Change Management is only a Better Yesterday by Kevin Gangel, Unstoppable Conversations

Unstoppable Conversations

Everyone says change is good, right?

But what do we actually mean when we say we want change?

If you’re like me, you mean there’s someone or something that you don’t like. And if they would just change—in the way we know they need to change—we could then get on with the important things in life. The good stuff.

We go to work on changing them, changing it, and if we’re part of a large team or organization it will look like this:

  • Get the smartest and most important people in a room. Make sure there’s coffee.
  • Get agreement on what it is that’s wrong with everyone and everything— primarily who and what is not in the room.
  • Decide which parts of them and it most need fixing.
  • Decide how to fix them and how long it should take.
  • Come out of the room. Don’t tell anyone else who or what is about to be fixed, but go to work preparing the details of the fixing plan until it’s crafted just right.
  • Call a meeting, webinar, or conference call. Declare that we now know how they need to be fixed. Plus, we have the perfect plan, including timetables and org charts (well, not real org charts, but ideas about org charts, anyway) for how they are going to be fixed and by when the fixing will be complete.
  • Congratulate them on their courage and flexibility for taking on the plan in which they had neither input nor choice. Assure them of how great it’s going to be. Then pat them on the back and wait for the change we’ve designed to happen.
  • Rinse and repeat.

If you’ve been through an organizational change initiative, that’s probably at least partially familiar.

Let’s look at your own experiences. Ever had changes rolled out when you weren’t in that closed–door meeting? Ever been the middle manager, asked to implement the thing that you’re supposed to pretend you helped invent, all while smiling and nodding and pretending to agree with all the decisions made? Ever had to pretend you firmly believe everything is going to be a-ok?

Or perhaps you were on the other side of it. You put your best intentions and care into crafting the plan, only to watch everyone else now ignoring it, tearing it down, watching it die, and complaining about it when you’re not looking. Chances are your experience has been one of frustration, disappointment, maybe even of betrayal and despair.

Never mind the statistics on how mergers, project implementations, and change initiatives turn out in the real word. (Dismal, by the way.)

That’s how change management usually goes and we’re left with this multiple–choice result:

Circle the resulting organizational situation that you’re painfully familiar with.

  • A fast start that goes like wildfire, until it suddenly falls off a cliff.
  • A drawn out period of foot dragging, resistance, and formation of increasingly combative ‘camps’: the converted vs. the ‘over my dead body’.
  • Utter chaos as everyone runs around with no common understanding or direction. Communication and relationships decline until the situation is even worse than before the change effort.
  • All of the above.

At best, those change initiatives are just a ‘better yesterday’; that is, incremental improvement that falls glaringly short of the intellect, talent, and effort that went into the initiative. At worst, the hole is in fact getting deeper and it would’ve been better if the changes had never started in the first place.

It’s inevitable.

Because what precipitated the need for change in the first place HASN’T CHANGED at all. In other words, those multiple–choice results above are inevitable because the Context hasn’t changed.

The Context, the background thinking that made the initial change necessary, usually looks like this:

  • There’s not enough:  mindshare/time/money/resources/will/buy-in, etc.
  • We’re right, and they’re wrong.
  • We have to get this right.
  • We’ll tell you only if and when we have to tell you.
  • We’ve only got one shot at this.
  • They can’t handle the truth.
  • Look smart—don’t look dumb.
  • Don’t tell me what to do.

Imagine 8 executives around a board table, CxOs and Directors from Finance, Legal, Sales, HR, and Operations, all of whom have one of those statements in a thought bubble hovering over them.  Now run the meeting and see if the strategies, tactics, and action plans that get spit out of that meeting look anything like the implementation plans you’ve been a part of.

Imagine these thoughts, in multiple iterations, silently running in the background for 8 people during a meeting. The meeting’s about whatever it’s about, but those thoughts, that Context, invisibly creates a group paradigm. Within this paradigm, which no one articulates aloud but everyone’s operating from, there’s usually only one way the future is going to turn out. It’s going to look an awful lot like the past circumstances that were in existence prior to the change initiative.  Except this time, everyone will be even more resigned and cynical because this was supposed to be the one time that it was finally going to work.

You can actually look at the actions being taken inside the change initiative, and if you’re open to mapping it on to the group paradigm (the thinking) that is running the show, there is an almost one to one correlation between those thought bubbles and the actions being taken.

Infographic time. Look at the one–to–one correlation of Context to action:

  • “There’s not enough” gives the action called Protect
  • “We’re right, and they’re wrong” only has room for the action called Tell, “Educate”, Argue, or Correct
  • “We have to get this right” is correlated to the action of Overplan AND Under-deliver
  • “We’ll tell you if and when we have to tell you” can only result in Keeping Things Secret, Deflecting authentic questions and concerns, and Safeguarding Information like it was gold
  • “We’ve got one shot at this” gives the action, or inaction in this case, of Not Taking Risks and Controlling everything you can get your hands on, including processes, people, and information
  • “They can’t handle the truth” provides endless opportunities to Treat People Like They are Dumb and to Protect Them for Their Own Good
  • “Look smart, don’t look dumb” gives the action of Pretending You Know something when in fact you are clueless
  • “Don’t tell me what to do” gives actions in the realm of Punish, Jockey for Position, and Argue.

Let’s bring it back to your experience. See if you can map these actions to what you’ve observed in others during a change implementation. Then, see how many of these actions you can map onto your own behavior when the heat was turned up in your last change implementation.

Bottom line? If it were just one person thinking that way and taking those actions, we’d probably be ok. But it’s most of us thinking and acting that way, most of the time, when we’re implementing change. When you add that all up, you’ll see that it takes a direct and dramatic toll on the people and on the results within an organization.

We’ll look at that impact in the next article, when Part II explores how “The more things Change, the more they stay the same.”