When’s the last time you wanted to make a change in your behavior? Perhaps it was a New Year’s resolution; perhaps it was going on a diet so you’d look good in a bathing suit; perhaps it was deciding that next year will be the year you get your taxes done ahead of time. Chances are, though, that the change didn’t work, or worked for only a while.

Now, multiply that by the number of people in your company, and you can understand why “change management” is a thing.

People don’t like to change, even when, intellectually, they may realize it’s an improvement. (Look at how much trouble the federal government is having changing to a digital-based retirement process.) It’s said—inaccurately, as it turns out—that it takes 21 days to instill a new habit. And that’s for just a single person. Try to coordinate an entire company’s worth of people into that new habit, and it’s like herding cats.

Like Theory Z, the trendy management style that it was thought led to Japan’s business success, and so many other business management practices, change management first started as a concept in the 1980s among consulting companies advising major corporations and has continued since then, working its way down to smaller companies. And the concept makes sense; if you’re operating under the notion that a company must be agile to survive, it must therefore be able to change effectively.

Change management, therefore, came about as an attempt to define a process intended to help companies effect change in an efficient way. (That’s just one definition. There are hundreds. Seriously.)

While change management sounds technical and official, in reality, it’s a pretty squishy concept. This is because there’s not one single change management instruction manual that will work for every company. Each organization is different and will need to approach change management processes in a way that’s appropriate for that company’s culture and its employees. It’s like the way there’s thousands of different weight-loss diets. In other words, no one size fits all—no pun intended.

Plus, recall that change management first started with consulting companies. Consequently, each consulting company developed its own change management methodology. Whether it was because the company felt its way was better, or whether it simply wanted something it could brand, we ended up with 3-step and 7-step and 8-step and even 12-step change management models. (Not to mention AA’s 12-step program—a form of individual change management.)

And there’s more. “When I last looked, Amazon alone had 94,689 titles” on change management, writes Carol Howard in HC Online. “That was yesterday, today there are probably more.” Especially since she wrote that last week.

The important part is not which model you pick, writes Robert Hewes in Information Week, but in having some sort of model that you follow that provides for ways to create a shared vision and communicate it to the company. “Right there you start to see the challenge, especially for the technically oriented among us,” he writes. “There needs to be a consistent effort in communication, discussing the right things at the right level with the right people.”

Part of the problem is that, as science writer Michael Shermer says, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” What makes that a problem? Because despite your best efforts in communicating with employees, they may see evidence that something else is going on, and tell themselves a story about it. To make matters worse, writes Alan Champman on BusinessBalls, humans tend to think emotionally and instinctively, rather than rationally and logically.

Consequently, some offhand remark might cause people to believe you’re not really switching to a new version of software to simplify business processes. Actually, they decide, the company is doing this because there are going to be layoffs. People start freaking out and spreading the story and suddenly nobody wants to use the new software anymore and you have no idea why.

Much of the change management methodology and models boil down to one thing—the one thing that you typically have to do whenever humans are involved: Talk with the involved employees. People are less inclined to make up stories when they feel that they have complete information. People are more inclined to work with a process when they feel that they have been included in the decision to switch to that process.

And just remember—if your change management process isn’t working, you can always change to another one.

Not so easy, is it?


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