Return to site

Don’t Hire a Change Manager (even though they’re awesome) until….

There’s a critical distinction between managing change and causing change. Understand this difference and you will have a great deal more power doing both!

“plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose[1]

(the more it changes, the more it stays the same)



A recent survey by McLean & Company found that a disengaged employee costs an organization approximately $3,400 for every $10,000 in annual salary[2].

In 1996, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter claimed that nearly 70 percent of large-scale change programs didn’t meet their goals.[3]

Recently, more flexible and iterative change management approaches have hit-the-scene (e.g. AGILE and LEAN). They can work really well, but when they don’t it’s invariably for the same reason the other’s fail.

Most-times we blame ‘culture’ for the failing[4]. That’s a fair criticism, but there’s often simpler explanation:

“…most change programs are, in fact, catch-up programs.”[5]



I see this time and time again. A change program implemented, or manager hired, to fix a problem (or multiple problems), but without any substantive vision of the future to underpin the change.

You see, people don’t get inspired by fixing problems. They get inspired by what it means if the problem is fixed!

Put another way, people get excited (and invested) in a proactive vision of the future not a reactive vision of the past. Ending world hunger is not a motivator, having everyone fed is (I’ve written a lot about the impact of the problem-solution dynamic in change management, see here if you want to know why a proactive vision rather than a problem-fixing vision is REALLY important!)

This might seem like a small distinction, but if you follow it through to its logical conclusion it’s huge because the no.1 tenet of change is that you can only move people as far they want to go, and its ironic corollary: if they wanted to go there, they’d probably be doing it already (without you).

So where does this leave change management? ‘

Getting really clear on what change management is and what it isn’t would empower the whole sector. It will also make your job a lot easier: focus on each intention separately. Craft your approach with the two intentions separate and you’ll see a whole-lot-more buy-in, people will start proactively pulling for change because they care. With that in place, change management becomes what it really should be: managing the change that everyone is pulling for.[6]

What’s the solution?

Distinguish between managing and causing change. Why? Because before strategy, planning, culture and values comes the core question: why are you working together at all? Get this right and the rest flows. Miss this step and the rest is icing on a mud-pie.


Causing Change requires helping people link a personal commitment with an organisational outcome. (and yes, the two are interdependent, which is where the ‘co-design’ and the real fun comes in…).


Managing Change means providing the tools, resources and structures required to deliver that outcome.

Managing change implies there is a change in place to manage, causing it is opening the space for people to get connected to why they would take the required risks (and it’s always risky).


No amount of resources, energy or planning will make a difference if people don’t want it. It’s like trying to train a 3-year-old: no matter how eloquently you explain their task, they’ll still get the banana all-over their top (you can see where my life is at).


Still want to cause change?

The source of all change is a concrete vision of the future. We may or may not be conscious of the future we are working so hard to create, but we have one. As an old mentor of mine used to say:” you’re always winning the game you’re playing, you just may not like the results”.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (aka 7-times winner of Mr Universe, Conan the Barbarian and Governor of California) nailed it when he said:

“The first rule of success is to find your vision and follow it. If you don't have a vision you just drift around and you're not going to be happy.”[7]


Every individual, in every realm of endeavour (including work) is operating off an internal vision of a future-fulfilled, even if it is articulated as problems-solved. That can cause perverse outcomes for individuals and their loved ones (the career that never-went-anywhere, divorce and unhappy marriages, the list continues), but it’s worse in teams because there are invariably multiple visions of the future that overlap and contradict each other.

Here lies the source of team dysfunction. A team only exists to achieve something. If that “something” is not clear and commonly agreed by everyone on the team, it’s not a team! Great communication skills, leadership training and capacities, well-oiled processes project plans and good PD’s… these things are grist-to-the-mill if everyone is swaying to a different beat.

The extent to which that vision is alive and animating people’s behaviour is quite literally the extent to which change is possible. Creating a collectively-held, proactive vision of a preferred future fulfilled is the determinant of your capacity to cause change.

Managing the process of change is essential, but you can’t manage for that.

Asking someone to both cause and manage change is like asking someone to be both architect and carpenter. It’s possible, but don’t hold your breath!

Post Scriptum for Change Managers (and their bosses) or anyone interested in implementation

It seems every day I talk with someone who tells me they’ve got a great change management person/team and high expectations. It makes my tummy flip. Not only because they are implicitly out-sourcing the most important part (what are you creating), but because they’re almost certainly setting their team (and themselves) up to fail.

The lack of this distinction between these two intentions - ‘causing’ and ‘managing’ - is the key reason most change programs fail, and change managers burn out.

If you’re not going to do the work to create what your role, your team, your enterprise (your life) is for, I’d advise you to spend your hard-earned professional development or HR training budgets on increased productivity or efficiency (both of which are important) because you’re not getting change.

As the Frenchman said: a lot of changing, but not a lot will change.

Just in case you haven’t gotten this: I AM NOT HAVING A GO AT YOU (or, just a little bit). I’m mostly trying to help you (and especially your bosses) understand what you’re being asked to do because….

It’s very hard for someone working inside an organisation to cause change, just like it’s very hard for someone working outside an organisation to manage it.

To my mind it is inappropriate and fundamentally unfair to ask people employed to do one thing to also do the other. It’s not that they, as people with unique skills and experiences, can’t be proficient at both (though it’s a lot to ask), it’s that causing change and managing change are different. The roles are different.

Causing and managing change should be approached and implemented in fundamentally different ways: they require different skills and attitudes and, most importantly their relationship with the enterprise should be different. Conflating ‘causing’ with ‘managing’ is a set-up for frustration, wasted effort and failure. The motive to employ a change manager is invariably ‘fixing-a-problem’. This is not a good start (see above) but it also fails to account for the work of co-creating the role of the enterprise/team in the first place.

The fact an internal change manager has a position in the organisational chart largely forestalls their capacity to cause change because the rules and etiquette they are trying to change inherently apply to them. It’s like asking a gold-fish to change their own water.

I regularly see these deeply committed people and teams tied in knots by the very problems they were employed to resolve: good luck creating cross-sectoral initiatives when you represent one of the sectors; good luck trying to address your boss’ behavioural standards, attitudes, world-view or relationship with the enterprise when your salary depends on their good graces.

I’ve even seen positive, well-meaning internal change managers block good initiatives because they couldn’t see what they were looking at from inside the organisation. I’ve seen highly-skilled, ‘good’ people be bad change managers because their job depended on there being a problem to fix. Mostly I’ve seen internal change-managers working really hard and getting frustrated because they are simply not in a position to cause change – they are perfectly positioned to manage it!

My Last Word

Before structure, strategy and planning comes vision. Help people clarify what they are using their work-hours, their role, authority and resources to accomplish and there is no limit to what they will do. The enterprise becomes their vehicle for getting something they care about done and then the organisation gives them the resources to get it done!


broken image
broken image

[1]  Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, January 1849 issue “Les Guêpes” (“The Wasps”)

[3] Note, this was never a substantiated claim but rather an unsubstantiated guess by a seriously-experienced guy that just happens to have been roughly supported by subsequent research…. maybe….

[4] In the 9th annual State of Agile survey by VersionOne, 42% of participants noted that their company culture was at odds with core agile values and 44% cited the ability to change organizational culture as the biggest barrier to further agile adoption

[6] A good analogy is multi-tasking: recent research suggests that “[high multitaskers] are lousy at everything” (wives please note, they mean both men and women). People can switch between single tasks with differing degrees of efficiency. It might look like you’re multi-tasking but you’re not, and both tasks suffer for the attempt.