Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?

Moving from the fallacy of planned, predictable change to embracing feedback driven change and the reality of unpredictability and no control.

The term “Change Management” itself has significant limitations and assumptions attached to it. Manage change sounds much like time management. No one can teach you to manage time any more than you can manage change. With time management, you can only control the actions you take and prioritise them to make the best use of the time available, and we all the get the same amount each day.

As with time, you cannot manage change per se, you can only control your actions in relation to change. Your actions will undoubtedly solicit a response and your actions will be interpreted in ways that you cannot with certainty predict in advance.

Many change management tools and frameworks seem to come from a view that all change is a top-down imposed thing that has to be “sold” to employees or it needs “buy-in” from key stakeholders.  Furthering the notion that the parties concerned have little input into the change itself and need convincing or manipulation to get into agreement. Also, there are models that reinforce the notion that this imposed change will trigger an intense feeling of loss akin to that we go through when we’ve lost a loved one. Given the levels of engagement in most workplaces, I doubt that people care that much about changes in the workplace. We’ve been fed this stuff so often and so repeatedly it has become the truth in the domain of change management.

The conventional view of Change Management is based on the assumption that you are already in a steady state and introducing change brings about a level of uncertainty, something that challenges the status quo. In most organisations this is hardly the reality. Initiatives hit business units from every direction all the time. If not internally generated restructures or process improvements then it is initiatives from HR, Safety, or Finance that are imposing changes as supporting functions often do, forgetting that they are there to in fact “support” the primary activities of the business in achieving their purpose. If we’re not dealing with internal change, then we’re dealing with changes in the marketplace or from regulatory bodies. So the steady state that many change management models talk about is more of a myth than anything else.

Many organisations, in line with their command and control mantra, dictate what tools must be used for Change Management, and in what order. Change Management is treated in the same fashion as traditional Project Management and run through various stage gates of approval. This further creates the illusion that we are in control and that projects and change in complex systems can be managed as if you were building a machine. We can design it, build the parts, and put it all together. If we get one part wrong, we can always build another and replace it with a new shiny one.

This view represents a plan-based approach to change; a view that is not very helpful when dealing with human systems, which not conform to a Newtonian-Cartesian view of the world. Change in human systems belongs in the complex domain. Niels Pflaeging suggested in a recent article that change in these systems is like pouring milk into coffee, once it’s done it changes the coffee forever, you cannot take it back and the pattern in unpredictable. This highlights the need for feedback driven change as a more appropriate approach to work with the complexity, rather than plan-driven change that assumes predictable cause and effect.


I believe that we can significantly lift the performance of our organisations changing our approach to Change Management. In fact, I believe that real success means that the term is self, disappears into the history books of management fads as “change” becomes so embedded in our way of working that we don’t need reforms or transformation programs.

In organisations that always change how they do things, they test the value of the change against their purpose as an organisation. In those organisations there is no such thing as “change management”. People are so connected to the purpose that initiatives that are seen to further the organisations purpose emerge and get support without elaborate plans, milestones or blueprints. Which is not to say that selected models from the traditional Change Management library cannot be used, but if they are, they are pulled in as needed and not by top-down decree. My recent post referenced the book “Reinventing Organizations”, which has plenty of examples of organisations that operate this way.

We have a tremendous opportunity to shift our organisations for the better if we only are willing to challenge and critically reassess how we see the world of organisations. To achieve this, we need to shift our focus away from individuals and lift our gaze towards the systems of organisation, the systems that drive the behaviours we experience today. Once there, look further inwards to identify the underlying thinking and beliefs about people and how that has influenced the design of these systems. This is change with an undefined end point as you continuously poke the broader system to see how it responds, you make sense of the ripples you create and take further action, either dampening something or boosting something, and again sense the response.

When we start taking steps to rethink and redesign our organisation let’s engage people in co-creating their environments to set up the conditions for positive change from the start. It is an excellent way to get ownership and people tend to be more ok with things when they have been included in the decision-making process. The process outlined in Sociocracy, for example, is a great start.

Granted, we must take a Theory Y view of people and their capabilities so I guess that is going out on a limb for some. I dare you to take that step and hold the tension – you will be surprised to see what people are capable of when given the chance if you choose to see the world through a different lens. There is a real leadership challenge here for the daring one. Holding the tension when shifting your organisation or business unit from the claws of the Theory X mindset to one designed from a Theory Y perspective will certainly test your leadership capability.

9 thoughts on “Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?

  1. Nice piece Stefan, and we’re on a similar wavelength. I also agree that tools like Sociocracy, and Open Space Technology, can help us let go of our tendency to ‘control’ (or pretend we are in control), and trust and liberate each other to take responsibility to get the job done.

    I even used the same brilliant Dilbert cartoon in one of our recent blogs around the same subject 🙂

    As Harrison Owen has said, despite our best efforts to impose or pretend control, and despite management, when we look at the reality of how work actually gets done in organisations, “Self-organisation is the only operating system. Everything else is an app.”

    At we’re using similar ideas, and at our event Shift on 24/11/15 in London, we’ll be exploring this further. Look out for the hashtag #OrgShift for more.

  2. My premise of change is exactly as you describe here so I am delighted I’m not alone in calling out the demise of the false construct that is change management programmes. Our reliance on a theory built on mourning is simply out of date with the now of change – not saying it doesn’t have a little relevance – but we’ve stuck to it so tightly we’ve missed the opportunities to normalise change, to build adaptability into our norms and left ourselves in a state that everything should strive for a sense of fixed standing. We’re not buildings. I’ve also recently challenged someone on Kurt Lewin – who I respect and admire – and his unfreeze, change, refreeze notion as simply not feasible, needed or practical in the world we have now shaped for ourselves.

    So I totally agree.

    I will be calling for focus on a more socialised construct for work; businesses and organisations as a natural consequence of maturity of the former parental structure that was jobs. Very much aligned to Frederic’s work and his premise that teal is a natural evolutionary state we’re resisting or not moving towards out of nothing more than attitudes and fear of loss.

    At an OD Conference in Milan in October, the CMI event in November, I’ll be advocating we bring “disruptive innovation” from the realms of either academic hypothesis and well-meaning but misguided consulting and thought leadership into a state of people powered change. Regularised, aligned, opportunistic, creative, energetic, positive, helpful, open, crowd rationalised. I’ll also be doing the same around the falsehood that is employee engagement next week.

    Social Business is a bit of a hipster phrase but it’s the premise I feel all organisations should be rebuilt upon – if indeed we need the questionable construct of organisations as a prevailing norm.

    Thanks for sharing this wisdom and prose here. Much appreciated and I will happily quote this in my journey to share the enlightened ways with others.

    • Thanks for you comment Perry. We are certainly in agreement about the need to call out the flawed models used in Change Management as we know it today. A challenge for associations like the Change Management Institute is of course that the more traction we get and as more people open their eyes and see the silliness of current practices, the less relevant things like the CMBoK becomes. The very notion that you could take something as complex as influencing positive change in and organisation and break it down to a recipe is laughable. It is in my mind actually quite dishonest and disrespectful to create Change Certification Programmes as if that in any way guarantees a positive outcome. I’m glad you got something positives from your visit to my blog. Feel free to quote or reference anything you want and if you happen to swing past Sydney I’m always keen for a catch up over beer or coffee.

  3. Love the article Stefan.
    The fundamental flaw that i see is that people often think employees will see ‘change’ as bad – so we focus on and reinforce the negative emotions, the resistors etc – resilience training anyone? if it’s time for a change what you actually need is inspiration and direction and confidence and plain English and acknowledgement that some people may not benefit from whatever is going to happen. People are actually quite intelligent; the best leaders and managers work with people rather that doing “change management” to them.

    • Hi Vanessa, I absolutely agree with you. It should come as no surprise that change is resisted when the main models for Change Management are based around helping people cope with the imminent horror that is coming their way, or trying to manipulate people to “buy into” the change.

  4. Pingback: Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”? | vanessaanorth

  5. Pingback: Response to ‘Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?’ | Meaning Business

    • Hi Mike, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to post a comment. I do think much hinges on taking a theory Y view of humans. This is not to say we don’t have rules and that we do away with system controls and audits. To me it means we design very different systems if we assume the best in people (and manage the exceptions) rather than the worst in people. It can also mean scrapping organisational systems altogether as their only purpose is to create illusions of control in a complex environment.

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