What is change management and why does it matter – 2017 edition

What is change management and why does it matter – 2017 edition


I’ve been asked by so many friends and acquaintances and parents at my daughter’s school “What is Change Management?” so many times, you’d think I have a short answer.

I could tell people: We help people within organizations handle changes to the way they work in the least disruptive way possible. That’s true, I guess. But it makes the work sound like a sort of change concierge.

There is something more strategic about change management. It is a practice steeped in the holistic way that organizations have to learn to overcome the barriers to their growth.

Change management matters so much because it makes dynamic organizations, composed of not-quite-as-dynamic humans –capable of realizing the potential that comes from innovation.

Now, let’s look at how that happens, and what role change management has in the process.

What is change management? The importance of change management in a changing world - 2017

Change is accelerating so quickly that change management is becoming a core discipline for many organizations. If you can’t adapt to changes in your industry, you become obsolete. If you can’t adapt to new technologies, you become ineffective. If you can’t learn to make sense of the new order, you get left behind.

I can think of countless examples of the times leaving people behind. Innovation is solving problems so fast, most people don’t even realize they are having them.

If your organization is on the bleeding edge of finding new ways to solve problems, your investment may be for naught if you have not found a way to get your employees to adopt that change.

Innovation, all innovation, requires change. If you want your people to innovate, they must change. If you want your customers to buy your innovative solutions, they must change.

If you don’t have a good control of how to do change management, it’s unlikely you are going to be able to get either of those things to happen with a convincing degree of predictability or certainty.

The unsung hero

Looking to the discipline of change management as a separate thing can be novel to some organizations. It seems like this is something that should be happening anyway. Why devote some specific training or people to it?

It’s understandable. Change is something people have been doing their entire lives. But in an organization, when survival is on the line, they cannot be trusted to drive their own change.

That’s because there are needs around accomplishing change that go beyond the basics. Most of your people can write. Most of them would not be your choice to write all of your marketing. There is a premium to expertise that accounts for the ability to make changes work better.

An effective change management program is that next level in the management of change.

People ask what is change management usually as a precursor to suggesting it be cut from a project plan. Many managers only recognize the value of change management after being burned in a previous project.

Structure for helping people embrace change

People don’t want to change. That should come as no surprise. We can’t always make them change, either. Those who practice change management don’t guarantee compliance in a Pied Piper sort of scenario. Instead, they do what they can to shrink the preventable barriers to change. They assess probabilities and likely challenges. Then they try to steer the project around them.

They can offer this through a structure that is repeatable and learnable. It gives project managers the opportunity to build the models into the work plan by recognizing what kind of work needs to happen where.

The structure is an important element to this practice. With everything involved in change, it’s easy to lose sight of the basic activities that are part of the plan. In short, you can get too caught up in find the perfect solution to do the necessary. The sufficient sometimes has to wait.

The structure gives the change manager tools to understand what is working and what is not. It gives them a shorthand to adapt and recognize goals.

You could answer the question: What is change management by simply pointing people toward the role it plays in preparation for change. But there is a deeper value to change management. It offers people a sense of place in the change.

Management and behavioral design disciplines focused on outcomes

Management theory strives to show us how to get people aligned toward a common goal –and make sure they are as productive as possible in getting there. Behavioral design picks up the complex soups of motivations and drivers and figures out exactly how they can be wired to bring people toward a positive outcome.

When you blend the two together, you start to see the beginnings of a change practitioner: they focus on a business outcome driven by people, and they want to achieve that by understanding the way those people work. With that understanding and drive, you can make the change as easy to implement as possible.

What is change management? When applied, it’s project management insurance

When change management happens on a project, it can prevent some of the natural human aversion to change from becoming full on revolt. Without some intention built around the process of implementing a change, unanticipated resistance can destroy an otherwise good project.

This report from Deloitte shows survey results that support the idea that change management is effective in keeping a project on track. 

I call it insurance because change management is a cheap, relative to the investment in most projects. A good program can make it considerably more likely that the plan will be successful. By addressing some of the most common failure points, the change management efforts give a great return on investment.

For most change, you can hope for some good adoption in the community experiencing the change. Without them having their unique vintage of resistance addressed, those hopes will remain unrealized.

hen someone asks what is change management, they are really asking about the value it brings. The real value is that it makes it more likely a project will be successful.

Change management is a multi-disciplinary approach

Successful change management borrows from many fields:

  • Communication
  • Organizational Design
  • Project Management
  • Behavioral Psychology
  • Management theory
  • Design thinking
  • More

While there are programs around training change managers, the key driver is curiosity and a willingness to learn and adapt from many disciplines.


The definition of change management will evolve based on the requirements we have for navigating an ever-changing world. This year, we face uncertainty and new requirements to grow and evolve. If we want our people to be able to do that successfully, we need to develop our understanding of how change works, and how we can do it more consistently, more comfortable, and more effectively.

Six different ways people experience the change management process - in pictures!

Six different ways people experience the change management process - in pictures!

How to use what you already know when managing complex change

How to use what you already know when managing complex change