Change is about taking well thought through, planned, communicated and executed change actions. it really is that simple.

The Three Tenets of Change

1 People choose to change or not, they cannot be changed

Methodologies purporting to ‘handle the people side of change’ or ‘change one individual at a time’ sound laudable but they are implausible.

The one thing you cannot change is an individual.

You as an individual choose to change or not. You may choose out of fear, intimidation, desire or because you cannot see a better alternative. You may choose to go along with the change anywhere from enthusiastically to reluctantly.

Or you can choose not to change. Then you have to choose whether you’ll stay in your job (and undermine the change) or find another job elsewhere.

The primary driver of your choice will be the (perceived) nature of the proposed change.

  • If it is perceived to be practical, positive and sensible then you are likely to choose to accept it.
  • If it doesn’t pass these three tests you are unlikely to choose to support and adopt the change.

Concurrently you will be assessing if the change is good for you personally. Will you be a winner, a loser or not really impacted? If you are a loser as a result of the change then, again, you are less likely to support it.

(Although, having said that, we have had teams of people who will be losing their jobs as a result of a change program actively implementing the changes for the betterment of their peers who will be remaining.  Supposed ‘losers’ can support the change.)

Good change management will identify the potential losers and enlist them, transfer them to a ‘winning’ position or encourage them to leave so that they don’t become a source of resistance.

Tenet 1: Change is not about changing people/individuals.

2  Redundances do not make change a 'people process'

Of course some people are not given the choice to change—their role is made redundant, they are to leave.

Redundancies need to be managed with clarity, care and empathy. You are dealing with people’s lives as well as their careers. You are often thrusting them into an unknown situation—unemployment—when they are likely to have ongoing financial commitments, family issues and personal pride (how many people boast that they’ve been made redundant?) Telling someone they are redundant by, say, SMS or email is both insensitive and unethical.

For those made redundant, provision of outplacement services is essential to manage the individual’s transition and give them a process for restarting their career. It is also vital for the ‘survivors’; those who still have a job can feel ‘guilty’ they still have a job unless they can see their ex-colleagues being well looked after.

The other critical factor here is ‘clarity’. Clarity as to why they have been made redundant and that they are redundant. It is amazing how many managers fudge the exit interview to a point where the staff member is unaware they have been made redundant!

Clarity, sensitivity and empathy are critical when dealing with redundancies. But redundancies are the consequences of change, not the nature of change. The presence of redundancies does not make change a ‘people’ process.

Tenet 2: If change results in redundancies, this does not make it a people process. Outplacement is a people process, change is a business alternation process. 

3  Change the business, not the people

This is not to say that people are irrelevant and should be ignored—certainly not. But it is to say the change process is greater than the individual.

When you join a new organization, are you consulted about whether or not you’ll (change and) adopt the organization’s ways of working? No, you are expected to adapt or leave.

Similarly with a change program. As an individual it is not a question of whether or not you agree with the change—you are expected to adopt it or leave.

Helping people transition, to understand the nature and purpose of the change, is critical as these are inputs to their choice/decision. Gaps and misunderstandings in relation to the proposed change can breed rumors, fears, disappoint and resistance.

Well thought through, well-planned, well-communicated and well-executed change can minimize resistance. There is always the possibility that some people will resist for real or erroneous reasons, but resistance can be minimized by a good business change process.

Tenet 3: Change is a business process.

The four critical success factors of successful change

1          Well thought through

For a change to be seen as well thought through it needs to make clear in easily understandable terms:

  1. What you are trying to achieve—your desired business outcomes
  2. Why? What the benefits are at the organizational and individual levels
  3. What will it look like, feel like, operate like in the future
  4. What support the staff will get on the way as they transition
  5. What the collateral damage is (eg redundancies) and how it will be managed
  6. What level of ‘get up to speed’ time is allowed?
  7. Have all of the downstream ramifications been thought through—eg process changes, new performance measures, etc.
  8. What are the change principles/policies/constraints in place to guide the change program?

Each of these factors will be assessed by each individual from his or her own perspective. They’ll decide if they make sense, are acceptable and are worthy of the effort to change. But this acceptance (or not) is a reaction to the change, not the change itself.

Obviously, if the change is neither well thought through nor seen as worthwhile, however good the change implementation process, it will fail.

A bank embarked on a major reorganization and then included a staff reduction exercise too. The project was well planned, communicated and executed; it failed as it was inherently a bad idea.

2          Well planned

Chaotic change, change with major gaps or deficiencies will fail. Your change program needs to ensure:

  1. All of the change activities required have been identified—both on and off the project

  2. Who is going to do what in which order

  3. What are the visible milestones? Are these interim outcomes indicators of the ‘improvements’ ahead?

  4. When will we (start to) see some measurable benefits?

  5. Who needs to be involved; when, why and how?

  6. What needs/is going to happen next?

People are not in control of the change process but they need to feel the change process is under control. Sudden surprises, alternations in direction, gaps in the change process all undermine confidence that “this lot know what they are doing”.

The key to success is to identify ALL of the change activities required, not just the change activities executed by the project team, as happens too often.

The project team had been working on the new financial system for 18 months. Then, six weeks before implementation, they gave the business a brief on what was going to be delivered and demanded that the business generate a ‘gap analysis’ and change plan to support the successful implementation of the system. This was totally unreasonable so the project was delayed three months to allow the business changes to be identified and executed.

3          Well communicated

The communications program obviously impacts how the change is perceived. But the operative word is ‘impacts’ rather than determines. Key here is ‘honesty’ as, if staff see the communications as dishonest or propaganda, they’ll create their own stories. They want to know:

  1. Who is impacted by the changes? This can include families as well as staff members.

  2. Who owns the change? Who is leading, directing and controlling it?


    Those managing the communications program also need to determine:

  3. What is each group of stakeholder’s agendas? Are they being addressed?

  4. What messages are required to achieve the desired outcomes and preempt the reactions?

  5. How is the communication process going to take place? Does this make sense?

  6. How can the staff communicate back their concerns, observations, issues?

  7. How will the effectiveness of the communications program be assessed? And by whom?

Too often a lot of time and expense is expended on communications in all forms that is ineffective. It does not address the staff’s issues, is not seen to be open and honest, or is the wrong information at the wrong time.

Good communications brings people along on the journey; but it is a support stream, not a change activity.

The new CEO wanted some ‘success’ announced every week in his ‘change communication’. In the first few weeks this was fine; but then there were weeks with no change finalized, no success ready to be announced. To satisfy the CEO, ‘successes’ were brought forward and pre-announced. The staff began to see a gap between what they were reading and what they were experiencing. The change program lost the support of the staff and failed.

4          Well executed

The key to any change activity is that it works; first time. Poorly implemented change can destroy all the thinking, planning and communicating.

You are trying to move from the current to a defined future state. Each step needs to be purposeful and successful. Each change step will be measured by the staff as a success or not in terms of:

  1. Is it clear what the change program is trying to achieve?

  2. Is it clear what each change activity is to achieve—immediately and in the longer term?

  3. Is it clear what measurable output each change activity is to deliver?

  4. How will each change output’s quality/fit-for-purpose be assessed?

  5. Does everyone know what they have to do, when, why and how?

  6. Does everyone have the competency to perform to the standard required? How do we know this?

  7.  Does the organization have the capability to support and enable the size, scale and complexity of this change program?

  8. How successful has the change program been to date? (And how successful have change programs been in the past?)

Change programs can start off well, as they are mostly talk and planning but not much action and deliverables. But as the velocity of change increases the perception of ‘a successful change program’ or ‘a complete shambles’ will emerge.

Users of new technology were taken away for an in-depth training session. When they came back their peers gathered around to see the new system in operation. Then the new users realized that, while they had been taught how to use the system, they had not be taught how to turn the machine on. They immediately became a laughing stock and no one wanted to be part of the change program in the future.

Change is about executing—the right activities, in the right order, for the right reasons and delivering the right results. Anything less will compromise your change program and your change reputation.

Successful change is also dependent on people’s trust in those making the change. This trust is created (or destroyed) cumulatively as various business initiatives and change programs are executed. If the staff learn not to trust management to implement change successfully then they will automatically resist any new change until it is proven the change is well thought through and will be well executed.

NB “How much change you can do is determined by how well you do change.”

(T Parks, CEO of Kraft)

Change is not about people, it is about taking action. It really is that simple.

To assess your organization's Change Capability read  The TOP 10 TOPics on Change Capability


Topics: Change Management

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Mar 2016) as "The Three Tenets And Four Critical Success Factors Of Change Management"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections