Change management is not about people it is about taking action. The reason it has been hijacked by 'the people people' is explained

Change is about taking action

The  origins of the ‘people’ emphasis

Audiences react strongly to the statement "change is not about people"  as they have been conditioned to believe that ‘change’ is all about people.

Change consultancies abound “to deal with the people issues of change” and “change one person at a time.”

Sales processes, death and grieving processes, burning-decks and other approaches are used to help people through the change process.

However, let’s take a few steps back to see where this people-emphasis came from.

IT projects in particular used to largely ignore the people aspects. Staff were trained, given a few communications, but basically they were there to accept the system and get on with it.

Meanwhile, “Change management” was seen by management as an optional extra and was frequently cut or short-changed to bring the project in ‘on budget’.

Not surprisingly the staff rebelled. They did not know what was happening or what to do with the new system; the project people fled at the speed-of-light after the system’s implementation. Productivity loss, angst and frustration abounded.

As a result analysis of “system failures” found high levels of “resistance to change” from the staff. Consequently the solution found was to focus on the people aspects of change to reduce the level of resistance to change. Sell the change to them, take them through the grieving process as they cope with the change, communicate, communicate, communicate, and so on.

Resisting resistance to change

But this is all dealing with the symptoms. Although it is claimed that “resistance to change” is natural, even biologically engineered by the primitive amygdala brain—the actual problem is much simpler to understand.

People don’t resist ‘change’ per se; they resist poorly thought through, poorly planned, poorly communicated and poorly executed change. And they should.

‘Resistance to change’ is minimal where the change is well thought through, well planned, well communicated and well executed.

How to avoid resistance to change

For this situation to occur

1                The change needs to be a good idea that makes sense. When executive ‘pet projects’ are pursued, their validity as a ‘good idea’ can be questionable.

Although being the CEO’s first major initiative and being recommended by a strategy consultancy, the bank’s restructure was a failure. It may have made sense on paper, in the powerpoint presentation and in the consultancy’s spreadsheets; but it was a dumb, not thought through idea.

2                The change plans need to take people on the journey—equipping them (not selling them) to perform in the new business end states.

At the end of the day you want people to be able to operate in the new state, not just accept it.

3                The communications need to address the staff’s concerns, even when these concerns are irrelevant to the project they still need to be addressed. Too many communication programs are one-way; from the project to the staff.

A project to restructure the organization was seen by the staff as a head-reduction exercise. Management had no plans to reduce the staff numbers but never communicated this as “it was irrelevant”. Staff anxiety increased to the bewilderment of the management and project teams.

4                Change execution needs to be effective and successful. Poorly executed change will undermine people’s confidence in the solution. If the new change does not work, leaves gaps to be filled or is seen as worse than before, then the staff’s commitment to change will dissipate.

When every major milestone in the new warehouse project was missed by months, belief in the likely success of the project was destroyed. And fail it did.

The non-role of the Change Manager

Now ask yourself, how many of these four prerequisites to successful change can a ‘change manager’ deliver? Maybe part of numbers two and four; probably none of number one, leaving only change perquisite number three in their full control.

However well they communicate, if the change is a dumb idea, poorly planned or poorly executed the change will fail as the staff will rebel and resist. But addressing the ‘people issues’ will not address this problem.

Action not sales

Successful change comes from successful planning, communication and execution to deliver a worthwhile outcome. Sounds obvious, but it involves action, not sales techniques.

Indeed, all projects are 'change projects'.

It really is that simple.

Much more in our next blog.

Topics: Change Management

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Mar 2016) as "Why Change Is Not About People"

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