Is change management necessary?

Change management does not guarantee success but it improves the ability to achieve desired outcomes, Andy West says

Change is inevitable. Mergers, acquisitions, relocations and redundancies remain a fact of life. Only this month HSBC announced plans to lay off 50,000 staff worldwide in an effort to cut costs by $5bn and maintain profitability. Change is often necessary, but it is rarely easy and a number of change management methods and models have been developed to help manage change in organisations. Not all change demands a formal management approach, but change management models can help the organisation understand how people react and plan for their resulting support needs.

Understanding reaction to change

Consider how people react to change. The Change Curve, a model developed in the 1960s by researcher Elisabeth Kubler Ross to explain the grieving process, has since been widely and usefully applied to help understand people’s reaction to any change. The Change Curve stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. These are not intended to be undeviatingly linear steps – people have to be allowed work through all the stages in their own time.

It is crucial for the successful acceptance of change – whether that it’s a company merger or acquisitions, relocation or redundancies – that individuals are encouraged to work through the change curve. If the change is unexpected or sudden that can have a real impact on the organisation. If employees are unprepared for change the shock is greater and it will take longer for staff to work through to acceptance. This means organisations must consider the method and timing of the change announcement.

To introduce change and manage change effectively, organisations need to ask themselves the following questions. What are we doing to reduce the shock? How can we keep the message consistent, manage the anger and support staff through the bargaining and depression to reach acceptance? Do we understand how people are likely to react and why?

Organisations must consider the commitment to the change at senior management level. Do all managers have the skills necessary to support their staff through the change and communicate the change in a consistent manner? If not, the organisation should plan to improve managerial skills ahead of implementing a major change.

Delivering change

Once an organisation knows some type of change is necessary, a good way to plan how best to deliver that change is to first identify how the organisation operates. In his classic management book Images of Organisation, Gareth Morgan suggested eight metaphors to describe organisations: machine, organism, brain, political systems, flux and transformation, psychic prisons and systems of domination.

Each of these metaphors provides a shorthand for understanding how an organisation operates and how change might be delivered in that organisation. Some of the metaphors are more transparent than others. The ‘machine’ description of an organisation is widely understood and encompasses the idea that all parts of machine have to work together. Each department links effectively to the next. With change, these links have to be maintained, so change is organised and driven from the top. In this case successful change management depends on a clear vision, consistent messages and direction on how the links will be maintained.

An organisation that fits the ‘flux and transformation’ model tends to have very different concepts associated with the way it works than the more traditional machine organisation. It is characterised by constant change, self-organisation, chaos and complexity. Departments and sections are encouraged to try new ideas and changes are driven from the bottom of the organisation. In this case, where change is the natural order, staff need the skills and support to develop ideas and implement them directly.

Both managing change with individuals and implementing change with an eye to the appropriate organisational metaphor require the underpinning of effective stakeholder engagement. There are several principles of stakeholder engagement starting with the hard fact that while you can overlook important stakeholders, you can be sure they won’t forget you. Identifying stakeholders should be a continuous practice – new stakeholders emerge during a change, while old ones can fade away. It is vital to review your priority stakeholders continuously, prioritising and segmenting stakeholders at any moment in time as this changes often.

Consider how best to engage stakeholders in change. Some stakeholders respond better to change driven by their peers, for example. The key is to strive to understand what drives and concerns stakeholders before communicating your aims to them in a context that works for both the organisation and the individual. No matter how rational an individual may appear, emotion tends to trump reason when it comes to change and it is important to accept that this may affect responses and behaviour in unexpected ways. Sometimes persuasive words are not enough to convey the necessity for change or how it is to be implemented. Demonstration trumps argument in many cases so it is a good idea to consider how it might be possible to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ employees about the benefits of a proposed change.

Tips to manage change

It doesn’t matter how complex the technology is, when dealing with change, people are always more complicated and need to be a priority to ensure a successful or managed outcome. Some points to consider include:

  1. Develop a vision for the future and aim to communicate it effectively, to help people understand why the vision is necessary and why things cannot stay as they are.
  2. Invest in effective two-way communication – and remember to listen more than you speak.
  3. Make sure communication about change is little, often, consistent, appropriate.
  4. Deal with concerns, but keep change moving forward.
  5. Reduce the learning anxiety associated with accessing the skills needed to support organisational change.

Change management does not guarantee success, but by understanding where we are, who we are and communicating our goals effectively the organisation minimises risk and improves its ability to deliver the successful outcomes desired from change.


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