The psychology of change:
understanding the guiding principles of effective change management
Most change management models in use today are in the form of a
process or set of steps. In fact, the most effective processes or
methodologies are based on research and the experiences of change
management experts from years of trial and error in the field. However, the
underlying lessons and principles that produced these
change management processes and tools are not always clear to the
practitioner (especially if you are new to the field of change
management). In many cases, the guiding principles and lessons-learned
are not even discussed as part of the model or tools.
The result: you learn the how but not the why. The years of practical
experience and knowledge that formed the basis for these processes are
not readily available to a person trying to make them work in a specific
This new tutorial series goes beyond the activities and tasks of managing
change for one simple reason: understanding the “why” makes you better
at doing the “how.”
Change management is not a matter of simply following steps. No two
changes are exactly alike, nor are any two organizations. Following a
recipe for change management is insufficient
to drive business results.
The right approach will be specific to the situation. If you do not
understand the why behind your actions as a change management
practitioner, changes can
fail even when reputable change management processes are followed.
In this tutorial series, we will examine some common activities and
strategies that are used by change management professionals, and uncover
“why” these activities or strategies are used. For example:
Why do business leaders need to communicate directly
with employees instead of using the “communication cascade” or the
normal chain of command?
Why are change management practitioners
not the best people to
manage resistance with employees?
Why are the “designers” of the change often the worst at managing
the people side of that same change?
Why are supervisors and managers preferred communicators, even more
so than the project team?
Why do background conversations and the rumor mill sometimes carry
more weight with employees that the “official” communications?
How do the values of an organization impact the approach to managing
Why do employees resist change, even when the change is a “good”
idea for everyone?
The net result is this: to be effective at leading change, you will
need to customize and scale your change management efforts based on the
unique characteristics of the change and the attributes of the impacted
2009 © Prosci and Bill Cigliano
The application of change management should never become so
automatic and rote that it is akin
to a "recipe" of tasks. Cooking, in fact, is a good example of how
understanding the "why" makes you better at the "how."
difference between a cook and a chef is really a fundamental
understanding of why things are done. When following a recipe, a cook
will do exactly as the recipe calls for, and in most cases they produce
a predicable result. But, have you ever followed a recipe only to be
surprised at the outcome (and not always pleasantly surprised)? Changes
in temperature, humidity and elevation can affect the results
dramatically. Even small changes in the amount of certain ingredients
can throw off a recipe. Since a cook rarely knows "why" the recipe
works, they also rarely know why the recipe failed. Following steps is
just that, following steps. A chef, on the other hand, understands the
chemistry of what is occurring, and knows the "why" behind each element
of the recipe. When variables change, chefs can adjust to create the outcome they want. Most importantly, a chef can taste the
result and tell you what is missing. They have the ability to assess and
correct as needed.
Change management shares this simple principle.
Understanding the "why" makes you better at the "how".
When you apply change management tools and techniques to a change, you
should strive to be a "chef" in that you are not blindly following a
recipe or formula, but you are carefully
crafting a change management strategy and approach that meets
the needs of your situation. You are
able to assess and correct, constantly adjusting your tactics to match
the evolving conditions. Managing the people side of change involves one
of the most unpredictable variables that you will ever encounter:
people. Our ability to understand
the foundational elements or the "why" that underlies change management
tools and processes will ultimately determine the success of our
changes, and our own personal success. This does not mean that we don't
need a recipe as a starting point - a
methodology based on proven methods combined with understanding the
"why" is the most powerful combination.
To accomplish this customization, an understanding of the
of change and the key guiding principles
is vital. You will then be able
to work with many change management tools and adjust your approach
according to the size and nature of the change, ultimately making your
change a success.
The guiding principles that will impact your change management
activities are shown in Figure 1. The overview of principles and ideas
presented here is not intended to be an in-depth psychological analysis.
Rather, the focus will be on the key insights
from these principles that
impact effective application of change management.
Figure 1 - Seven guiding principles
of effectively managing change
In this tutorial series, we will investigate each of the areas and
find out how they impact the successful application of change
management. Next week we will begin with the concept of “Senders and Receivers”
- addressing why our communications do not always have the impact we