An organization that faces constant demands to change and uses effective change management over and over with each new initiative may experience a fundamental shift in its operations. Sponsors begin to repeat activities that made the last change successful. Managers develop skills to support employees through the change. Employees see part of their job as navigating change. Each level in the organization will have internalized its role in change and developed the skills and knowledge necessary to react to constant change. The organization has become ready and able to embrace change; it has developed change competency.

What is change competency?

Building change competency in an organization is not like installing a new computer system or implementing a new policy. Change competency requires a new attitude and approach. Individuals in a change-competent organization define their job in relation to change. They value the ability to change as one of their primary responsibilities. They understand that change will occur, expect it and effortlessly perform during and after the change.

Change competency is the presence of a business culture that expects change and reacts with the understanding, perspectives, tools and techniques to make change seamless and effortless. It is making change a part of “business as usual.”

How is it different than change management?

Change competency is similar to change management, but there are several key distinctions.

First, change management is the use of specific activities (like communication, coaching, sponsorship and training) to manage the people-side of change in order to realize successful outcomes of a business change. Change competency is not a specific activity; it is an organization’s ability to react to and manage change over and over again. Change competency is the organization-wide capability to apply change management practices successfully and routinely.

Second, while change management can be taught and learned, change competency requires a fundamental shift in culture and values. It must become part of day-to-day operations and cannot be simply demonstrated in training or instructional material.

Third, change competency must penetrate every facet and level of the organization. This distinction especially relates to front-line employees. An organization may have expertise in change management in its sponsors, consultants and change management practitioners. However, the front-line employees are the ones whose day-to-day activities are changing. In change management, these employees are the targets of much of the activity. In change competent organizations, these employees are key players. To build change competency, they must be given the perspectives, tools and techniques to rapidly and successfully change.

The importance of front-line employees

The impacted employees are often the neglected component of change management efforts. Training and resources are readily available for executives, change teams and even managers and supervisors. Front-line employees are often left behind.

Ironically, managing front-line employee resistance was identified as the number one obstacle for change management teams in a recent study with more than 288 companies. A separate study with business improvement teams showed that employee resistance was the top inhibitor of project success. The lesson to be learned is: do not underestimate the importance of your front-line employees in managing change.

A look at the roles in creating change competency

Consider the members of a project or change management team. The current change initiative may be the only project they work on before they move on to other opportunities in the business. Likewise, an executive sponsor of a project has many initiatives to support and this project is only a small part of the big picture.

However, for employees who must change their daily activities, this change initiative could produce dramatic and radical change to their day-to-day work and their professional life. It may do away with everything they know and are comfortable with. It may introduce systems, processes or approaches that are new and intimidating. To truly build change competency into an organization, the front-line employees must understand how they can succeed and perform in a constantly changing business world.

Evidence of a change-competent organization

Change-competent organizations, as viewed from each role in the organization, have the following attributes:

Executives – “constantly search for ways to improve profitability and growth by reacting to marketplace changes and opportunities, and ensure that business changes are implemented and realized to their full potential through effective leadership and change sponsorship. This includes active and visible participation in change projects throughout the life of the project.”

The project team – “can support sponsors, managers and front-line employees through the change process with tools, processes and techniques to manage change”

Managers – “can coach employees through the change process; provide direction and steering for professional development and encourage successful performance during the transition and in the new environment”

Front-line employees – “can perform successfully in the current environment, during the transition and in the future state; have the tools and processes to effectively manage their personal transition through change.”

To build change competency, you must equip all levels of your organization with the understanding, perspectives, tools and techniques to make change seamless and effortless.

Facilitating a change-competent culture

You can use the ADKAR® Model to assess where your organization is today relative to change competency and to develop an action plan to move in that direction. Consider and evaluate the following statements as they relate to your organization.

Awareness – the organization understands the importance of responding quickly and efficiently to internal and external pressures to change; the organization understands what change competency is and the associated business risk of not developing change competency; all groups understand the business reasons and drivers for making this change in culture, values and skills for managing change.

Desire – the organization recognizes the impact on its livelihood and operations if change competency is not developed and is motivated to create organizational change competency; all groups acknowledge that the ability to change is critical if the organization is to survive, and they are ready and willing to begin the journey towards a change competent organization.

Knowledge – the organization has the base knowledge of what a change-able organization looks like and what skills and values are required; all facets of the organization have a basic understanding of change management theories and practices, and can apply a change management processes to business projects; each group understands its role in a change competent organization.

Ability – the organization possesses and effectively utilizes the tools and processes to manage change; leaders, change practitioners and front-line employees have practice and coaching in being successful change agents and can routinely apply their knowledge and skills to realize change.

Reinforcement – the organization encourages and rewards successful change through its culture, values and initiatives; support of change competency is reinforced and resistance to change is identified and managed; change is part of “business as usual.”

Building change competency takes time

Change is a process and moving to a change-competent organization will take time. It is important to realize that you will need to apply change management techniques to this change as well. You will need to recognize where you are today, where you want to be in the future, and what it will take to make that transition. Change management is a required capability for developing change competency.

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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.