Change Management Needs Change

Change Management Needs Change

Ron Ashkenas (Schaffer Consulting) recently blogged on HBR about the state of change management as a discipline, saying that while change management has been in existence for over half a century and despite the huge investment that companies have made in tools, training, and thousands of books (over 83,000 on Amazon), most studies still show a 60-70% failure rate for organizational change projects – a statistic that has stayed constant from the 1970’s to the present.

Is ‘Change Management’ Really the Problem?

He goes on to say that given this evidence, is it possible that everything we know about change management is wrong and that we need to go back to the drawing board? Should we abandon Kotter’s eight success factors, Blanchard’s moving cheese, and everything else we know about engagement, communication, small wins, building the business case, and all of the other elements of the change management framework?

His alternative hypothesis and one we agree with is that the content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped. In fact, instead of strengthening managers’ ability to manage change, we’ve instead allowed managers to outsource change management to HR specialists and consultants instead of taking accountability themselves – an approach that often doesn’t work.

Ask Yourselves These Questions…

Ashkenas then asks the following questions for consideration if your organisation (or your piece of it) struggles with effectively implementing change:

1. Do you have a common framework, language, and set of tools for managing significant change? There are plenty to choose from, and many of them have the same set of ingredients, just explained and parsed differently. The key is to have a common set of definitions, approaches, and simple checklists that everyone is familiar with.

2. To what extent are your plans for change integrated into your overall project plans, and not put together separately or in parallel? The challenge is to make change management part and parcel of the business plan, and not an add-on that is managed independently.

3. Finally, who is accountable for effective change management in your organization: Managers or “experts” (whether from staff groups or outside the company)? Unless your managers are accountable for making sure that change happens systematically and rigorously – and certain behaviours are rewarded or punished accordingly – they won’t develop their skills.

Going Deeper.

To build on these points, I would like to offer our view at TLS:

1. Technical Lens: Change often fails because we view it through an overly technical lens, failing to appreciate the people side such as considering what changes we are really asking people to make, not just redrawing lines on an organisational chart? If you’ve ever moved a team member from one desk to another and wondered why it was so hard, you’ll know that there is always a non-technical component to every change! Maybe you’re moving them away from the pathway to the kitchen and therefore their vehicle for social connection for example?

2. 100-year Old Management Approach: Most organisations are still stuck in the last century or perhaps even the century before that! Until we equip managers with the right resources, tools and skills to approach change in a much more thoughtful way, we will continue to wonder why ‘change management’ doesn’t work.

3. Give the Work to the Rightful Owners: In our desire (and fears) to try to meet the expectations of a antiquated management approach, we assume those in authority have to also have the answers and then direct the foot soldiers to go away and do the work – and then we wonder why people don’t feel engaged, excited and accountable. We need to practice letting go of control and position the work with the right people.


One of our approaches for example, called TakeON!, gives the work of developing managers and coming up with real solutions to real problems back to the business. Leader-led conversations generate ownership, accountability and skill development in a real-world setting. Consultants are in the background supporting the process, but it’s being led in a sustainable way by people in the business. It may be useful to examine your own organisation to see where those in authority are playing that card too much and paying the price of actually managing ‘non-change’.

Change Management Needs Change