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Proactive or Reactive Change

Do the same principles of good change management apply when the change is reactive rather than proactive?  How can we draw the line between the change that is proactive and the one that is reactive?  What would it be like to view every change from the perspective of how much ahead of the need you are?

Leading Change

To start, we must perceive change in the context of a leadership event.  That is, organizations change because of awareness that changing environmental conditions will make the organization unviable in the future if changes aren’t made.  In this context, changes are always made some degree ahead of the failure of the organization to be viable.  The question becomes how far ahead of the organizational failure the change appears.

When we are far ahead of the impending disaster, we call it a proactive change.  We may even frame it in the context of an opportunity to be capitalized on rather than a potential disaster.  Done well, the change is insightful assessment of the environment well before the environment threatens the organization’s survival.  As a result, it’s possible, at least conceptually, to do all the steps that we know lead to a successful change effort.

On the other hand, what happens when the organization is in an acute state of crisis?  The change must still happen, and, in Conner’s language, there’s a burning platform.  (See Managing at the Speed of Change.)  In these cases, there is a very real sense of urgency – one that seems to argue against the work of communications planning, building trust, creating safety, and the other activities that change managers know are necessary for successful change.

Building the Plane in Flight

It’s certainly not ideal to build a plane in flight – but it may be the only option left if you need to get going now and you know you don’t have time to do everything you need to do.  Reactive change projects are a bit like this.  You get the project going, and then you come around the back side and put together the planning you know you should do.

You launch the project with minimal communications and plan to do the communications plan later.  You develop the personas for those impacted after the project has been kicked off – rather than beforehand.  You beg for forgiveness for not getting people’s input and pray that you can accomplish the course corrections you need to make while you’re moving forward.

The risk is higher – but that is to be expected when the organization couldn’t foresee the need to change ahead of time.  Quick decisions and rapid changes are always riskier, like turning a car at high speed around a curve.

Getting Control

Often, reactive changes seem out of control to start.  An explosive force is used to get things moving and the trajectory isn’t ever truly certain.  During the COVID crisis of 2020, many organizations unleashed work at home and web meeting software by enabling service with little or no planning or instruction.  The result was the IT departments feeling that they couldn’t possibly control all that was going on and employees who didn’t know what to expect or what to do.

Gradually, policies, procedures, training, and support caught up with the rapid changes, and it seemed a lot less chaotic and more and more like an aggressive push towards keeping people safe and employed.

No matter what degree of proactive or reactive you are with a change project, there will always be things you didn’t get done in the planning phase.  The key is to continue to develop them as you get the project kicked off.

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