The field of change management can be confusing and sometimes complicated to research and study, for new practitioners as well as more experienced practitioners. Change management is the application of many different ideas from the engineering, business and psychology fields. As changes in organizations have become more frequent and a necessity for survival, the body of knowledge known as “change management” has also grown to encompass more skills and knowledge from each of these fields of study. While this may be a good trend overall, the result for many change leaders is growing confusion about what change management really means. This tutorial is designed to help explain the history and evolution of change management, and discuss why change management has become a leadership competency that is here to stay.

History and evolution of change management

To understand change management as we know it today, you need to consider two converging and predominant fields of thought: an engineer's approach to improving business performance and a psychologist's approach to managing the human-side of change.

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First, students of business improvement have been learning and practicing how to make changes to the operations of a business as a mechanical system since Frederick Taylor’s work in the late nineteenth century. This mechanical system perspective focuses on observable, measurable business elements that can be changed or improved, including business strategy, processes, systems, organizational structures and job roles.

The other side of the story begins with psychologists. Concerned with how humans react to their environment, the field of psychology has often focused on how an individual thinks and behaves in a particular situation. Humans are often exposed to change, hence psychologists study how humans react to change. With his 1980 publication of Transitions, William Bridges became a predominant thinker in the field of human adaptation to change and his early text is frequently cited in Organization Development books on change management. However, only once or twice in this book does Bridges relate his theory to managing change in the workplace. It was not until later that Bridges began to write a significant body of work related to his theories of change and how they relate to workplace change management.

The net result of this evolution is that two schools of thought have emerged. The table below summaries the key differences and contrasts the two approaches in terms of focus, business practice, measures of success and perspective on change.

  Engineer Psychologist
Focus Processes, systems, structure People
Business Practices BPR, TQM, ISO 9000, Quality Human Resources, OD
Starting Point Business issues or opportunities Personal change, employee resistance (or potential for resistance)
Measure of Success

Business performance, financial
and statistical metrics

Job satisfaction, turnover, productivity loss
Perspective on Change "Shoot the stragglers, carry the wounded" "Help individuals make sense of what the change means to them"

Observers of business changes in real life have realized that the extreme application of either of these two approaches, in isolation, will be unsuccessful. An exclusively “engineering” approach to business issues or opportunities results in effective solutions that are seldom adequately implemented, while an exclusively “psychologist” approach results in a business receptive to new things without an appreciation or understanding for what must change for the business to succeed.

What does this mean for the definition and field of change management? First, that it is important to recognize that both the engineering and psychological aspects must be considered for successful change. Second, that business improvement methodologies must integrate these two disciplines into a comprehensive model for change. Finally, that when you read or study change management literature, be sure to identify how the term change management is used so that you can effectively apply that work to your current body of knowledge.

Today, the term “change management” takes on a variety of meanings. The most practical and useful definition is:

Change management is the process, tools and techniques to manage the people-side of business change to achieve the required business outcome, and to realize that business change effectively within the social infrastructure of the workplace.

This definition allows practitioners to separate change management as a practice area from business improvement techniques. So whether you are doing Six Sigma, BPR, TQM or some other technique to improve business performance, change management can be viewed as an essential competency to overlay and integrate with these methods.

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Evidence change management is the new leadership competency

The concept of change management is here to stay. Change management is the new leadership competency for five reasons.

  • There will always be people
  • Project success will always be a business goal
  • A changing environment is now 'business as usual'
  • Empowerment has created a shift in values which is irreversible
  • Businesses are focusing on measuring the impact of change management

 

People

Projects and change initiatives would go smoothly every time if it weren't for the people. There will continue to be projects and there will continue to be people involved in those projects. Change management is not the touchy-feely, "warm and fuzzy" soft side of a project. It is the structured, action-oriented process focused on addressing the people as an essential component in making successful projects.

 

Project success

Businesses world-wide have become very good at finding the right answer or business solution for a particular project. Research with more than 327 project teams site the number one thing that project teams would do differently next time was utilize an effective and planned change management program.

Project teams also stated the top implementation obstacle for a project was a lack of understanding of the need for change and general resistance to the change. In other words, the inability to manage the people side of a business change in the presence of a new culture and new values is a major contributor to failed business changes. Failing to manage the human side of change results in inefficient and unsuccessful change projects and an inability to realize new business strategies and objectives. If project success is a business goal, research shows you must use change management.

 

Environment

Organizations are facing larger and more frequent changes in the current economic climate. A changing marketplace, empowered workforce and technological advancements have created an environment where change is becoming 'business as usual'. Since change is becoming 'business as usual' successful businesses will need the flexibility to meet these changes head on and come out victorious. This is done by success in each project initiative within the business. In order for projects to be successful they must in turn address the people side of the change.

 

Shift in values

Over the past 50 years, organizations have made dramatic shifts in roles and values of front-line employees. Predictably and control have been replaced by values of accountability, responsibility and empowerment. In an environment with an empowered workforce, change competency becomes a critical skill at all levels. When employees were expected to follow the rules, leaders had to only identify the rules and communicate them down. Now, employees have been given the ability to make the rules. For empowerment to be effective when change is needed, organizations must provide the change management skills and tools at all levels to quickly and efficiently respond.

 

Focus on measuring impact

Proof of change management becoming an essential component of business is the desire of people in the field to measure and have statistics and benchmarking about the impact of change management on the bottom line of an organization. This trend to measure and research change management's impact not only proves change management's importance but also creates the ability to prove it should be an integral part of "business as usual".

Summary

Recognize that both the engineering and psychological aspects must be considered for successful business change. While many techniques can be employed to design the solution to a business problem or opportunity (i.e., the business change), change management is the process, tools and techniques to manage the people-side of that business change to achieve the most successful business outcome, and to realize that change effectively within the social infrastructure of the workplace.

Change management has created quite a buzz in today's business environment. No matter what it is called, the concept of change management is here to stay. Change management is a required leadership competency to excel in business.

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Written by
Tim Creasey
Tim Creasey

Tim Creasey is Prosci’s Chief Innovation Officer and a globally recognized leader in change management. His work forms the foundation of the largest body of knowledge in the world on managing the people side of change to deliver organizational results.