Connecting Adaptive Challenges with Change Management

Say the phrase “change management” at any company and many will say they know what this means.  Companies typically define change management as the process of moving or transitioning individuals, teams, and entire organizations from the current state to the desired future state.  Change management activities include communication plans, training, process mapping, etc.

Projects typically change processes and systems, for example, moving from an in-house managed contingent worker program to an outsourced model under a Managed Service Provider (MSP).  Thus mapping out the steps in the current version to how the newer “more-efficient” state will be is an important part of a project.

However, we focus so well on this technical piece of change that we often forget the human piece.  Project Managers, as well as management within organizations often forget that people and their values must change along with the process.

According to Ronald Heifetz, adaptive challenges require a change in a person, team, or organization’s values, specifically when there is a conflict in values. It requires an evolution in values for members or factions whose values differ from one another.  Thus it would be prudent for companies to understand the values tied to the current state, and the values of the future state, and find a way to work through this evolution.  Otherwise, once you’re in the future state with the whiz-bang processes and technologies, you’ll have people clinging to their old values; either fighting the new state or struggling to learn and hurting productivity.

Going back to the MSP project example…  there were several admins and project coordinators around the company manually managing temporary workers from various suppliers.  In addition, suppliers were knocking on hiring managers’ doors daily to get new business.  Under the new program, a hiring manager could go into a tool and request a temporary worker, with the process being managed by a neutral third party, the MSP.  For many, the values espoused in the old model, was the live interaction between hiring managers, their admins, and the suppliers.  Being able to call up a supplier when they had a need was valuable to the hiring manager; they felt they could get better service and higher quality candidates this way.  For those in support of the new model, they valued greater visibility through the system of how many contingent workers were on site, tracking how much money was being spent, and fair competition amongst suppliers who all received requests (instead of the few that the hiring managers used to call).

Management will typically approach this conflict in values by showing why the old state is wrong and the new state is right.

Approaching this conflict as adaptive work, will identify the mutual values, reframing both sets of values to find commonalities, while addressing the values people may “think” they’re losing, but really aren’t lost.  This takes a lot more time, then a “you’re wrong and I’m right” conversation.

More to come on how we can incorporate Leadership theories into Change Management.

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One Response to Connecting Adaptive Challenges with Change Management

  1. James Thomas says:

    Great post!

    You make a good point about how we tend to focus on the technical side of change and avoid the ‘soft’ side of human behavior (inspired by Heifetz?). I’ve seen this time and again in consulting engineering firms on two continents: we engineers seem to hold a typically 20th century mechanistic operating assumption about how organizations will respond to change (i.e. we concentrate on organizational structures and processes, and assume that people will simply comply with directives like good little cogs in a machine). We often fail to consider organizations as the complex adaptive systems they are.

    Apart from the inherently unpredictable nature of organizations, we also typically fail to recognize that we have very little information about their current states, particularly the emotional / psychological states of their membership. I suspect that this is another reason it is comforting to ignore the human side of change, since we can never really get inside the heads of all of our colleagues.

    Which is why I am also interested in gaining a better understanding of the psychology at play behind organizational change and organizational stasis (i.e. change campaigns that fail!). I wonder if that is an area that interests you as well?

    A few of the sources that I’ve found helpful on the subject include:

    John Gourville’s 2006 article on the psychology of advocates and resistors to change “Eager Sellers and Stony Buyers” (refer to HBR online: ).

    Emily Lawson and Colin Price’s 2003 MQ article “The Psychology of Change Management” (refer to MQ: ).

    Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller’s 2009 MQ article “The Irrational Side of Change Management” (refer to MQ: ).

    Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s ongoing field research into our ‘inner work lives’ and analysis of employee engagement via the daily journal entries of hundreds of real people across many industries. See, for example, their 2011 book “The Progress Principle”, or their 2011 HBR article “The Power of Small Wins” (refer to HBR online: ).

    Edgar Schein “Organizational Culture and Leadership” for an anthropologist’s insights into the dynamic relationship between organizational culture and leadership based on long-term studies within a couple of well-known companies (refer to amazon: ).

    Not sure if you’ve come across all of these, or if you have more scholarly sources through your leadership coursework, or even if you’re keen on diving into this particular rabbit hole, but this could be a fruitful direction for a series of blog posts on change management…?

    All the best,

    James Thomas

    (P.S. I’m also a bit of a fan of Ronald Heifetz work on Adaptive Leadership!)

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