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Demise of the change manager

ChangeIn May 1897, a correspondent for the New York Journal named Frank Marshall White, was sent on an errand to verify the rumours that Mark Twain was lying on his deathbed, in England, in abject poverty. Twain replied with a short note explaining that it was in fact his cousin who’d been ill, closing with the immortal line “the report of my death was an exaggeration”, before going on to live another 13 years.

The formal role of Change Manager will be lucky to last half as long.

In 1910, the year Twain finally did pass away, a young Kurt Lewin attended his first day at University in Berlin to study psychology. He would go on to become one of the most respected and cited psychologists of the 20th century, the founding father of social psychology and creator of the first model of change: a three-stage process he described as: Unfreeze, Change and Refreeze. Lewin’s model still underpins the philosophy of change management today, with practices from august bodies such as the Change Management Institute falling neatly into the same three phases: change readiness, project management and benefits realisation.

For the last 25 years, that process has been pretty effective at helping big organisations move from outdated processes and systems to new ways of working. The tools and techniques have been continuously refined and improved, but there’s a problem: the situations for which they were designed are becoming increasingly rare.

Twenty-five years ago, organisations could develop a five, even a ten-year strategy, confident that their vision would still be relevant that far in the future. Major organisational change was frighteningly unfamiliar to most employees, and most leaders had little experience from which to lead them. Enter the change manager and her trusty three-stage process. But today, most organisations don’t operate in a steady state punctuated with discrete periods of change, they are continually adapting and evolving, seeking ways to become ever more responsive to customers, markets and opportunities.

Look at the best organisations and you see four things: strategy cycles shortening as the world outside transforms faster than the one inside; big systems changes are a thing of the past as software development becomes more agile; internal resistance is rarely an issue as change is a constant in most environments; and leaders who’ve not led through major change, are rapidly becoming an endangered species.

Any business that hasn’t already ticked all four of those boxes may still need professional change managers, but they also have a bigger problem, they’re about to be outcompeted by organisations who’ve ticked them all, and are on to the next ones.

The Chartered Management Institute defines change management as “accomplishing a transition from position A to position B and handling any problems which come up during the process” which would be great if it wasn’t for the fact that in today’s reality, position A is continually changing, and position B could well be in a completely different place by the time you’re half way there.

It’s a little ironic that our approach to change management is so desperately in need of change. We need to stop seeing change as a process that begins and ends, it’s increasingly a way of life. Change management is no longer a job, it’s a core skill that every manager needs to be using every day. Instead of creating change manager roles you need to teach your managers to lead through change.

The death of change management would indeed be an exaggeration, but the demise of the Change Manager is both inevitable and imperative.

 

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