The problem with change management

Today's organizations are characterized by change, fluidity, and ambiguity. What worked 10 years ago may be totally unworkable today. (I'm thinking of you, Blockbuster.)

Change isn't slowing down. During the COVID pandemic, we found that even what worked in January may be obsolete by April. Advice from experts in April may be significantly improved by September based on new research. And September plans may change by December given new vaccines and medical treatments.

While we work to adjust to the idea that change will eventually happen, the pace of change is speeding up. We plan budgets more than a year in advance, but things might change next month – not only because of a pandemic, but perhaps because of a new online competitor, a legal case, the loss of a key employee, or any number of other events.

Management as a practice has historically been successful as a) the way to pass along the ways and means of what works, and b) a method to continually work to improve the efficiency of established processes.  Today, these two functions are not only less successful than in the past, they are actually counterproductive to what is really needed for the organization's long-term success.

Passing along the historical ways and means feels comfortable to managers, but these traditions bring innovation to a halt. Small modifications to existing processes only happen in committee meetings over long periods of time. Risk is avoided, and change is negligible. Established patterns of behavior become more embedded and budgets become more calcified and divorced from reality.

Improving efficiency is a constant goal in most organizations. How do we reduce costs? How do we get people to do more with the same inputs? How can we standardize more processes? What is the impact on our ultimate profit goal?

On the surface, these two management functions seem to be beneficial to the organization. Many meetings and a great deal of time are spent on these functions. Stability and predictability are good things in the traditional world of management. But in a world of change, fluidity, and ambiguity, we need to rethink our most cherished assumptions.

Two current examples of how efficiency and stability have created new crises:

--> Business management has taken on the practice of supply chain management and worked it to maximize efficiency and minimize costs. Extra stock is eliminated, and work-in-progress is dependent on the delivery that you expected this afternoon. However, this focus on efficiency left no slack or resilience in the supply chain.  

This efficiency focus, now coupled with winter storms, a fire at a plant in Japan, shipping congestion at ports, and water supply issues in Taiwan means that two million cars this year  will be lost from production awaiting computer chips. One analyst on CNBC suggests that supply chain issues may not be resolved until 2023 at the earliest. In the meantime, auto prices go up for consumers, dealers go out of business, and auto manufacturers lose money while trying to find places to park unfinished automobiles.

--> Managers who believe their role is to watch people do their work now find their employees working remotely from home offices. While managers try to shift people back into offices, employees have taken the opposite tack and moved to even more remote locations. Efforts to bring people back are resulting in what is described as the Great Resignation, as employees choose to move to more remote-friendly employers, or even leave the workforce entirely.

Those are just two examples pulled from the headlines. Every manager I talk with these days, though, is dealing with their own set of new and individualized challenges: balancing workloads, responding to new customer requirements, dealing with the emotional health of their employees, trying to replace what they used to do in the office, and many others.

In leadership training, requests for programs that help with managing change are at peak levels. However, the traditional change management models are often designed around processes for managing from the top. The ADKAR methodology, a widely-used change management approach, has some useful concepts, but is primarily a management-focused, tops-down approach to change. (It is also very complex; the "manager's handbook" runs to 632 pages.)

ADKAR is not helpful when a first-line manager is trying to figure out how to handle an upsurge in customer service calls, or when a local contractor is responding to the tripling of lumber costs.  So what is a manager – or leader – to do?

Here are two suggestions to get started:

  1. Question your own assumptions.
  2. Include your team!

Consider the assumptions that you have about your team and the work it does. For example, you might presume that you are responsible for managing the schedule of your team members over the holidays. Many managers spend hours planning for holidays, and often the team members are unhappy with the results. Further adjustments only make matters worse as employees see favoritism or bias in the new changes.

Now consider that your assumption is no longer true. What is the opposite of your assumption? How about trying that opposite assumption and seeing what would happen?

In the case of scheduling people, instead of you managing and publishing a holiday schedule, what if you let the team manage the schedule themselves? They could figure out how to make the tradeoffs, who would cover the tough hours, who would get overtime.

At first, this new scheduling process may lead to some rough patches. (It is always easier for the team to blame the manager than to blame themselves.) Yes, you may need to do some training and support. You may have individuals who don't want to participate, or who try to dominate others in the process. If that is the case, your team probably has these issues to resolve in other areas already; this experiment might just be bringing existing conflicts to the forefront.

But over time, I have no doubt that the people on your team can do the work required to manage even the toughest scheduling challenges. And who knows better than the employees themselves what they need – and what they can contribute?

Empowering the team to make the plans, changes, and adjustments themselves is a more robust, practical, and resilient way to handle new situations rather than trying to make decisions on their behalf. And if it works for this situation, imagine what other situations you could deal with by challenging your own assumptions and involving your team.  

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA