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The Architecture of Change

HR must move their organizations beyond the blueprint to the science and art of implementing change. Some difficulties are technical and can be solved by applying expertise. Others require solutions that are more adaptive and focused on navigating human emotions and behavior. Most problems are a combination of both.

Monday, March 1, 2010
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"Leading change is hard."

The phrase is almost cliché for HR professionals. Not only are we familiar with the research showing the extraordinary rate of change efforts that fail, but we also are know the challenges our own organizations have faced as they try to implement changes such as technology and outsourcing implementations, restructurings, acquisition integrations as well as less complex programs. Even when experienced leaders apply solid frameworks, project teams struggle integrating change management into the technical work of these initiatives.

The difficulty leveraging the value of proven change models may lie less in the construct of any change model itself, and more in the challenge of applying a rational and uniform framework to the irrational and unpredictable elements of human behavior. As Frank Lloyd Wright once said about architecture, "the architect's most useful tools are an eraser at the drafting board and a wrecking bar at the site." So, too, with managing change, the most effective approach integrates the science of technical know-how with the art of adaptively capability.

Take the case of a global manufacturing organization implementing a new HRIS across multiple countries. Executives and HR and IT project managers recognized that change management was going to be critical for the success of a project of this magnitude. As a result, dedicated resources were involved from the very beginning of the project, starting with the development of the business case.

The change team laid the foundation early. They assigned resources from HR and corporate communications. They identified a methodology, conducted early stakeholder readiness assessments, and established a high-level project plan. They created a project theme, developed key messages, and conducted numerous presentations. They formed an executive sponsor council and a customer board. And with the business case in hand, they created consensus about the solution with senior executives and HR leaders worldwide.

Three months into the project, however, troubles began. There were disagreements within the work streams between company and vendor resources. Division and country HR leaders balked at changes to processes like performance management and reporting formats. And despite raising these risks to leadership, the change team found themselves on the margin of the project. The project managers increasingly skipped regularly scheduled change update meetings and ignored information shared by the team.

The issues came to a head when the change team identified a critical personality clash between a company work stream leader and a vendor resource. Having uncovered some of the underlying challenges, they even suggested bringing the two employees together to mediate a solution. The PMO ignored the advice and when the conflict escalated, blamed the change team for igniting the problem.

A technical project leader expressed his frustration saying, "When I don't include a change work stream, the implementation is too technically focused. We often have a hard time getting employees to adopt new tools. But when I bring in the change managers, they seem unorganized and get too hung up on stakeholder concerns and theory. I don't know how to action that information and we waste time."

The initial gap for many organizations is often this fundamental and the project leader's comment highlights two common problems:

1. How ready and willing were the technical players to incorporate change?

2. How could the change team be more effective integrating with the initiative?

The good news for those who question the value of change management is that a structured approach is not needed. People adapt when forced to adapt. This is why change happens rapidly in urgent situations, such as impending bankruptcy. And in other situations where the urgency is not as great, projects can move forward if an executive with formal authority commands it. People may not like it, but forward progress can be made.

In the absence of true urgency or a command and control organization culture, however, project sponsors and managers must understand how quickly they need performance. The more complex the change or the more people it impacts, the greater the risk there will be challenges getting buy in and the behavior change required for performance. 

The research suggests we need it more frequently than we might think: Change efforts fail somewhere between 25 percent and 80 percent of the time. Even if you use the best-case data and pick, say, 25 percent as the likely failure rate, it is still remarkable. A 25 percent risk of project failure is significant considering how frequently organizations undergo some form of change. And since most of the research suggests that the failure rate is more than 50 percent, organization leaders should take pause.

Studies also have identified that change failure is not solely because of a lack of managerial capability. A recent study by the Ken Blanchard Companies showed that only 29 percent of change initiatives are launched without some formal structure or methodology. This means that we have many motivated, skilled, and historically successful leaders who apply a proven change methodology and still fall short of their organization or project change objectives. 

What can we conclude? Methodology and technical leadership capability are not enough. This conclusion gets to the heart of how change teams can be more effective.

A change management methodology, much like an architect's blueprint, provides the overall design and objectives for managing the human aspects of a project. There is comfort in a methodology.

Unfortunately, that comfort may do a massive disservice to change leaders because it implies all change is the same. Experience suggests it is not. The context for change is always different. Each change occurs in distinct industries, cultures, operating models, and structures. Each change involves different people who have different thoughts and emotions that may vary depending not only upon their agenda connected to a particular initiative, but also upon the time of day. 

This doesn't mean that methodologies are wrong. In fact, methodologies help us establish the overall design objectives and an initial blueprint for action. But once a project begins there are obstacles and challenges that require redesigning the plan or creating work-around solutions to help meet broader project objectives.

Some problems are technical and can be solved by applying expertise. Others require solutions that are more adaptive and focused on navigating human emotions and behavior. Most problems are a combination of both and require a set of capabilities that allow change leaders to navigate the ambiguity and create flexible solutions to keep initiatives on track.

Successful change architects apply these tools to adapt the methodology-driven blueprint to the situational realities encountered on change initiatives. They know how to go beyond the blueprint to make the design practical and actionable. Their flexibility helps them rapidly assess obstacles to generate workable solutions. 

But to be effective, change leaders do not need years of experience implementing a particular kind of change, nor do they need a preexisting understanding of the culture and politics of their organizations. They do need, on the other hand, a combination of capability that includes both technical and adaptive skills. 

The Architecture of Change summarizes these specific skills taken from research, anecdotes and case examples into a framework to help change leaders apply the capability more consistently. The actions outlined in the framework provide both technical structure, or Science, and adaptive capability, or Art, to help manage obstacles more effectively. These tools can be used with any methodology because they do not seek to replace them, but rather to provide capability to help make more achievable the objectives inherent in methodologies.

Change Science is the core to managing change effectively. It helps bring order to the often complex process of managing the human elements of a project by defining the tasks, roles, milestones and timelines required to achieve project objectives. It helps project managers more clearly understand the relationship between technical specifications of the changes and the activities and results required to achieve the behavioral change required by the technical. Without Science, our insights into human motivation remain only insights without the corresponding actions needed to create desired behavioral change.

For example, one organization's HR function wanted to move to its traditional paper pay stubs online. Technically, this was a matter of building the web site, the online forms, and the data feeds, among other things. The project leaders knew, however, that the more challenging objective was getting the division executives with union employees to agree to this change because the execs were concerned that many employees may not have home computers. 

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So, they created a structured approach to those challenges that outlined the meetings, communication requirements and other actions required to get agreement. The structure did not just become integrated into the technical project plan. It shaped the requirements and timing of the technical plan itself. 

Change art provides the capability for managing the emotionally and behaviorally driven factors of a project. Much like all art, it gives perspective to help change leaders see their initiatives more clearly. Art takes in all information in its surroundings, both technical and behavioral, then analyzes and interprets it to help identify the motivations of stakeholders and what actions are required to create desired behavioral results. 

For highly structured project managers and technical resources, Change Art can be difficult to understand and apply. It is more flexible and loose by design and often seems to work against process, deadlines and goals because it sees the behavioral goals as important as the technical goals. And since behavior does not always change according to a schedule, art can seem very ineffective.

The lack of structure, however, is art's greatest value because it allows change leaders to be aware of the ever changing contextual cues in complex organizational environments and open to how those factors may influence the behavior of people. 

Project leaders that apply the tools of art successfully are better able to manage resistance and other challenges because they apply adaptive strategies to identify solutions that meet the needs of all stakeholders. Their ability to improvise keeps initiatives on track that otherwise would be stuck implementing plans that are no longer relevant. 

On one hand, the Architecture of Change is common sense. The capability within the framework represents skills that are applied regularly to manage even the small scale changes in daily organization life. Our research has shown, however, that even if some techniques are known consciously, they are applied inconsistently and without integrating both sides of the model.

And the integration of Science and Art is the key.

Science needs art because art identifies the drivers of behavior change and identifies pathways for adaptive solutions to overcome project challenges. Likewise, art needs science because science turns art's information and ideas into structured action with defined outcomes.

Art identifies what needs to happen and science makes it happen. By recognizing and understanding the connections between the two, change leaders are able to successfully identify and utilize this integrated process.

Based upon what is learned while applying the elements of science and art to a specific challenge, there may be additional application of the tools. Every iteration brings greater precision to solutions by marrying adaptive process to the technical structure required to complete them in the context of the larger initiative. 

Successful change architects are balanced in their application of the tools of science and art. They navigate the inevitable challenges and ambiguity once projects begin by applying adaptive capability in a structured framework that integrates with the technical objectives of projects. It is this combination that helps change leaders go beyond the blueprint of methodology and achieve the desired behavioral outcomes from their change initiatives.

Erik Van Slyke is the founding partner of Solleva Group. With nearly two decades in consulting and HR leadership roles, he advises executives for both domestic and global organizations, representing industries such as financial services, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, high technology, retail, non-profit and government. Known for his integrated approach, his consulting expertise includes organizational change, operational transformation and HR strategy. Regularly quoted on a variety of workplace issues, Van Slyke's just re-launched book, Listening to Conflict: Finding Constructive Solutions to Workplace Disputes, was named by Soundview Executive Book Summaries as one of the Top 30 business books of 1999.  He can be reached at 609.460.4102 or erik.vanslyke@solleva.com.

This article accompanies Best HR Ideas for 2010.

Copyright 2014© LRP Publications