My last post, “Business-IT alignment – The Relationship Dimension” drew some interesting and even passionate commentary.  In particular, one frustrated commenter (someone in a Relationship Management role) pleaded, “What should I do? How can I influence to bring the necessary changes?”

I’ve posted numerous times on aspects of Organizational Change Management (see link for examples) but perhaps it’s time to revisit this perennial puzzle.

Change Management – The Quintessential Misnomer!

Actually, I think that the term “Organizational Change Management” is a terrible misnomer – change can’t be “managed” in the ways that people and projects can.  It can be “inspired”, “led”, “facilitated”, or it can “subverted” and “rejected,” but it can’t be managed.  Also, for IT folk, the term is too close to “change management” – that technical stuff associated with ensuring that changes to a system are implemented in a controlled manner.

I prefer the term “Change Leadership” – with the important caveat that we are all leaders when it comes to changes we’d like to see.  If it’s a change we don’t know is needed, or we would like to see it not happen, then it is down to others to “lead us into the light” and get us on board with the change.  Either way, it’s a leadership issue.  That’s why I loved my most recent commenter’s plea – “What should I do? How can I influence to bring the necessary changes?”  This is one relationship manager who recognizes his role in leading change!  (And who is not afraid to ask for help in filling that role!)

So Much Known, So Little Applied!

The big irony for me is that so much is known about and written about Organizational Change, and that we all have many years of first-hand experience trying to change our own behaviors or those of friends or family members, and yet most organizations are so completely inept at it!  There are books on change dating back to the early 1940’s (see, for example Kurt Lewin’s work), and a current search on Amazon.com yields 11,860 titles!  And, according to Google, there are currently 191,000 Blogs on the topic!  Clearly, the domain is fraught with subtleties and complexities.

Why Are IT Professionals So Inept at Organizational Change?

OK, so that’s a deliberately inflammatory question and a massively sweeping generalization – but from my personal experience in a 40-year IT career, it’s generally true.  I think it has to do with the characteristics of the IT profession that draw people to it – tangible, finite, project oriented.  IT professionals take highly ambiguous situations and ultimately reduce them to zeros and ones!  I’m not sure which is ‘chicken’ and which is ‘egg’ (i.e., do people good at driving out ambiguity gravitate to IT, or is it a learned behavior by IT professionals?) but I find that IT folk don’t like ambiguity.  And yet leading change means living with ambiguity.  IT professionals like plans, with beginnings, middles and ends – with defined deliverables and clear milestones.  Organizational change has none of these characteristics.  It is about people, not systems or bits and bytes.  It is about politics and influence, not routines and processes.

So, with such a plethora of research and written wisdom, what can I hope add to this body of work?  My goal (in a short series of posts) is to highlight the most useful Organization Change Leadership Model I have come across, and try to simplify and illustrate it with real examples from the world of IT management.  I’ll also point you to the excellent Change Management Blog.

Kotter’s Change Model – And It’s Potential Flaws

Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter has researched and written extensively on organizational change and has articulated an 8-Step Change Model.   (See his excellent HBR article “Why Transformation Efforts Fail.”  Also, the invaluable MindTools web site has this excellent summary of the Kotter Change Model.)

First, an important caveat.  To my point about the misnomer of “Change Management”, the Kotter model  implies linearity and assumes predictability and manageability of the change processes.  I don’t believe it should be interpreted or used this way.  In the immortal wisdom of Jerry Weinberg, “The project actually started long before it was officially declared ‘a project’.”  So has the organizational change typically ‘started’ before anyone gets too involved in planning how to drive it or, at least, to steer it!

In the last 15 years or so, a more organic and emergent view of organizational change has surfaced, leveraging chaos and complexity theory.  See, for example, Wanda J. Orlikowski and J. Debra Hofman’s “An Improvisational Model of Change Management: The Case of Groupware Technologies.”

I don’t see these emergent models as alternatives to the more mechanistic models, but as refinements that help to interpret and apply them – i.e, organizational change should be planned, but the plans continuously revised in the light of emergent behaviors.  And sometimes the emergent behaviors actually precede the recognition of the need for organizational change.  For example, many IT organizations today are trying (and failing!) to leverage social networking (typically around Microsoft‘s SharePoint).  At the same time, many members of the IT organization are participating in a number of social networks – both within their company and with external communities (e.g., FaceBook, LinkedIn, Plaxo).  So, while IT leaders are trying to “manage” a social network initiative (i.e., planned, formally managed), the reality is that social networking is already happening, but in an unplanned and emergent way.  If the planned efforts could understand and leverage the emergent activities, there is a better chance that social networking could be “steered” towards improved outcomes for the IT community and for the company.

My next post will pick up on the Kotter Change Model and begin to illustrate it with real world war stories and examples.

Image Courtesy of Management Excellence

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