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Business change methodology gaps

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It sure would be terrific if business change happened the way the books say it’s supposed to happen: You have full support from the CEO, the company practices strong governance to make the right choices with its limited resources, resistance from line employees is your biggest barrier to success … you know, the Way Things are Supposed to Be.

It sure would be terrific. What usually happens instead when you’re given responsibility for a business change is that you’re given:

  • Theoretical authority over the project team, but no ability to replace non-performing team members.
  • No authority over anyone else whose participation and buy-in will be critical to success.
  • Roadblocks, courtesy of one or more key executives who covertly throw them in your path.
  • So much “creative ambiguity” regarding how the change is defined that just about any outcome could be interpreted as either success or failure, depending on the mood and political inclination of the interpreter.
  • No access to the CEO, who is nowhere in sight for this change. This could be because the change in question isn’t big enough to be visible up there; or maybe because the CEO needs plausible deniability if everything falls apart.

When I started to write Bare Bones Business Change Management I wasn’t entirely sure I had enough to say that was new to justify an addition to an already crowded field. As I reviewed what was available and compared it how we advise clients on the subject of business change at IT Catalysts, though, the gap was significant enough to give me confidence I was on the right track.

Successful business change requires a design, a plan, and considerable political agility. Most of what I’ve encountered on the subject takes too narrow a focus on all three of these subjects.

Design stops with the desired process changes, ignoring the structural factors that conspire to stabilize the organization in its status quo configuration (refer to last week’s column for more on this subject).

(Sidebar: Relatively speaking, including process design in project scope signifies sophistication. Most organizations are still stuck thinking in terms of system deployments rather than process changes. Don’t believe me? How many companies title their projects something like <System Name> Implementation? When the project title misses the point, how likely is it the organizational change will be on target?

Whatever else you do, give yourself a chance: Rename every project, initiative and strategic program in your organization to reflect the business change goal instead of the system name: Sales Force Effectiveness Project instead of Salesforce.com Implementation; Evidence-based Decision-making Initiative instead of Business Intelligence Implementation. The impact is surprisingly large. End Sidebar.)

The plan is generally limited to those tasks required to build the tangible deliverables, as if their mere existence is enough to ensure change takes place successfully. This is so ingrained that many project management professionals have taken me to task for suggesting project managers should take personal responsibility for more than the “magic triangle” of schedule, budget and scope — that they should in fact take personal responsibility for the success of the change itself.

As for the political dimension, it’s largely ignored (or at best sugar-coated), even though all organizational change is by its very nature intrinsically and deeply political.

Start with this definition of politics: It’s the process through which groups of people make collective decisions — put differently, the art of finding a path forward that can work for the organization even though different stakeholders have different ideas of the direction in which “forward” lies.

And there you are, in the middle, leading a change without the authority to make it stick. Someone … maybe you, maybe someone else … has already decided on the path forward. If you’re lucky they’ve done the political heavy lifting. If you aren’t so lucky it will be up to you.

Even if they have, you aren’t off the hook. Every change you’ll ever lead will involve at least dozens and probably hundreds of decisions, each of which can strengthen support if you handle the politics well, or resistance if you don’t.

Politics isn’t a thin, unpleasant veneer — a distraction from the “real” work of organizational change. It constitutes, by its very definition, a great deal of the real work of organizational change.

It doesn’t have to be sleazy. Finding a path forward for a group with widely varying perspectives and finding ways to get its members on board can be a respectful process.

Or not. That’s up to you.

Comments (9)

  • I must say this is a great article i enjoyed reading it keep the good work 🙂

  • The Sidebar (in the middle of course) says it all. An organization must change how it approaches systems deployments to be succeed.

  • Great Idea on naming the project. My company called the new endeavour “Common Process, Single system” then went with the Acroynm “CPSS” – so it lost it’s bite. CPSS is now a thing mostly.

    It’s so true about the politics in the business. I’m amazed at the political roadblock allowed to go on in companies. If it’s not resolved this year, some one new will come along and refight the battles again.

    I was thinking about your years earlier message about “Gut decision making”. Our Fridge went on the blink yesterday and we can’t get a repairman til Monday. I made my recommendations to my wife (who was the assumed “Officer-In-Charge”). Nothing doing! She was going to persist in hounding the repair center! And do things that seemed logical to her. I assume there’s a bit of “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” thinking going on inside my wife. To bad you can’t fire uncooperative family members! 🙂

    Thanks for writing.

  • Finding a path forward for a group with widely varying perspectives and finding ways to get its members on board can be a respectful process. Or not. That’s up to you.


    I got some great business advise from the book “Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus”. If you embrace the fact that people are different and you take the time to understand and honor those differences then you can speak to them in a way the respects them.

    You’re right it isn’t sleazy it’s very respectful and people respond to it.

    BTW yesterday was my 35th wedding anniversary

  • As a project manager, I absolutely agree with you that PMs need to take responsibility to meet the business need and not to just deploy something.
    Where I work, the business need, tied to the project objective, and how they intend to measure success of those objectives meeting the business need are required elements in the project charter.

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