At my monthly book club gathering this week, I shared that I had just returned from a conference of change management professionals (CMP) in Las Vegas, where I had presented on the topic of my dissertation research on leading change in complex systems. One of the several impressive ladies in my cozy living room that night responded with a simple question: “what is change management?” I get this query often and I’m not sure why I still struggle to provide a good answer. I usually say things like “change is hard” and “we all struggle with change in our lives and so do organizations.” Then, I typically conclude with a brief definition of what we do, “change professionals help people and their organizations manage the change process more effectively.” Efforts like the implementation of new technology, company mergers, or simply new leadership. This definition is lacking! Maybe a better response would be to share insight into the enormous impact of failed change? The reality is that organizations spend vast amounts of money on their carefully planned change initiatives only to have them fail – a 70% failure rate is often reported, not to mention the countless demoralized employees left feeling weary and jaded in the wake of failed change. Here is the rub: these colossal failures are almost never for technical reasons. For the most part, they fail because leaders don’t understand the necessity of managing the people side of change. Or, if they understand the significance of people in the process, they don’t know how to help people navigate change.

Here are three key things to remember when managing organizational change:

  1. Be inclusive: People support what they help to create, so get as many people as possible seriously involved and working together early in the process.
  2. Create change-supportive environments: Small change can have a big effect and the most sustainable change is a bottom-up (versus top-down) affair. This kind of change is derived from values-driven, emotionally safe, and risk-supportive work environments. A supportive environment is an essential ingredient to innovative, change-ready organizations.
  3. Communicate the purpose of the change, continually: Ensure the change message is compelling and is repeated (often!) in various ways using multiple mediums. I’ve truly never heard a leader accused of over-communicating.

Here are three key things to know about helping people through the change process:

  1. Accepting change is a psychological process of transformation: Change is the event and transformation is the psychological process of coming to terms with the event. People (including change professionals) need understanding and support to effectively manage the process.
  2. Managing change is likened to the emotional stages of grief: First, there is denial and the pain of loss, followed by fear of the unknown, until finally reaching a place of acceptance. As effectively conveyed in the William Bridges model, there are three phases that people must experience and navigate to achieve transformation: 1) endings; 2) neutral zone; and, 3) new beginnings.
  3. Resistance is natural and ought to be embraced: By the time most employees learn about the change, the organization’s leaders are likely to have already made the transformation and may fail to understand why employees seem resistant. Worse yet, the perceived resistance frustrates them.

As for understanding change management, I was encouraged after attending the Association of Change Management Professionals (ACMP) conference. For this CMP, it was a happy experience, and not just because of our rockin poolside party at Ceasar’s Palace. The conference was most exciting for the realization that not only is a widespread understanding of change management on the rise, but more and more people and their organizations are beginning to understand the importance and value ($$) of managing change well. The message I heard repeatedly was this, “in the rapid-paced environment where I work we understand the importance of managing change and we have hired experts to help us with the process.” Wow, very cool!

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