Change management: Denial? Fear? No, it's survival

Is denial and fear at the root of project failure? I argue that misses the point and shows a failure to understand motivation and the need for the language of responsibility.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Michael Krigsman's post about change management raised a slight smile. He says:

In discussions with participants on challenging projects, one often sees fear and aversion to change combined with a strong desire to improve outcomes. In other words, folks hope for success, but are too scared to take positive action.

He concludes:

The degree to which social and political fears drive organizational denial is extraordinary...There is no magic bullet for running a successful IT project, but listening closely to concerns of stakeholders and front line workers is a great start.

I wonder if he is mis-interpreting the reactions he is seeing. Or rather expressing it in a way that may not represent the reality.

Plenty has been written over the years on this topic. In 2009, Stephen Warrilow neatly summed up the three causes of failure:

1. The gap between the strategic vision and a successful programme implementation and the lack of a practical change management model and tools to bridge that gap.

2. The "hidden and built in resistance to change" of organisational cultures, and the lack of processes and change management methodologies to address this.

3. Failure to take full account of the impact of the changes on those people who are most affected by them i.e. the absence of good strategies for managing change.

He also notes that:

The root cause of this failure is lack of clarity and lack of communication - and even more fundamentally - the lack of a language and contextual framework to articulate and manage the necessary processes of change...

...the vast majority of companies know little to nothing about programme management.

Even when companies do understand programme management, failures seem to remain consistently high at the point where it matters: delivery of anticipated benefits. What's fascinating is that while failures are an everyday occurrence, the causes well understood and alternative methodologies put forward, we as an industry still don't seem to have a good way of fixing the problem.

Michael uses the language of blame: fear, denial fall readily from his digital pen. I think in that what we are seeing is the root cause of failing to find workable solutions, or rather stymying what seems logical. It's not that good answers don't exist. It is in the approach to delivering solutions that things go pear shaped.

Years ago a wise man told me: No-one is to blame but everyone is responsible. When you put these kinds of issue in those terms then they become much easier to understand and resolve. They are far less threatening and more likely to be accepted. So for example C-level management is responsible for the hierarchies they create. If they are creaking then what might be appropriate changes with the concentration on what works? Compare that with: Management screwed up...it's all their fault...they need to fix it.

Middle management is responsible for day to day execution of strategy. But if that is overlaid with systems that people despise or which they have to work around, then what can be done to improve? This is where the rubber hits the road. If my responsibilities are difficult to execute against then of course I am going to insulate through the creation of power islands. It's a survival response. Compare that with the more common idea that middle management is frightened of losing its status and kudos. They'll be naturally resistant. They need a good hard kicking to toe the line.

Think I'm being dramatic? Ask anyone who has had mentorship duties just how much blame talk and deflecting of responsibility goes on. It's like a bad marriage inside a bad marriage. [Disclosure: I mentor in a number of communities. I see this every day.]

I hear many consultants jumping on the social design bandwagon saying that business is social (Duh? Is that new?) and that we should design around people. Try making that work in an environment where the sales order entry UI is cack and where the person responsible feels they're on the wrong end of mushroom management by design. It's all too common. What you see is not therefore fear but survival responses larded with cynicism that management can ever do anything right. There's a flipside.

When you ask people what they want to do, they almost always say they want to do the best they can. It's not a pat phrase designed to please the boss but one representing the actions that go with the idea of belonging in a community of work. I've never met the person who wants to screw up. I've never met the person who couldn't care less. They may look that way sometimes but that's not what they really want. Most of the time.

Last week on UK TV there was a wonderful example of a retailer business where the staff appeared to be a bunch of lazy layabouts that could care less about customers. It was only once you'd peeled back the top layer that you could easily see that management took no interest in what they did beyond the numbers, training was non-existent, dopey pat statements about customer relationship management were plastered to the back of the ladies restroom stalls. And yet these were people that want to do well. How do you square that away? If management doesn't truly care then it is no surprise that performance is under par.

So while I agree with Simon on the need for programme management and see how the science can help avoid or mitigate failure, we need to be realistic about what is going on. We need to understand the motivations of why people work, what they do and why they do things the way they do them as a way of tapping into the need for creating responsible environments. That is the reality of social business and the underpinning for success.

It is not enough to give users Facebook-esque tools. It is not enough to have pretty UIs. I'd argue it is not enough to have a decent user experience though that goes a long way to relieving pressure. Ultimately it is about an attitude that honors the value of the individual, regardless of their position in the org chart. An attitude that sees them as something more than a rat to be kept on a starvation diet.

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