Is the traditional model of change management on its way out?
Since the 1990s many companies have built up specific expertise in dealing with change processes. The fact that you can motivate and mobilize employees to deal with upcoming change by using particular forms of involvement and communication now forms part of the basic knowledge of good leadership. And yet for some time now I have had the nagging feeling that this seemingly simple concept of change management is no longer adequate – and here’s why:
1. Traditional change management programs are always run along strictly hierarchical lines (i.e. top-down) and often exclude the leadership team itself from the change process1. As a result, they tend to reproduce exactly the same kind of resistance which they set out to prevent – sometimes compounded by the use of bypass organizations and external consultants which are hired to ‘push’ change onto the employees.
2. Traditional change management caters to sporadic change and today is frequently steamrollered by the fast-paced, omnipresent nature of change2: Many of the change processes in today’s organizations do not even manage to reach their goal before being superimposed by subsequent changes or made entirely redundant, up to the point of absurdity. This applies equally to the widespread intertwined dynamic of “deep cuts and new growth”3.
3. Traditional change management continues to view employees as a disturbing factor: Accordingly, managers attempt to maintain control of the change process by limiting the involvement of their employees to what is strictly necessary. As a result, they miss out on the important innovation, learning and change potential of employees – a resource that is more accessible today than ever, not least thanks to the opportunities offered by new media4.
One way out of the ‘crisis’ of traditional change management approaches lies in establishing integrated leadership, communication and learning architectures in organizations. This means closely linking two things: the strategic dialog platforms for leaders on the one hand, and the organization’s broader communication, learning and change initiatives and platforms on the other. With this approach, changes start with the leaders themselves, for example through regular strategy dialogs, leadership team workshops which act as a nerve center of change, and large group conferences involving top management. However, instead of being ‘closed shops’, these form part of an organized flow of impetus and feedback from the entire organization, e.g. relevant know-how on customers, markets, technology and production held by rank-and-file employees.
This creates a company-specific architecture of leadership and change platforms which closely approximates the idea of a “learning organization”5. It makes it necessary for leaders to see themselves as spearheading change, but in the sense of orchestrating it systemically instead of trying to control it hierarchically. Only by tapping into this enhanced understanding and toolkit of change can leaders restore the credibility of change processes and kindle the collective strengths of the organization which are required to cope with the turbulent changes in today’s environment.6
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6 Kotter’s change model of dual operating systems also seeks a new balance between hierarchy and network, though it ultimately proposes slightly different intervention strategies. See Kotter, J. (2012). Accelerate! In Harvard Business Review, November 2012, p. 44-58.