Ali Girard

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That’s (NOT) a change management issue

As the change management practice continues to mature in my organization I hear people making references to change management more and more often. While I’m glad that leaders at all levels of the organization have change management hovering in their consciousness, there is one combination of words that makes me cringe: “that’s a change management issue.”

The reason why I get so uncomfortable when I hear people say this phrase is twofold:

  1. the problem at hand is often not a change management issue; and
  2. it prevents people from taking action.

Problems that are not change management problems

  • If stakeholders are resisting implementation because they haven’t been given any input, that’s a project design issue.
  • If stakeholders are vocal about a system element that prohibits successful system use, that’s a system design issue.
  • If a subset of stakeholders are unwilling to provide their time to enable project completion, that’s a leadership issue.

All of these issues can be positively influenced through change management if a change management professional is engaged early and involved in decision making. However, these issues are not rooted in change management flaws.

The problem with framing these issues as “change management issues” is that it obscures the root cause and prevents teams from understanding what they need to do next.

Let’s take the last example in my list: if a leader does not have the skills to prioritize the workload of their staff according to organizational goals, there is absolutely nothing a change manager can do about it directly. The change manager can ask the leader for help, but unless the leader knows how to say to their team “start this, stop that”, then the change manager is going to fail. If properly identified as a leadership issue, a potential solution could be that the leader’s manager steps in to help them learn how to prioritize better.

By using “change management issue” as a blanket phrase, real project and organizational problems remain hidden. The people of the organization continue to remain at a disadvantage because what is truly wrong is not being made right.

Now, I’m not saying that there are never any true change management issues. However, the phrase sounds as silly to me as a gratuitously applied “that’s a project management issue” would sound to a project manager. What I am saying is that people should be more careful about narrowing down their analysis of issues, and that change managers should call people out on their use this phrase. If done tactfully, it can help real solutions more forward.

What’s your perspective? When is a “change management issue” really a change management issue?

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