Change Management: an oxymoron?

When people ask what I do – which has happened a lot in the past couple of weeks as I chatted to people at ConnectingHR and LikeMinds – I invariably say that I work in change management.

But I always feel a bit of a fraud when I do this, for two reasons.

First, I am not sure that one really can manage change.

Second, I worry that by calling myself a change manager, I’m allowing someone else – someone who should be out there, dealing with business issues like change – off the hook. By setting up “change management” as a specific role – a profession, even – it lets people who should really be getting involved say, “he’s the change manager, so it isn’t my problem”.

So, first thing first: can one really manage change? Change is, of course, a constant: it affects every organisation – every person – out there. People change, day by day; and organisations change, too. In a competitive environment, things are changing the whole time. People, products, markets – all change.

Change management is about helping organisations cope with change in a measured, controlled way. The problem for me is that this gives organisations the illusion of control. But change isn’t like that. An organisation might set out to change, having an ultimate goal; but like a boat sailing, making allowances for the wind and the uncertainties of the tides, where they end up might be completely different.

The thing is, they have to try – otherwise, buffeted by wind, dragged by unknown currents, they would be lost.

Any organisation thinking that, once they’ve embarked on a change programme, they’ll get precisely to their destination will come horribly unstuck. You can’t actually control change like that: that’s not the way it works. Whatever kind of control freak your organisation hires, they can’t control change – they have to work with it. “Change management” doesn’t really describe what goes on.

Most change programmes are centrally devised, but implemented in a distributed fashion. I have worked on change programmes in both the private and public sectors; the people actually making the change happen – those directly affected by the change, were far-removed from the central teams planning the change. However strong a lead the centre gives, what is actually implemented will probably be very different to what was envisaged.

This is not necessarily a bad thing – indeed, if you want change to happen, you have to engage with those delivering it: involving those affected by the change is essential – but what they actually do might be quite different from what the centre designs: an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation.

So: change is going to happen, whether you want it to or not, whether you plan it or not – and it makes sense to have an idea – a plan – of where you want the organisation to go, because otherwise you really won’t have any control about where it goes.

But be realistic: you have to try to manage change, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can control it.

The second thing, then: change is going to happen; and it should be everyone’s responsibility, and particularly everyone in management. Lots of organisations now organise work into projects. By definition, they want something to be different after a project: otherwise you wouldn’t set up a project. Projects are all about change. You do a project because you want change.

But lots of organisations use particular people to manage change. They get people like me to help them set the vision, produce a plan, set up a change programme and manage – implement – the change. These change managers may be internal or, like me, external; we know how to work with change. But internal or external, once we’ve done our work, we’ll move onto other projects; and those who don’t – the managers and staff left owning the “business-as-usual” state after the change programme has got to wherever it ended up – will be given a get-out clause. They’ll be able to pick up whatever they want and say, “the change programme didn’t work”.

They can do this because they’ll be able to look at the change programme – the planned, controlled and implemented change – and say that it didn’t get to where they thought it would – it didn’t achieve what they expected. And because they are not responsible – because they hired me or used someone else to do it – they can pin the blame on us and not actually be held to account.

These two points are connected of course. This might seem esoteric; but it is important. Its explain why most government change implementations often fail – not just in the UK, but in the USA too. And, I’d guess, everywhere else.


4 thoughts on “Change Management: an oxymoron?

    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      This might seem like a semantic debate, but it depends how one defines “failure”. If you accept that the outcome of a change programme will not be exactly as one plans – because other stuff comes along to move the change somewhere else – success would become an orderly, measured response to change. I think what I’m saying is that the outcome to change is not a binary success/failure measure.

      I also think that one should always involve change experts – but they should be the people in charge of the change, not people brought in for a few weeks or months. Everyone in organisations should be change experts!

  1. Luc Galoppin

    Great article. The insight that sticks with me is the fact that one should manage change and at the same time not have the illusion of controling the change.

    In my own work with customers I tend to approach planning in the same way: we need to plan because the activity itself gives us focus and makes us tinker the right elements. However, declaring the end product (the change management PLAN) as the only version of the truth is a recipe for disaster. The value is in the activity, not in the outcome.

    Your second point – ownership – follows the same logic: I tend to approach ownership as a process instead of a tag that is given to an ‘owner’. In that respect, focusing only the formal owner (a declared end state) is a recipe for disaster as well. Ownership, if fostered properly, resides in the community and the relationships of those who gradually have come to care about the change outcomes.

    Best regards,

    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      You’ve hit the nail on the head with respect to planning – it is important to plan, but the plan mustn’t become the project goal: it is just one view of how to get there.

      Many project management methodologies (or perhaps project managers) seem to focus on the importance of process and miss that the whole point is to deliver a successful project!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s