|In this third debate, the panel will discuss the key principles
underlying change management, and whether or not change management is a reactive or
proactive leadership competency. Jeff Hiatt will introduce the debate and moderate the
Note about the debate structure: in each debate, we have asked each
individual to defend one side or the other for a particular topic. In some cases, they may
be defending a position that they personally do not advocate, but for the purpose of
presenting both sides of the debate, they will voice commonly stated positions from
managers and business leaders. You may find these debates helpful to defend against
similar statements by resistant managers in your company.
Two themes are debated in this round. First, should change management be a proactive or
a reactive discipline in business today? Second, should managers and supervisors learn the
concepts and principles around change management as part of their ongoing professional
If you believe that change management is generally reactive in nature, then the focus
for business leaders would be managing resistance from employees and systematically
dealing with the consequences of change to the business. On the other hand, if you
believe that change management is a proactive competency for managers, then understanding
the concepts or principles is a necessary first step to applying change management to
different business changes. Even with reactive change management, understanding the
underlying principles may help managers cope more effectively with employee resistance.
The questions for this debate panel include:
"Is change management simply a reactive process of managing resistance during
"To what degree do executives and business managers need to understand the
principles and concepts underlying change management in order to be effective change
Why is it necessary to take into account aspects that might not even be part of the
equation? Being proactive may create more work than is really necessary. Isn't it more
important to get the change communicated to employees and then just see what happens? It
could just all work out for the best. Excellent change management is simply all about good
communication! After communication, why try to worry about issues before they arise?
Dr. James Johnson (JJ)
Judging by what I'm hearing from the front line, I'd say that change management today
is often a reactive process - an afterthought. The project isn't going well and it's
"oh my gosh, we forgot about the people." I think it's reactive because
leaders don't understand change management. They don't know why they need change
management and they don't understand the basics. Then they try to implement some
half-baked plan to try and make the project succeed after they encounter resistance. The
core issue with this approach is that managers are dealing with more resistance and more
consequences than if they had proactively managed the change.
As an educator, I'm a firm believer in learning the concepts first before you try to
begin any practical application. I figured this out one time when, in one of my classes, a
student was explaining the difference between education (concepts) and training
(application). He asked the class whether they would want their 13-year-old daughter to
have sex education or sex training. He made a very compelling argument for learning
Change Management is no different than any other discipline. You need to understand the
principles and concepts so that you can make your application successful.
JJ notes, "Change Management is no different than any other discipline. You
need to understand the principles and concepts so that you can make your application
Then reality sets in... It is not always possible to understand the principles and
concepts of a discipline (even change management) before you are required to act. More
often than not, we are required to make decisions and act without all the information,
without understanding all the facts, without understanding all the principles and
concepts. Even if everyone did understand the basic principles and concepts of change
management, this does not and will never ensure the successful implementation of change.
Human beings are unpredictable. We interpret changes an infinite number of ways. Our
environment, our past experiences, our moods are just a few of the factors that influence
how we interpret change. No amount of proactive or reactive change management tactics can
ensure success. Change management is messy! Judgment, tough decisions, humility, a
willingness to make mistakes (and be accountable for them), and enough sense to adjust
quickly are all required when managing change.
It is not a surprise that many people view change management as a reactive process -
that's their reality, that's all they have time for. I don't think it's fair to make the
broad generalization that change management is reactive because leaders don't understand
change; change management is reactive because leaders don't have time to proactively
evaluate every nuance of whether people will accept or resist change. I'm not laying the
groundwork for a leaders to excuse themselves from understanding the basic concepts of
change management. I'm simply bringing a dose of reality about why change management is
often reactive. Who cares if change management is proactive and/or reactive? Change
management is about getting results - period.
If "change management is about getting results - period", then I
care if it is proactive or reactive. Here are my two analogies - personal health and car
maintenance. To be healthy, you can just wait until something is wrong (which is many
people's "reality") or you can eat well, exercise and live a balanced life.
Although the latter may be more difficult and time consuming, it will many times prevent
the illness. Analogy two - car maintenance. While it is more time consuming and difficult
to check your oil every 3000 miles and do ongoing upkeep, it will prevent future problems
from occurring - ultimately saving time, money, stress and head-aches. The bottom line is
this: preventing a problem is better than repairing one (even if it takes more effort up
front). Several hours today may save days, weeks or months down the road.
Secondly, although a solid understanding of the principles and concepts "does not
and will never ensure the successful implementation of change" - it is the number one
factor that over 600 research study participants indicated as key to success.
What would you do differently next time? Use change management.
What was the most important factor in your success? Visible and ongoing
support by executives (that's change sponsorship).
What was the greatest obstacle to overcome? Employee resistance (that's the
result of ineffective or lack of change management).
Understanding the key concepts makes you better at managing change. The earlier you
start change management, the easier the organizational change will be, and the more
successful you will be at getting results. Change your car's oil, don't wait until the
engine blows up!
Tim's argument that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"
is well-illustrated by a recent case study. I had the opportunity to work with the
executive team of a financial services company who wanted to make significant strategy
changes to their business. Time was short and history was not in their favor. Two years
earlier they had tried a similar change and failed. In fact, some of the business leaders
took the time to read the consultant's report two years earlier and realized that the same
recommendations made then were being tried again. Many were not hopeful. Some openly
stated that this project, too, would fail. Others stated that some people would "have
to go" before any real change could take place.
The difference this time, however, was that the CEO made the decision to invest in
change management education for the leadership team. Two weeks before the strategy
session, his group of executives came together for a 1-day session focused on the
principles of change management and change leadership. The following week, they sent their
key managers to a more in-depth session on how to manage change and resistance.
I anxiously awaited the result of the strategy work and design session. When the call
came, I was delighted to hear that not only was the work a success, many of the suspected
barriers or obstacles to change did not surface this time around. In fact, according to a
first-hand account, the team disarmed potential resistance before it even became a
problem. They knew what to look for and how to meet it head on. Understanding the
principles of change management and the process for effective change leadership turned a
failure into a success.
I suppose it is possible that this company could have waited until problems and
obstacles threatened their business strategy, and then dealt with each problem as it
arose. However, the small investment they made in their people by developing change
leadership competency paid big dividends in the end.
The reality is, most if not all companies must learn the "hard way" first. It
is and must be part of the learning curve which makes change management more effective. It
is difficult, if not impossible, to convince an executive board to spend money on
proactive measures when they do not understand the exact effect of the presence or absence
of those measures (i.e., they have not experienced a project without proactive measures
that failed). The executive board, as do we all, always seems to have an untouchable
feeling, "It can happen to others, but won't happen to me and my company. My
company and I are above that." As Jeff's example illustrates, in order for the
financial services company to be successful with their change, they had to experience,
first hand, what it meant to fail the first time around. Then and only then (and sometimes
it takes multiple failures) was the executive team willing to spend time and money on the
proactive measure of change management.
Dr. James Johnson (JJ)
Managers and leaders never have enough information, but if they understand change
management concepts their decisions will increase the probability of success (not ensure
it). If they understand the concepts, they won't have to resort to trial and error. Let me
illustrate with a couple of examples relating to a change management concept
"Resistance and Comfort".
"Resistance and Comfort" suggests that every individual has a threshold for
change and that threshold differs in every individual. Some people initiate change,
embrace change and live with change. For others, change is very difficult. It causes them
extreme anxiety and sometimes results in physical and psychosomatic reactions. Two
important learning points are:
1. Even people who are generally comfortable with change will resist when they have
reached their saturation point or they feel they are being bombarded with change. This
could be too much change at work (change-of-the-month club) or a combination of change at
work and changes in their social/familial/health situations. The saturation may affect
2. People who are naturally change-averse may start exhibiting symptoms immediately
upon hearing about the change. These people need information, facts. It boils down to
"what's in it for me?" They need to be convinced the change is the right thing
for them and the organization. This may take more time than managers anticipated.
Both of these examples are frequently misinterpreted by managers as employees having
"negative attitudes." These people are harassed, cajoled and punished; many
times they leave the organization in disgust. Managers and leaders who know the concept of
resistance and comfort realize that people navigate through change at different speeds.
Navigating slowly doesn't mean that they are bad people, or have negative attitudes or are
resistors. It means that they need more time to understand and adjust. Change managers and
leaders also know that turnover is expensive. This is just one example of the core
principles that are part of building change management competency in business leaders.
I like Tim's analogy regarding proactive change management, "Change your car's
oil, don't wait until the engine blows up!" I will not refute this valid point.
I would add that organizations would actually save time and money if they spent a little
time up front thinking about how to proactively manage change. Companies care about making
money. They care about getting results. The main point I would like to make is that as
change leaders, we should understand that taking proactive change management steps (i.e.,
building leadership competency and putting together a change management plan) is going to
take extra time up front; however, it will save time and money in the end. I will also
add, it's important to not take the proactive measures to an extreme (i.e. walking through
an extensive list of assessments on change management).
To bring us back to Jeff's original questions, "Is change management simply a
reactive process of managing resistance during change?"
For inexperienced companies, change management is a reactive process of managing
resistance. Should it be? No. A proactive approach to change management will save time and
"To what degree do executives and business managers need to understand the
principles and concepts underlying change management in order to be effective change
Executives, business managers, and individual contributors should all understand the
basic principles and concepts underlying change management. Why? Because they will be more
effective and efficient in getting results, which saves time and money. The goal is not to
be a change management connoisseur, the goal is about getting results, and understanding
that the principles and concepts of change management are a means to achieve that end.
Share your input or personal experience
|Change management should contain
both proactive and reactive elements. The concept is similar to effective Risk Management
within projects. A good risk management strategy includes the identification of risks, an
assessment of impact and probability of occurrence, and a plan to deal (or not deal) with
the identified risks. This is clearly a proactive process, and, as JJ correctly points
out, when effectively managed, will increase (not ensure) the chance of success.
HOWEVER, despite our best efforts, we can never anticipate every
situation....there are always the "unknown unknowns" which will bite you in the
pants. For these situations, you need the ability to reactive in an effective manner
Is change management reactive or proactive? Typically in today's
business environment it is, at best, entirely reactive. Too little, too late.
Should change management be reactive or proactive? Tim Creasey
hit the nail on the head. The analogy of the healthy lifestyle is exactly the conclusion
we have reached. Trying to sell the idea of a permanent business change capability (the
only way to be proactive) is like trying to sell a healthy eating plan to a chain-smoking
alcoholic. Unfortunately most companies fall into this category when it comes to change
management. Therefore the reactive model is likely to be around for a long time to come.
We change practitioners need to equip ourselves to work more like corrective surgeons
("time to whip out that diseased liver"), than like lifestyle gurus ("a
little more feng-shui required methinks").
Until business change management is recognized as a critical core
business competence it will be relegated to the reactive role of mopping up the mess.
Where did I put my mop?
While both sides provided some helpful insights (e.g. education
vs. training, the need for both in the reactive/proactive postures), I picked up on an
assumption that is prevalent in leadership/management thought in this country, that I feel
undermines the whole concept of change - the organization design itself (which is a
leadership - not a management issue). An organization's structure is designed to maintain
its current status, philosophical position, and operating procedures. Change will always
attack and disrupt structure (or it is really not change). This is where security (comfort
zone) comes in, and employees function in a sort of 'controlled misery' - they often don't
like what goes on but they have learned to control what goes on. Therefore LEADERS must
build into an organization, an inclination towards creative disruption & expansion,
where the organization seeks out and even thrives on strategic challenge, and changes it's
structure to accommodate the challenge/conflict it faces. This requires a dramatically new
mindset, and processes that only leaders can build, and then managers allocate.
I think the panel and the responders have all covered this topic
very well. I will add one additional thought regarding the proactive versus reactive
question and I will place this in the context of strategy versus tactics.
Well managed companies have a strategy for how they manage the organization's evolution.
This represents the proactive component of change management. The classic formula for
change has been to first unfreeze the organization, then change it and then refreeze the
organization. What I think you are seeing in more mature organizations today is that they
do not refreeze the organization, but instead develop a culture of change as a strategy.
Change and change management is embraced as a means of establishing a competitive
The reactive component represents a toolbox of tactics that can be applied based on the
current conditions. As the panelists pointed out, human beings are pesky critters in that
they do not always behave in the manner the script requires. Having the skill sets to
apply the appropriate tactics (responses) for a given situation can be the difference
between a victory on the change battlefield versus being routed.
In summary, mature organizations have a change strategy that defines how the organization
will proactively embrace and manage change AND they have a collection of tactics that can
be used reactively.
Every general knows that even the very best battle plan never survives the first encounter
with the enemy, but they also understand that having a battle plan is as important to
victory as having the ability to respond to the immediate conditions on the field. Without
a strategy you have no baseline by which to evaluate and manage the effectiveness of
specific tactics and reactive change management becomes chaos.
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