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The Change Manager: psychologist and brave heart

Recently we met some VIPs to discuss how change management happens in their organizations. Change Management is on the agenda of every organization – whether public or private sector, large or small. Change is often positive as organizations strive to do better, introduce innovation or devise new processes whose aim is to deliver benefits.

But as everyone knows, organizational life isn’t always about introducing positive change. Some change can be unwelcome and difficult to accept. When organizations downsize, re-structure, or introduce new ways of working, it can often be the Change Manager’s job to introduce the change and get people on-side. Dressing up restructuring as virtuous change is never going to wash, and it can be the Change Manager’s job to deal with the fall-out. This means they can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to report both up and down in the organisation – and delivering bad news to worried job-holders or pressurised senior directors is never easy.

Keith Williams, who has been APMG’s Chief Examiner for our Change Management qualification, hosted the meeting. He asked the attendees to say something about themselves.

Guests included myself as APMG’s PR Manager; Robert Buttrick PPM Method Director, BT; Arnab Bannerjee, Programme Manager, Continuous Improvement at  TfL; David Griffiths, Programme Manager, EDF; Nicola Busby, Head of Change at Circle Housing Group, who was previously at the Houses of Parliament; Bob Little, Chairman of EPICC – the consulting arm of Workplace Matters; and Jacqui Roberts, Strategy & Development Advisor, the Met Office, who had travelled all the way from Exeter to be with us.

Keith kicked off the discussion by asking “What is change management?” Our guests discussed how culture plays a huge part in managing change. One delegate discussed their challenges when two organizations with very different cultures were expected to work closely together. One organization was very old fashioned and reliant on paper based reporting; the other was far more agile and trusted staff to “get on and do”.

Everyone agreed that accountability and culture are the cornerstones of change management. Communication is another aspect that is central to successful change.

The topic quickly turned to how IT and the Business can be at odds with each other.  One guest described how their organization called everything a transformation project but cultural change had been underestimated and even overlooked.

We discussed how to convey to the senior team that the change they want isn’t feasible, practical or even possible. It was agreed that many organizations suffer from “change fatigue” due to the high volume of change initiatives undertaken at any one time.  To assist the leadership in understanding the volume of change across the organization one of the group explained how they had used a simple one page brief to chart the multiple layers of change affecting the different areas of the organization against an agreed timeline.  This painted a clear picture of the impact and potential for change fatigue within the various areas effected and hence helped the leadership to understand the need to prioritize delivery timelines as necessary.

We discussed that there is often a problem at the top of the organization because if the leader can’t get agreement from one person, they may just turn to someone else who will say they’ll get the job done. This is why influencing skills are so important for change managers. They need to be able to deliver bad news and not be afraid of the consequences.

Programmes, Projects & Change

Our guests wanted to distinguish change management from project management, and project management from programme management.

Programmes are not big projects they said. In fact some programmes can have no projects at all. Although projects do deliver change in that they have deliverables, it was felt that the skills needed manage projects and manage change are different. PMs need to be good at the detail and they need to focus on business outputs. Meanwhile, change managers need to be able to see the big picture – their focus should be on behaviours and not the frameworks. Some thought that change mangers could make brilliant business-driven PMs because they are focused on business change and outcomes. Everyone agreed that projects are becoming ever more complex so require skilled professionals to deliver them

Guests thought that the mature organization shouldn’t need change managers because change should be managed as “business as usual”. When people are “parachuted” in to deliver change, it can go disastrously wrong. It can work if the change manager has a high degree of emotional intelligence, but what you really need is someone whom people respect.

There was a feeling that organizations tend to prefer processes and are not good at communicating with people; yet, managing change means involving – and communicating with – people.

This is where change managers become leaders. Project managers often don’t want to deliver bad news. It’s so important that reporting is reliable and not just filling in the check boxes.

Leadership and Emotional Intelligence

Keith asked the group if they thought emotional intelligence can be taught – or is it innate?

All agreed that a good leader has to be good at delivering change; however it was very important not to dress up bad news. For example if the organization is downsizing, it is best just to say so.

In terms of the skills that leaders need, we discussed how people tend to get promoted because they are good at doing a certain task. Instead of doing the task themselves, their new management status puts them in charge of people who are doing the task in which they excel. When they get promoted again, they’re responsible for the people managing the ones performing the original task. Each time someone is promoted, they are further removed from what they’re good at doing. Being a manager requires its own skills – and one of them is trusting people to do a job you know you could probably do at least as well, or possibly better.

In this way, change managers are like leaders because they deliver change through other people. We discussed whether it would be a good idea for change managers to study psychology in depth – and we agreed that it certainly wouldn’t do any harm for them to know more about the way people work.

The party agreed that a change management qualification is not the be-all-and-end-all for a change manager because so much of what they have to do is intuitive, and relies on their ability to read people and situations and then take the most appropriate action. However, they said that they thought being qualified was a good thing because it helped people with their career progression, and gave them independent verification of their credentials to do the job.

Further reading

Making Sense of Change Management, Esther Cameron & Mike Green

Managing Change in the workplace, Ralph L. Kliem and Irwin S. Ludin

Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership, Ranjit Sidhu

Books by Jim Collins

Liberating the Corporate Soul, Richard Barrett

The Project Workout 4th edition, Robert Buttrick

Beyond Performance – How great organizations build customer advantage – Scott Keller and Colin Price

Project Managing Change Practical Tools and Techniques to Make Change Happen by Ira Blake and Cindy Bush

Making Sigma Last – George Eckes

Arnab Banerjee’s article Planning Change is Easy, Making Sure it Sticks is not



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3 Responses

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  1. Arnab Banerjee says

    Another really good book which I forgot to mention:

    Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance

    Louis V. Gerstner, Harper Collins, 2002
    ISBN 0-06-053579-2

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