Author, speaker and consultant Peter de Jager is an expert on change management. A regular visitor to Ireland, he tells Siliconrepublic.com why technology projects are really all about change, and why IT leaders have the high ground in helping them to succeed.
In your own work, you often talk about the myths surrounding the change process. Can you tell us about some of the more common misconceptions?
The most basic ‘myth’ is the notion that people ‘resist change’. We don’t. We embrace change – large change – all the time. We get married, have children, move house, emigrate, acquire new skills, learn languages, change jobs … More to the point? If we are in a situation that hasn’t changed in a while, such as a boring job, then we will actively seek a new, more challenging job.
What we do resist is ‘being changed’. We don’t like not having control of our future. We don’t like it when decisions are made that involve us without our involvement. We don’t like being told what to do and having no say in the matter. This is what we resist.
Why do so many organisations get change so badly wrong, and what can they do to avert failure?
I think it’s important to remember that ‘organisations’ don’t make decisions … people make decisions. If we think along the lines of ‘organisations make decisions’, then it makes it very difficult to understand what is happening and even more difficult to correct what is going wrong with our decision making.
‘Organisations’ get change wrong because those who are leading the change are impatient – they want change to happen now, or at least ‘very quickly’, and they believe that the best way to make that happen quickly is to dictate change.
Getting the troops involved in the change is time consuming; involvement requires an understanding for why the change is necessary. Involvement requires communication. Involvement requires time. In a way, they are correct. If we just followed their command to change, then life would be good. What they ignore is what they already know: we don’t resist change, we resist being changed.
In your experience, are there any common attributes that most successful change management projects share?
One, communication. Two, planning. Three, involvement. These three points are drawn from 30 years of change management facilitation, across 40 countries and all industry sectors. These are the most dominant responses when I ask audiences from all walks of life to think about a successful change and tell me why they believed that change was successful.
On the flip side? They report that change initiatives fail when there is poor communication, lack of involvement and poor planning.
The irony is that everyone knows why change initiatives succeed and why they fail. The real question is why, if we know what doesn’t work, do we continue with those practices that almost ensure failure? The only answer I can offer is that we are too impatient when we see the need for change. We refuse to accept that there is a speed limit attached to the process of change. That when we attempt to exceed that speed, it all goes terribly wrong. The cost of failed change initiatives is huge. We’re slow learners.
To what extent can a repeatable change management process be put in place for a range of possible project types, or does each project by its nature need a different approach?
There are basic things we can do when attempting any change; communicate, plan, involve. The details within those small words vary from project to project, but the approach is the same.
How important is technology in such projects?
Not very. ‘Change’ is a people activity, it’s not so much about ‘technology’ as it is about people skills and common sense. Technology can help us communicate, it can help us collaborate, it can help us illustrate the consequences or implications of a change, but these are all just leveraging the things we need to do: communicate, plan, involve. A good carpenter can build a great house with a hammer … A bad carpenter with the same hammer is just going to injure themselves.
To turn the previous question on its head, are some organisations guilty perhaps of focusing too much on technology to the detriment of other areas in making change work?
Yes. I’d replace ‘some’ with ‘many’, or even ‘most’.
Do you think there’s an argument to be made that, because IT now touches all aspects of any given organisation, IT departments can play a critical role in the success or failure of change projects?
Everything IT does in an organisation inflicts change on everyone in the organisation. IT is at the centre of change in most organisations and we admit that we – I’ll be kind – are not very good at the people side of change. We’re great at creating change, not that great at implementing it.
Let’s look at the role of the CIO or IT leader in a change process: what should they do to ensure the successful outcome of a change-management initiative?
I’m beginning to sound like a broken record. Communicate, plan and involve those who will be affected by the change. As I’ve written before, communication isn’t something that stops and starts, it’s a constant activity before, during and after any change initiative.
The key question, almost the only question worth discussing, is to explain ‘why’ there’s a change. If someone asks me to move from one side of the room to the other, or to stop using system X in lieu of system Y, my response is always the same: ‘Why?’ Understanding why a change is necessary is the most important question we have about any change. Without a good answer, we’re reluctant to do anything differently.
Can a change project be an opportunity for senior IT professionals to raise their own profile or enhance the standing of the IT department within the business, by showing leadership and initiative in a change project?
That opportunity to influence how we embrace change is available to all in the organisation. IT has possession of the high ground in this respect: everything they do brings change into the organisation.
Just as project management has become a core skill with proven payback, change management presents the same opportunity. A failed change is incredibly costly; a successful change builds momentum for future beneficial change. More than enough glory and accolades are available to those who become masters of change management.
Peter de Jager returns to Ireland two or three times every year and will be back again the week of 15 July. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also runs a series of monthly webinars that attract listeners from around the world. Email him for more details.