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In the end all change is personal. And its impact on you depends on your personal change fitness.

It is personal because it affects how people function, what they are expected to do, how they feel, how they interact, and how they relate. If we lose sight of the personal we are left with strategies, processes, plans, approaches, measures, hardware, software, and so on. In short, we are left with the structural frameworks that support the change.

But we mustn’t lose sight of the personal.

People impact change

All change (at least in the human arena) is personal not only because it impacts people, but also because people impact change. Thankfully, the impact of change can be positive: happy endings, fortuitous events, successful outcomes. But change can also be disruptive, inconvenient, challenging and unwelcome. It can dislodge people from their comfort zone and push them beyond their limits. It can even challenge their very survival.

People’s ability to handle change influences whether it ultimately succeeds or fails. The oft-quoted 70% failure-rate of change suggests that many people lack the ability to handle it effectively. An interesting correlation exists in the literature on correctional rehabilitation, where a failure-rate of 60%-70% is acknowledged. Change in whatever form it takes is personal and many lack the capacity to handle it well.

Change management

So far we have seen that all change is personal because change impacts people and people impact change. But let’s stand back for a moment and reflect on the way change is traditionally handled in organisations. The area of change management owes much to Kurt Lewin who, in the 1940’s, introduced his freeze-unfreeze-refreeze model. Think of a block of ice that has been frozen into a particular shape; say the shape of a car. If you want to change the shape of the ice (say into a tree), the best way to do so is to unfreeze the ice-car and refreeze it as an ice-tree.

Lewin suggested a similar process applies to organisational change. The existing situation must be unfrozen before any change can occur, the change is then instituted, and the organisation is refrozen to lock in the change. This thinking made sense in the 1940’s, and although Lewin’s model still informs change management practice today, it makes less sense in the 21st century. Today change is so constant that for many organisations fluidity rather than frigidity is the ideal state.

More than management

But from my point of view there is an even more serious concern about Lewin’s model. This concern pertains to the fundamental assumptions of the model. The model assumes that what managers do matters, and I have no issues with that. Change must be managed well. But having able managers is no assurance that change will be effective. Managers can do all the right things, but if the people who are affected by the change lack change fitness, the best management practices in the world won’t work very well.

Half the answer

Lewin assumes that in the end change is a management concern. It isn’t. In the end it’s a personal concern. Change can be managed, but change management without change fitness is only half the answer.

In my experience, many managers find this hard to accept. We commonly hear managers say something like, “I want you to help me manage this change; but I’m not interested in change fitness.” They are prepared to invest in interventions that will help them manage change, but not in helping their staff develop change fitness. This thinking is an outdated legacy of the traditional approach. Remember, however, that the traditional approach only delivers 30% success rates.

Take-home lesson

So what’s the take-home lesson here? Organisational change is personal as well as managerial. It’s important to get the structural and procedural parts right, but it’s essential to plan for the personal. Change fitness is like any other kind of fitness – it helps you perform, it helps you cope, and it helps you go the distance. When mangers say they are not interested in change fitness, they are making things harder for themselves, risking failure, and wasting money.

All change is personal. Despite 70 years of research and development, the failure rate of the traditional approaches hasn’t changed. It’s time to do something different.

If you follow what I am saying, and you agree with me, I encourage you to make contact. I believe it’s time to acknowledge the personal in organisational change. I need to build a team of supporters.

Steve Barlow PhD

[email protected]