Is Change Management the Torx of Transformation?

As strategy adapts to address the coming transformational storm of digital, Change Management has never been more needed, but is it offering solutions or just recycling the same problem?


Change Management?
A Change Manager’s toolkit?


Consider the Torx screw format (a secure version of which is pictured above). It’s a work of genius, but part of its appeal is that it’s uncommon. There’s no secret to its form, it’s just that most people don’t have a Torx screwdriver. So when you have a box with Torx scews, it stays shut or you pay someone else to open it. There are parallels to draw between the trusty Torx screwdriver and a pervasive trend in Change Management.

Engineering the Machine

In his 1986 book Images of Organization Gareth Morgan recognised that people can understand organisations in different ways, and that these perceptions can usefully be represented using metaphors. Individuals will use this understanding to navigate the priorities, responses, decisions and effort required in their role.

Much of Western, modern-management thinking operates within the frame of the machine metaphor. That is: the organisation is a formed mechanism that delivers value according to inherent or designed interactions, interfaces and processes. Controlling, managing and changing this system requires maintenance of the machine, hence the birth of process management and the prevalence of Blue-Print (de Caluwé and Vermaak) thinking when it comes to transformation.

Here’s the rub, many of the aspirations of today’s enterprise strategies, indeed many of the survival tactics, require behaviours foreign to this metaphor: risk taking, entrepreneurship, team thinking and adapting to emergent change are good examples. LinkedIn groups are full of half-baked articles on how we can engineer “leaders vs managers”, exploiting a growing urge for a more organic approach to getting the most from our projects. More importantly, during times of change, interacting with IT systems users as secondary to defining the IT system seems to make us unhappy. So are we getting better at IT change?

Sadly, no. First, it’s only fair to recognise that IT change consultants do add value. I don’t align to Liz Ryan’s apparent view that they are simply goons for managers: the good ones do work to bridge chasms and have helped users engage with challenging transformations, it’s not all bad but we need to listen to what Liz says. Aside from her accuracy in identifying some traits of the less able Change Managers, her perception reflects a growing suspicion in the market place, and it’s one that we need to address.

To succeed, a Change Manager needs to work with two cultures: the current and the future. We must recognise both “how we do things round here” and also “how we’d like to do things”.

Here’s why: it’s no good acting in ways that go against the current culture. Whatever the goal of change, being insensitive to the current beliefs and values that people use to coordinate their work-life will undermine confidence that the change is credible or even possible. So yes, we do need to respect that people will expect plans, and tools, etc.

But more importantly, you need to model the culture you want to see. Asking staff to use an agile mindset, whilst the sponsors and change manager trudge through stage 14b of some complex project delivery model, will trigger massive dissonance in the organisation. Moreover, voicing the need to be independent thinkers, whilst treating them like a component attached with Torx screws is a sure fire way to cause anger and destroy morale.

We are not Torx

So here’s why I believe we’re failing. Increasingly business is facing the reality that change is complex. There’s a growing realisation that one cannot control all the outcomes, that to truly succeed we need to let people self-organise and for change to be emergent. This represents the future culture: to exit the factory and blink in the sunlight of partnering with our technology. So how are change experts, as the trusted individuals that will help steer the users to this new reality, responding? Well, accelerating in the opposite direction, towards the machine metaphor in fact. And in doing so moving away from the very behaviours we claim to espouse.

Increasingly we seek predictable frameworks, predictable tools, accreditation, certificates, standardisation. We reach for behavioural techniques over cognitive, we talk about resistance as a phenomenon, we seek engineering solutions, we engage the users on the terms of our systems not on their needs, we increasingly claim that the models we should use to assist understanding are in fact the Torx screwdriver. It’s tempting stuff: a single framework, an exotic but simple screwdriver missing from the toolkit, use and all the problems vanish.

Transformation is fluid. At its heart it’s about enabling people to make the best of their circumstances, to use the situation for benefit. It can’t be delivered in the same manner as project management and we compromise our ability to effect change by pretending to do so. Not only do we model behaviours of a culture that we are trying to leave, but we introduce massive amounts of complexity. Change cannot be manipulative, arrogant or utilitarian, it must be in the frame of the individual, as well as the strategy.

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