What is Change Management? Why does it matter, and is it really as hard as everyone says?

5 min read
Sep 5, 2023 9:27:30 AM

In many ways the definition of change management is easy. Change Management is simply all the things you can do to prepare and support people, teams, and organisations to encourage them to make a change. So why all the fuss? Well because that’s pretty much where the consensus stops. After that every person you ask or expert you consult has a different point of view on just how to go about it, and just how hard it really is. The good news is that at its heart brilliant change management is not nearly as complex as many people make out, but more about that later.   

Why are so many people talking about change management?

Change Management has become incredibly important, because we live in a world where big forces are at play, buffeting organisations as never before. The scale and breadth of these forces is unprecedented, from the financial downturn, to war and governments disrupting supply chains, from artificial intelligence to new levels of NGO activism, and then there’s Climate Change, the biggest disruptive force of all.   

So is change management really as hard as everyone says?  

At first glance change management seems incredibly hard, because there are a very long list of change management programmes that have failed, and far too few examples of successful programmes. And there is one reason (yes really just one!) why the vast majority of change management programmes fail. It’s because everyone forgets the thing that is at the heart of all change management programmes…. PEOPLE.  


A simple approach to Change management that really does work  

So, here’s a powerfully simple (but not simplistic) way to think about change management that really works.   


  1. Put people at the heart of your plan 

Remember nothing changes until people change. It is people changing their behaviour that will deliver results. All too often Change Management programmes get fixated on the IT, or the process, and forget that if people don’t change their behaviour, nothing will change. People should be at the heart of all elements of your programme, from the strategy to the metrics. It makes me weep to see how often companies will spend millions of dollars on a new IT system, and nothing on the human behaviours that need to change to make the new system a success. Or millions installing better seats on a plane or new fixtures in a store, and very little on the people who need to install the seat or fixture, the people that make sure it works again, and again, and again, or the people that help the customer to get to the seat, or use the fixture.   


  1. Be deeply curious about people 

Be curious about why people are behaving as they are today. And remember behaviour happens in a context. If I’m in an organisation that has laid off people repeatedly, or one that tolerates bullying, then that has a big impact on whether or not any individual person will be prepared to change. Having insight about why people are behaving as they are right now is gold dust in delivering a change programme. Change happens first in the brain of each individual person that needs to change  


  1. Identify change agents in the organisation 

We are, as you know, inherently social beings. And this means that however hard many of us deny it, our behaviour is massively influenced by the behaviour of the people around us. And some people influence our behaviour more than others. Sometimes it is the obvious people, so for example those in positions of power who most influence our behaviour. But not always. A change agent is someone who inspires, leads, encourages and supports change within a group. If you ask around people will know who these people are in your organisation, and you will need them if you are to bring about the change you want.  


  1. Agree the change you need to see to be successful, and how you’ll get there 

Working with the change agents you identified above, agree the behaviours that need to change. Put simply what are peoples existing behaviours, and what are the new behaviours that people need to be doing? These new behaviours are the ones that will be critical to the success of your project, team or organisation. Once you have this, you need to decide how you take people on the journey from their current behaviours to the new ones. It can be helpful to think about this as how can I get people to:  


  • See the need for change (I need it) 
  • Get what they need to do to change (I get it) 
  • Do the change for the first time (I do it) 
  • Do the change again and again so it becomes a habit (I live it) 
  • Help others change (I inspire and enable others to change) 


Now you need the detailed plan and materials that will prepare and support people to take the journey, i.e., to realise I need the change, I get what it is, I do it for the first time, I live it and then can inspire and enables others to change too.   

The activities and materials in the detailed plan need to work for the audience(s), so there is no one size fits all here, but from our experience here are a few of the important things to consider (we use these and a few more as a bit of a check list to make sure our plan is a good one):  

Change Management Checklist 

Make people dissatisfied with the status quo.   

As you’ll know from trying to change your own behaviour, if you don’t create dissatisfaction with the current situation, it’s far too easy to stick with current behaviours  

  • Engage emotionally 

How we feel about something is a powerful driver of our behaviour. If you feel anger, or excitement behaviours change more easily than if you are given only a rational reason for change  

  • Make it easy to understand 

The easier you make it for people, the more likely they are to change  

  • Teach skills 

Learning new skills, especially ones that are useful in your personal as well as your work life can be a powerful driver of change  

  • Avoid fear or recrimination 

It needs to be ok and actually encouraged to try and ‘fail’, or even better to keep trying until you succeed. Fear of failure and fear of the consequences of failure are powerful reasons why behaviour change doesn’t happen  

  • Get tangible commitment

If you say out loud to people you care about that you are going to change a specific behaviour, you are much more likely to be successful. This is an easy one to try at home!  

  • Make it pleasant to act 

The smallest barriers can get in the way of us changing. So, stand in the shoes of the person who needs to change and ask ‘is there anything we can do to make this easier or more pleasant?’  

  • Create fast benefits 

There’s a reason star charts work to encourage behaviour in children – when they are designed well you get very quick rewards for making changes. Whilst I’m not suggesting you use a star chart, thinking through how you make the benefits and rewards of changing obvious very quickly can be very powerful  


  • Measure, measure, measure 

Changing people’s behaviour, following the principles laid out here, is in our experience one of the highest ROIs of any business investment you can make. But you will only know if you’re creating the change you want if you measure the behaviours before and after, and the business outcomes associated with the changing behaviours. People have historically (and in my opinion pejoratively) labelled behaviours as the ‘soft fluffy’ stuff. Our experience on the results behaviour change can drive is they are anything but this.   


Find out more about our Practice Head, Carol on her profile page, and if we can help you with Change Management, get in touch here 

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