This article is written to help anyone involved in leading change in organisations.

More than management

Successful change depends on more than just good management. Most of the change management literature and most change managers fail to recognise this. This is because they approach organisational change as if it were a project to be managed. There is certainly a project (process) element to organisational change, and good management is definitely needed. But what does good change management actually look like, and what other things are important?

Why change at all?

To understand the answer to these questions, we first need to think about what change really is. When organisations change, they don’t do it just for the heck of it. They don’t say, “Well guys, things are going really great in the business right now; we’d better change something.” No, they change things that don’t work well, or could work better. They change in response to new opportunities or new threats. After all, change is expensive and disruptive and it’s not something you want unless there’s a good reason for it.

So change ends up looking like some sort of project: undergoing a restructure or a merger, establishing new technologies, opening a new branch or closing an existing one, producing different products, etc. This all looks like something that needs careful management – and it does.

What else is going on?

But there’s also something critical going on here that’s usually overlooked. Successful change actually depends on people’s capacity to adapt and to learn new ways of working and new ways of thinking. It depends on people’s capacity to learn new skills, absorb new information, and practise new behaviours. Unless that happens, change will have limited success or be a total failure.

So leading change involves more than managing a project (a set of processes): it also involves managing a learning environment. But wait; someone will protest – “We provide training for our staff”. Great, but training is not the same thing as learning. People undergo training – and may  satisfy the outcomes – but fail to learn what they really need to learn to make change succeed. This often happens so think carefully about this.

Learning how to change

You can provide training about a new thing – whether it be a new computer software, a new product, or whatever. But that’s not the kind of learning that enables people to change. You can learn how something works, but that doesn’t mean you have learnt how to change from one set of behaviours and one way of thinking to another set of behaviours and a new way of thinking. This is a very different learning proposition, and it doesn’t depend on your change management plan.

Change fitness

It depends on a set of psychological resources that affect our ability to learn what we need to learn in order to succeed at change. We give these resources a name – change fitness. The more change fitness a person has, the easier it is for them to learn what they need to learn to succeed at change. We all have change fitness to some extent, but some people have developed more of it than others.

Leading change involves working with the right processes, but it also means managing a learning environment. In this learning environment, the change fitness of people affects what they can learn, how quickly they learn, and how they apply what they learn. Leading change begins to look less like managing a project and more like managing a class, where different students learn in different ways. Some are able to give more than others because they have greater capacity, and some require lots of support and help.

Change involves learning

You can’t get around this reality. Change involves learning – learning new ways to perform, learning new skills and knowledge, learning new ways of thinking and new ways of being. And most people find that kind of learning hard.

Leading change is really about managing change fitness. It’s not really managing change; rather it’s managing people’s learning and their ability to successfully do new things. And when they successfully do new things and think in new ways, your change project will have succeeded.

We are not denying that there are important processes to manage; we are saying that at heart change is a learning experience, and success depends on people’s ability to learn. If you want to know more about the key psychological resources that help people learn and change, please enquire about one of our programs or workshops.

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