Why is change management such a big deal now?  Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost our ability to lead people

Change management is a hot topic in many leadership circles.  Many of my clients have built it into their leadership competency models.  There is a general concern that leaders aren’t equipped to handle change.  There is also overwhelming evidence that this concern is valid.  Many studies have shown that major change initiatives often fail.

According to the Change Management Consultancy PROSCI, Change Management, as a discipline, began in the 1980s[1]. This begs the obvious question as to how change was handled before then.  Were things not changing?  Were changes not managed?

Some people argue that the world is changing faster and in more extreme ways than ever before.  Yet, that’s not necessarily true.  The pace of change is relative. In every generation since the start of the industrial era (probably even longer), there were changes that, at the time, seemed significant. Here are some historic quotes on change from a comic titled, “The pace of modern life” on XKCD[2].  Pay close attention to the dates:

  • It is, unfortunately, one of the chief characteristics of modern business to be always in a hurry.  In olden times it was different (Medical Record, 1884).
  • The art of pure line engraving is dying out.  We live at too fast a rate to allow for the preparation of such plates as our fathers appreciated.  If a picture catches the public fancy, the public must have an etched or a photographed copy of it within a month or two… (Journal of the Institute of Jamaica Volume 1, 1892)
  • Our modern family gathering, silent around the fire, each individual with his head buries in his favourite magazine, is the somewhat natural outcome of the banishment of colloquy from the school. (The Journal of Education, volume 29, 1907)
  • A hundred years ago it took so long and cost so much to send a letter than it seemed worth while to put some time and thought into writing it.  Now the quickness and the cheapness of the post seem to justify the feeling that a brief letter to-day may be followed by another next week – a “line” now by another to-morrow (Percy Holmes Boynton, Principles of Composition, 1871.

Change and pace are relative.  When change is happening to you, it seems fast. With a few simple contextual changes, all of those quotes could be made today.

Leaders have confronted change and disruption since at least 1790 (start of the industrial revolution) but it took us almost 200 years to start managing it.  Yet companies succeeded, businesses flourished, and people seemed to get through those changes in one piece. So, what’s really changed?

I don’t think that (in relative terms) change is harder to manage now than at any other point in history.  The difference lies in the people we are asking to manage those changes.

Our leaders aren’t leaders any more.  As the “change management” industry has grown up in the past 30 years, so has the “leadership development” industry. Both are trying to help people who have been placed into leadership positions, act like leaders.  That’s where, in my opinion, the problem lies.

Today, in many organizations, people are promoted into leadership positions for their technical and functional skills.  If you are a really good nurse, you get promoted to nurse manager.  If you are a great software developer, you become a project manager.  The problem is that being really good at what you do has little to no bearing on your ability to lead other people who do the same thing. Leadership isn’t about functional and technical skills.  It’s about people skills.

Leaders who struggle to manage change are probably struggling to manage their people in general.  Most likely they aren’t tuned into their people’s needs, concerns, or goals.  They might not have open lines of communication.  They don’t do a good job clarifying the organization or department’s direction.  They may not have set and held people accountable to clear goals.  They probably don’t know how to create simple, clear communications.  All of these will made change difficult. However, these skills aren’t just needed during times of change.  These are the 24/7 responsibilities of a leader.

Managing change is first and foremost about managing people.  For people to succeed, in any context, they must have the ability, information, and motivation to get the job done.  They must not feel threatened by their current or future work environment.  They must have a leader who understands them, at the individual level, and is able to adapt to each person’s needs, goals, and desires.

In the “old” days, people rose to leadership ranks based on their ability to lead.  Today, we put people into leadership positions based on other things, and then hope to turn them into leaders.  At that point, it’s too late.  Just look at the current levels of engagement in today’s workforce.

The fundamental job of a leader is to lead people.  So why not make that the fundamental criteria for putting someone into a leadership position?

[1] Change Management History, PROSCI, http://www.prosci.com/change-management/change-management-history/

[2] The Pace of Modern Life, XKCD.com, https://xkcd.com/1227/)

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