There’s an overwhelming amount of data showing that implementing an organizational change management (OCM) effort, based on proven best practices, provides significant value. If that’s the case, why are so many organizations failing to realize the expected benefits? Is there some lesson that can be taken from these failed OCM implementations that will help other organizations avoid the same fate? Yes, thankfully there is.
In the same way that there is a shared understanding of the basic principles and purpose of OCM among the experts, there are also a number of shared fallacies among the novices. Three of these are so common they must be understood and addressed before implementing any OCM methodology within an organization.
Fallacy 1 – OCM Equals Communication
The first of these fallacies is that OCM is synonymous with project communication. When this is believed to be true, organizations often turn to existing communication resources to add change initiative messaging to existing communication vehicles such as newsletters or quarterly all-hands updates, as well as sending company-wide project update emails, and designing change initiative posters.
While it is true that best practice OCM necessitates timely, effective, audience-specific communication, merely launching a marketing campaign to “sell” the upcoming change, or providing ongoing communication on the status of the change initiative, is never effective – and often counter productive. While using existing communication channels and resources to deliver company wide, high-level messaging is an important part of an effective change initiative’s over-all communication strategy, these individuals are not equipped to deliver the detailed, audience-specific messaging that is needed throughout a project. Effective change messaging changes as circumstances within the project, as well as the organization itself, change. And because many of these messages are also very nuanced and sensitive, individuals that are both knowledgeable and trusted by the intended audience must design and deliver them.
It is not just the fact that developing and delivering effective, audience-specific change messaging is more complex than traditional company-wide communications that creates a problem. What makes this misconception fatal for change projects is the fact that assuming organizational change management responsibilities will be fulfilled by providing strong project communications completely ignores the formal roles that the executive sponsor, business sponsors and entire project implementation team have in implementing effective organizational change.
The ultimate purpose of effective OCM is to engage with individuals throughout an organization to make sure the right people are prepared to implement the right change, in the right way, at the right time, and to ensure the right outcomes are attained (including achieving the change initiative’s expected return on investment). This level of accomplishment requires a formal, comprehensive implementation plan, with detailed tasks, supported best practice processes, tools, and activities be integrated into all planning, design, development, training, implementation and deployment support activities. Again, while audience-specific communication is a fundamental OCM principle, it is only one of many that must be employed to ensure success.
Fallacy 2 – OCM Equals Separate
The second common fallacy is that there is no need to integrate OCM tasks into the over-all change initiative project plan. This is based on the belief that while there are critical OCM activities that must be executed, all of these tasks will be owned by an experienced organizational change management resource, and are separate and apart from the project’s technical tasks.
When organizations take this approach, with the exception of a assigning a few project communication tasks early in the project, they often choose to wait until the project has completed the discovery, design and development phases and is entering the training phase before bringing in a full time OCM resource, with the assumption that all OCM tasks will be owned by this resource.
Taking this approach results in only a fraction of the value that would be realized if organizational change principles were integrated into all aspects of the project plan, starting with the discovery phase. Including OCM tasks in every phase of the project plan means that a well thought out stakeholder engagement strategy will be implemented early, starting with the critical tasks associated with developing strong executive sponsorship. And while in this model the OCM lead is responsible for the formal OCM deliverables, this resource will also be working with the other project team members to ensure they include best practice OCM principles in all of their tasks, as well. For example, during the requirements gathering process, the technical team will address both technical and business concerns, which will require that they will work closely with the business SMEs during various design and development activities to build consensus and reduce risks.
A non-integrated approach does not allow for the time and effort needed to build stakeholder support for the change. This can only be accomplished when the stakeholders are confident that the final change solution is needed, is appropriate, and will meet both the stated technical requirements and the end user needs – and this level of confidence can only be developed over time.
Fallacy 3 – Believing Agreement Equals Willingness to Change
The third misunderstanding is the belief that people will be moved to accept significant change, as long as it can be proven that what is being changed is “better” than what is in place currently. You see, many business leaders believe that employees will support change when they have been shown irrefutable proof that the change provides value; or that the change will effectively and efficiently address existing business or technical problems; or even that it is the change the employees themselves have requested. But the fact is, these are not, in and of themselves, indicators as to whether individuals will actually modify their actions in the ways necessary to ensure successful change adoption and achieve maximum return on investment on change initiatives. And it isn’t just business leaders that believe this. Most individuals within an organization believe that if they agree that the facts show that a change is needed, and that the right solution has been chosen, they will commit to supporting the change. While that may sound logical, it is not supported by the data.
Consider these surprising findings from the Prosci 2016 Best Practices Report. When reviewing “lessons learned” from those change initiatives that were considered to have failed, employee resistance at all levels of the organization was overwhelmingly cited as the greatest obstacle to project success, but issues associated with the actual business solution, process, or system changes was cited only five times in more than 200 responses. That does not mean that the solution does not matter at all, but it does mean that a change initiative that delivers a “fairly good” solution, but invests the time and energy in building understanding and acceptance within the organization will be far more successful than a change initiative that delivers the “best possible” solution, but does not address the concerns, questions or issues that exist within the various change stakeholder groups that will be impacted by that change.