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.