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What Is Change Management, and Why Is Everyone Else’s Definition Different Than Mine?

What Is Change Management, and Why Is Everyone Else’s Definition Different Than Mine?

You walk up to someone at a party and announce that you do change management work.  They reply, “Wow, that’s amazing.  So do I.”  And you spend the next 5 minutes engaged in a conversation about change management that feels as if you’re speaking two different languages.  You’re talking about organizational transformation, and he’s speaking of how to manage the configuration changes on routers and firewalls.  Both are change management – and both are very different.  Let’s look at what change management is and why it’s so hard to reach agreement between two people about what it is or how to manage change best.

Configuration Management

Perhaps the easiest thing to explain that falls into the category of change management is sometimes called configuration management.  It’s the change control process for making configuration changes to a process.  Whether the process is an IT system or a manufacturing pipeline, the changes are documented, and then approved or rejected, implemented, and sometimes retracted.

This kind of change management is designed to maintain the status quo and ensure reliability.  To those who are entrenched in managing complex systems, this is the only kind of change management there is.

Continuous Improvement

A close cousin to configuration management is the idea of continuous improvement.  Deming promoted a Plan, Do, Check, Act (or Plan, Do, Study, Act) cycle that’s designed to be iterated continuously in an organization to leverage small improvements in productivity, efficiency, quality, and other desirable aspects and their compounding nature over time.

This has been enhanced through Lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System to includes rapid improvement events.  These events attempt to short circuit the continuous improvement cycle to kick start it into rapid acceleration.  This process has great value, but the improvements are often incremental and evolutionary rather than revolutionary.  It’s akin to opening your own video rental store with better prices, services, and hours.  However, it leaves room for transformational changes that can rapidly overwhelm a continuous improvement approach.

Transformational Changes

Another kind of change is a transformational change that doesn’t seek to squeeze more efficiency out of the process but instead asks whether the process is fundamentally right.  While techniques like Lean are designed to ensure that everything in the process adds value to the customer, this is often overlooked or is so narrowly focused that it misses the forest for the trees.

Transformational changes are, by their nature, revolutionary.  They change the way things are done, and this can often make people uncomfortable. However, this discomfort is precisely the tool that corporate planners use to create the energy necessary to initiate and sustain the change.

One type of transformational change is organizational change, where the nature of the transformative change is changing the nature of the business.  Historically, these projects have been known by several names, of which “organizational change” is simply the latest.  What used to be reengineering has lost its scientific armor and has fallen to the regular challenges of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world that we all find ourselves in.

Different Strokes

The kinds of tools and techniques you use to address configuration management is radically different than the kinds of tools and techniques you use to manage an organizational change management process.  It’s not that one set of tools and techniques is better – it’s that they’re a better fit for one kind of change project or another.

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