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Change Management Might Finally Be Ready To Change

cheese cover2The practice of Organizational Change Management (OCM) has gained a lot of momentum over the past couple of decades. In fact, Amazon.com sells more than 900 books on the subject, including 24 published in the last year alone (like this one, which shows that the search is still on for the next blockbuster, cheese-moving, business-is-food metaphor).

And yet, even with all this great thinking at their disposal, businesses still don’t do OCM very well. In fact, most OCM consultants use the same statistic about failure to sell it’s own value: 70% of change initiatives fail. The trouble is, projects have been failing at roughly this same rate for at least 20 years, and there has been little or no improvement (apparently no one is actually reading all the books they’re buying on Amazon).

According to John Kotter, who originated the 70% failure stat, and who authored one of the industry’s most-read books, Leading Change, there is hope for improvement in OCM if we add some new tactics to the old approach. In the meantime, the problem is in fact getting worse. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Accelerate!, Kotter says:

The hierarchical structures and organizational processes we have used for decades to run and improve our enterprises are no longer up to the task … In fact, they can actually thwart attempts to compete in a marketplace where discontinuities are more frequent and innovators must always be ready to face new problems.

To facilitate faster change in the future, Kotter recommends not a different management system, but an additional one.

The solution is a second operating system, devoted to the design and implementation of strategy, that uses an agile, network like structure and a very different set of processes. It complements rather than overburdens the traditional hierarchy, thus freeing the latter to do what it’s optimized to do.This is not an “either or” idea. It’s “both and.” I’m proposing two systems that operate in concert.

Does this mean that Kotter’s near-ubiquitous eight step method for facilitating change is no longer valid? His classic eight step process, from Leading Change, is as follows:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency
  2. Create a guiding coalition
  3. Develop a change vision
  4. Communicate the vision for buy-in
  5. Empower broad-based action
  6. Generate short-term wins
  7. Incorporate change into the culture
  8. Never let up

Kotter doesn’t come right out and announce that these eight steps have run their course. He does, however, caution that they are of limited value because they are often used rigidly, they are driven by a core group that is too small, and they are designed to function within a traditional hierarchy. Accelerators, on the other hand, “require the flexibility and agility of a network.”

In his new work, Kotter proposes five guiding principles:

  1. Many change agents, not just the usual few appointees. That means not large numbers of full-time or even part-time appointments but volunteers. And 10% of the managerial and employee population is both plenty and possible.
  2. A want-to and a get-to—not just a have-to—mind-set. The spirit of volunteerism—the desire to work with others for a shared purpose—energizes the network.
  3. Head and heart, not just head. People won’t want to do a day job in the hierarchy and a night job in the network—which is essentially how a dual operating system works—if you appeal only to logic, with numbers and business cases.
  4. Much more leadership, not just more management. The game is all about vision, opportunity, agility, inspired action, and celebration—not project management, budget reviews, reporting relationships, compensation, and accountability to a plan.
  5. Two systems, one organization. The network and the hierarchy must be inseparable, with a constant flow of information and activity between them—an approach that works in part because the volunteers in the network all work within the hierarchy.

A lot of what Kotter proposes makes sense. Just the notion of a broad network of change agents, who volunteer to shape the change (rather than being appointed), is enough to improve on Kotter’s previous work. In addition, Kotter’s recommendation that change agents appeal to the head and heart, not just the head, is an excellent one. Too many corporate change initiatives revolve around what’s good for the bottom line, and lose sight of the things that appeal to employees emotionally – like enabling employees to identify themselves with a company known for agility and innovation.

Not everyone agrees, however. Layering a change network on top of an already complex organization also sounds easier said than done. A commenter on Kotter’s HBR article, Anastacio Cortes, had this to say:

Well, sounds to me like two systems silos! The idea is beautiful, however the dynamic of humans are likely to give you a different result. Harvard lab theory is one thing, on the floor reality is another.

I would strongly recommend reading the entire HBR article and make your own judgment on whether Kotter’s new “change network” approach to driving change makes sense. If you have already read the article, please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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I have been involved in enterprise learning, in big companies and ... less big companies, for more than 20 years. My learning philosophy: don't make people tote around loads of information in their heads just so you can say you trained them. Instead, tell them where to get the information they need, when they need it. I like to read, make films and play guitar (in private). I am a member of the Dashe & Thomson running and biking teams, and captain of its small but emerging chess team. More about me here.