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The Dangerous Assumptions We Make About Organizational Change

An oft-cited McKinsey global survey (2008) reiterates what scholars have long purported: Companies must continue to change if they are to survive. The same survey claims that fully two-thirds of change efforts fail.

This latest piece in Harvard Business Review, “Data Can Do for Change Management What It Did for Marketing,” claims data would help Change Management professionals achieve better results. But, really, organizational change practitioners are just experiencing what trainers have known forever:

It’s extremely difficult to measure people’s willingness to participate.

Here are the four most pervasive assumptions we’ve seen clients make about change and the ways we’ve addressed them:

It’s necessary.

As McKinsey suggests, organizations believe change is inevitable. From an existential perspective, there’s no truer statement. While the future may resemble the past, it varies by the efforts that occur daily, hourly, even by the minute. However, even though change is inevitable, is it necessary?

As we try to do more, make more, earn more, we are forever on the same clock. Time does not change. So, to get ‘more’ we need to change. Except maybe the fallacy is in believing we are ready for ‘more’ or that we need ‘more.’

Competitors will imitate and improve upon the work we’re doing. New systems and capabilities will make our old processes obsolete. We are either running from the pack, or running to some arbitrary level of achievement without ever really considering if the running is necessary. The first step to successful change management is to decide whether or not the change is necessary.

It’s hard.

For something we do every day, change never seems to get any easier. Those small tweaks and improvements don’t feel like change when they’re easy. Only the bigger, more pervasive change feels difficult. We worry about what it will be like, how we will feel, whether we will be as productive or meet our constituents’ expectations.

Change is not hard. The uncertainty that surrounds it is. Unanswered questions, unmet expectations, learning new skills are all disruptive characteristics of change. They are not change itself. We are quite practiced at change. We just have not recognized the improvements we have been making every day as change.

It’ll make things better.

Most organizations undertake change efforts with some desired outcome that improves operations, safety, or profitability. They may be so ready for an upgrade that they say, “It can’t possibly get any worse.”

Believing that change will make things better can set unrealistic expectations for any project. ‘Better’ is such a subjective word. Change management includes setting the right expectations from the very beginning and defining the organizations ‘good, better, and best’ outcomes so that every change can fall on the spectrum.

In software implementations, we at CRC map “As-Is” business processes first and “To-Be” processes next, employing the new software to make things better. But software is not always a perfect fit and some applications will over-complicate what used to be simple tasks. These become examples of a failure of the change to make things better.

Defining the expectations for the project team, the users, and the organization is key to responding to the assumption that the post-change world will be entirely ‘better.’

It’ll make things worse.

The other side of the coin from “it can’t get any worse” is “it’s fine the way it is.” For those in the latter camp, change will only make conditions worse. The three ways to make things worse are 1) over complicate simple procedures, 2) lose valuable data or process steps, and 3) expose users’ secret bad habits and work-arounds.

We focus on the first and second in process mapping and discover the third when our users begin training on the software. Habits and hacks, the kinds of shortcuts people develop to make work easier, all appear when users get access to the new software and realize their work will be visible. Navigating the uncertainty that sprouts up from “That’s how we’ve always done it,” requires a certain amount of tough love.

We have asked these reluctant users, “Is that the best way to do it?” and “What, specifically, do you object to in the new procedure?” and “Is that the right thing to do?” We have helped people surrender bad habits and seen them hide their bad habits in the new software despite our best efforts to weed them out. In the second circumstance, we submit “change” didn’t make things worse; the people who refused to change punished themselves by refusing to change.

In the end, change is a matter of perspective.

For anyone to declare a change effort “failed” begs the question, “What would success look like?” Good change practitioners will define that early and often and have all the data they need.

If you are ready or in need of change, contact CRC for the guidance and expertise to implement change and give your organization the roadmap to successful Change Management.

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