpose for the digitally-empowered world in which we now operate, that the principles and process of change management itself also need to change.

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