January 19, 2022

Rethinking Change Management as Design

Change is foundational to the human experience, yet no two are the same.

 Traditional change management often relies on standardized tools and templates with a focus on driving people to adopt rather than to adapt, which is what change ultimately should be. Hidden within the playbooks and standardized assessments is an assumption that change is linear and arithmetic – that even when the equation is long and complex, you can simply follow the order of operations and wind up with the correct answer.

 The trouble is that the “answer” or end result of change has often already been defined. We’re moving to a new tool. We’re changing how we do business. We’re modernizing our business processes. However, the factors that motivate and generate change are not, in fact, linear. To treat them as such often makes the humans involved feel reduced to numbers.

 This is not to say that every change requires that you start over from scratch. Change is a natural part of the human condition – it has observable patterns, and things with patterns are often predictable. The practice of change just needs new math born from a new paradigm.

 Rather than feeling “managed,” change should feel well-designed.

 Contrary to what many consulting firms would like for you to believe (and pay for), change practitioners don’t need any special certification to be successful. At its best, change management is interdisciplinary, so a wide array of skill sets and expertise can be leveraged and successfully applied to change efforts.

 The function of a change effort is to get humans to willingly choose another behavior within some institutional context. That’s it.

 The layers underneath get complicated, of course, because humans are complicated, and the institutional contexts we’ve built reflect our complexity. To meet the needs of this complexity, change practitioners need more than human-centered design; we need a design approach centered around humans in context – a combination between design thinking and systems thinking. Regardless of what we call it, it ought to be grounded in empathy, empower people to adapt, and address the systemic barriers to change.

 Shifting our perspective in this way reshapes how we understand and execute on familiar change management concepts. This is our new math.

 Our executive and business unit sponsors become more than cheerleading figureheads armed with PowerPoint decks and talking points. They still need to be and have those things, but sponsors now have a bigger role to play; they must take up the mantle for systemic change. When applying our new math, change sponsors become responsible for bringing about an institutional context designed to make the desired behaviors the most likely outcome.

 When applying our new math, gone are the days when a change is perceived as an event that has lead-up communications; instead, it is a process, and how people encounter and experience that end-to-end process is the change. That’s what we must design (in addition to the final product). 

This also means that there are no “targets” of change that are separate from change agents, champions, and sponsors. They’re all just participants going through their own transitions to future state, who have varying levels of contribution and required support along the way.

 In the end, agnostic to the frameworks or templates used, a sound change practice will design and orchestrate human experiences, so better futures can more easily unfold.