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Change management: In theory and in practice

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How useful is change management theory? In a recent Any Answers posting member Eddie Newall reflected on over 30 years experience within the NHS in which he never once witnessed change management theory put into practice; in this article Jeremy Thorn, Chairman of QED Consulting responds to the issues.


I have worked in an advisory capacity on change management, not just with the NHS but many other Government organisations, in the private sector and with voluntary organisations of all sizes, all of whom have been subject to significant change. So I was glad to be able to comment with some knowledge on Eddie’s original posting.

I have also led change in hands-on roles too, not least as Managing Director of a successful international engineering company with 25 sites across the UK, fighting for survival where world capacity exceeded world demand by some four times and where many foreign competitors were state-subsidised with no apparent need to be profitable. To survive, we certainly needed change!

My lessons?
I have found academic research to be intriguing, but it is inevitably retrospective in its specifics and largely innocent of many internal organisational dynamics that many of us can only be aware of afterwards. It informs, it teases with implied questions, but can only inform after the event – if we are not very careful.

Common and vital threads of all such research can include very practical and useful matters, and they are valuable. As examples:

  • Building a shared mission and vision.

  • Agreeing shared values (and embedding them).

  • Communicating these with integrity.

  • Understanding the ‘grief of change’ (and allowing for this in any programme of change.)

  • Finding ardent ‘change champions’ (who may well appear to be the most ardent adversaries at first hand, to help bring others on-board.)

  • Establishing appropriate reward mechanisms (which almost certainly need not be monetary).
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  • And above all, gaining total commitment from the top.

It is useful to take note of these but you’ll be forgiven for by-passing academic unhelpfulness that goes beyond these issues, including the ‘unfreeze-refreeze’ theories (nothing is ever ‘frozen’!), ‘drivers for change’ and many more of their kind. (Change can be internally driven, of course, but the ‘real world’ realisation is that the core drivers for most organisational change are external, and these are rarely discretionary.)

So I have learned to focus on all the above issues that theory leaves hanging in practice. Thanks to the academics for raising them, even if they didn’t quite manage to tell me how to go about applying them in practice!

There are many practical tips for managing a change management project, which complement any theory that can be found in a text-book:

  • Change has to start at the top. This is not an academic but a practical realisation. I have seen more senior managers kill a ‘change programme’ stone dead (almost always inadvertently – yet not always!) than any one else. They need far more help than most may ever know – until it is too late!
  • Communicate the mission, vision and values like crazy, 24/7, consistently, and ensure all your team do. Others will be watching! Very observantly.
  • Before you change anything, recognise where you are already. This is such a profound thought that is forever ignored. It may help you to stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It will also help you to measure and manage progress. (Ignore this at your peril.)
  • Whatever the change, small or large, never allow the ‘overpowering logic’, the ‘it’s great for us’ or even ‘it’s great for you’ arguments to hold sway, let alone the anathema of ‘our bosses have told us …’. They don’t work!

    So start with your organisation’s avowed Mission, Vision and Values, and having communicated them consistently with passion, from the top, get to work on understanding what these mean to each of your colleagues or work groups. (MBTI can be very helpful here, not the least as a tactical tool.)

  • Identify, recognise and deal with historic barriers to change in your organisation openly and the attitudes that may feed them.
    These attitudes may be cognitive, for example “I understand and recognise…”; conative, as in “I have learned by practical experience…”; or, far more difficult to change, affective, typified by covert feelings such as “I just ‘know’ all managers / politicians / accountants / whatever are against me…”

    If you don’t research and understand these ‘affective’ and deeply espoused attitudes in practice, to establish the core reasons for such attitudes and deal with what founded them, forget delivering any embedded change other than by coercion! And then, note that experience shows that ‘coercion’ only works short term, for reasons you might not be proud of, and rarely sustainably.

  • Select carefully and develop your ‘change champions’ and their leaders. They need to be empowered from the very top to break the mould and to do things differently, and they also need to be genuine influencers amongst their peers. They must also be allowed to challenge everything, even to suggest the ‘Emperor has no clothes’ – and for these reasons, well-led, fully trusted and intimately engaged, ‘poachers’ can indeed make excellent ‘game-keepers’.
  • Reward change. This doesn’t necessarily mean financially! It may ‘just’ be by peer recognition, however delivered, increased security, promotion, affiliation and much more. But beware the impact on others who may not be included.

Naturally, ‘different folks require different strokes’, and of course academic research of ‘change’ can help practitioners. But it is the detailed, practical application of change that really counts.


One Response

  1. Don’t forget involvement as a key to success
    I agree wholeheartedly with Jeremy’s practical tips for manageing change, and would add one more action, which is fundamental to success – INVOLVEMENT.

    Roger Harrison, one of the originators of OD and change management, put it very clearly and succinctly in his autobiographical comment on consulting “It suddenly seemed so simple and clear, that if we wanted people to work together to change things, we need to get them working from a common appreciation of how things are… If we want them to cooperate in planning and action, we have to find common ground between them on how they would like things to be different in the future, and we have to give each of them a stake in a shared vision of that future.” Roger Harrison, Consultants Journey.

    Techniques and processes that allow you to put the whole system inthe room and facilitate participation with large groups – Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search, Open Space, etc – now give us as HR professionals the capability to put people in the picture, involve not just communicate, and provide processes for the co-creation of change. And in a rapid time frame as well.

    Geof Cox

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