Leaning into Change Management

Lean Change ManagementChange management used to refer to the practice of controlling changes to a system, but increasingly the term has come to be used more often to describe the profession and the practice of managing organizational change. And within the practice of change management, many people over-index on communications and training and many change professionals get pulled in to try and help rescue projects or to force adoption very late in the project lifecycle. But there are those like Jason Little and myself that are trying to re-imagine how we plan and execute organizational change.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Jason Little, author of the book Lean Change Management to investigate a series of important questions about organizational change and change management. Without further ado, here is the transcript of that interview:

1. When you looked around the change literature landscape, what did you find lacking that made you write Lean Change Management?

The original intent of the book was to tell what I thought was a good story. The team I was working with at “The Commission” was fantastic and all of us had a strong bias towards change management being more about coaching and mentoring, and very little about process and control.

I wrote the first version chapter by chapter on Leanpub back in 2011/2012 and then re-wrote it once people actually starting buying the terrible Leanpub version.

After that, I started looking around and was somewhat dismayed to see that change management seemed to be about process, structure, and certifications, which was counter to what we believed change was all about. All of us came from an Agile background so for the most part, we always saw what we did as being a service function, not a controlling one.

2. What do you see as the relationship between project management and change management?

In my view they’re one in the same. I think this question is asked because there is typically a project manager and a change manager working on the same change program because that’s how the organization is structured. We did our own administrative (read: project management) work at “The Commission”, the company mentioned in the book, which actually helped us quite a bit.

For example, at The Commission, we had a big visible kanban board that had hundreds of projects on it. We would facilitate a daily standup 3 times a week with ~30 people in front of it and afterwards, we’d synchronize the physical wall of sticky notes with our online tool. Because we, the change agents, were doing that, we did an experiment to see how useful the tool was, who was reading the email and status reports.

Instead of sending this stuff out as attachments, I used a tool call bit.ly to see if anyone was clicking the links to see the status report and online tool. Less than 2% were so after 2 weeks we stopped updating it and proclaimed the big visible wall as the single source of truth.

There is always logistical stuff to manage with change programs, but a wall of sticky notes (even if you’re distributed) and daily stand-ups take care of most of the project management stuff.

Had we not been doing our own “project management” work, we’d have spent more time explaining stuff to an external PM, creating more status reports, and other low-value artefacts. I get why people want to either separate or merge CM and PM, but for me thinking that way is a waste of time. It creates another integration point, another communication link and puts the emphasis on process which takes focus away from the people.

3. How do you see the cycle or process of change playing out on projects big and small?

It’s more or less the same when you observe the process. Obviously large projects take longer and the cycle is slower, but the process that happens is the same. You still have to figure out how to bridge the gap of understanding between people who agree, and disagree with the change but if it’s 20 people, you can more easily get them into a room for a day to hammer that out. For 2000 people, it might take a month, but it’s still the same ‘process’ in my view.

4. So the ADKAR of 2006 (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement) draws on AIDA (Awareness/Interest/Desire/Action) from E. St. Elmo Lewis in 1987 from the marketing/advertising world, which draws on even older frameworks from the 1800’s. What else can we learn from other disciplines about change?

PLENTY! That’s the main premise of my book. There’s no solitary framework, method, model, tool, or discipline that has all the answers. Every new model ‘invented’ nowadays is taken from old ideas. Societies of people have evolved and adapted to change for centuries so some things never change, but these newer models and ideas speak the language of current time. For example, when Lean Startup burst onto the scene in 2010-ish, mainstream people and organizations thought it was revolutionary when it was really the same as PDCA (Shewhart Cycle…often attributed to Deming), but with one less step. Conceptually they’re the same.

The big difference was that Lean Startup was shiny, sexy and had fantastic marketing that poked people into action. Whereas Lean Startup tells you to validate your idea before spending all your money building a product no one wants, using Lean Startup in a change context pushes people in a co-creation stance. That means, the change agent develops the plan with the people affected by the change instead of in isolation.

All of my writing over the years has pointed to ideas that are easily 60+ years old that we’ve just forgotten because today we’re in the Maker Age where anyone can Google a bunch of ideas and create a diagram that explains how they think. Google ‘change management models’ and you’ll easily find more than 100 of them that are more or less the same.

The most important aspect for me is that the approach for change should make sense to the people affected by it so it should be customized and adapted to the context.

5. I write and speak quite often about the importance of insights in an innovation context. What kinds of insights are people trying to gather in a change context and why are insights so important?

Insights come from everywhere, which is why change agents must have acutely tuned senses. For example, a large organization recently wanted me to come in and chat with them about how I could help them shift towards Agile. At the start of the meeting one person was there and all signs were pointing to no one else showing up.

That’s an insight to me that this change isn’t as important as whatever else is keeping people away.

Sitting in a change sponsor meeting and seeing how many execs are on their phone or having side conversations also shows they’re not all that interested in whatever the change is. I was in another large financial origination chatting with their executive team and after the meeting was done a couple of people told me that whatever I said must have hit home with the CEO because he never listens at these type of meetings and is usually on his iPad answering email.

Traditional change processes, from what I’ve seen, focus too much on surveys and official communications plans to gather insights, but the really good stuff happens at the water coolers, department meetings and more where you can get insights by reading people’s faces and body language.

I love patterns so when we’re gathering them from surveys, interviews, observing and more, it’s easy to separate the signal from the noise, or more plainly, cut through the bullshit to get to the good stuff.

6. In your view, why are Agile methods applicable in a change context?

I think skilled change agents have always used approaches that are aligned with Agile, they just might not have known about the agile manifesto’s values and principles when they were doing it.

When the Agile Manifesto was created in 2001, the intent was to move back to focusing on delivering valuable solutions to customers. If we use this as a guide in a change context, the people affected by the change become our ‘customers’ and we focus on them versus our internal desires as change agents.

One view is using Agile methods to manage change programs. That means working iteratively, having daily stand-ups, doing retrospectives and more. The other view is using the agile values and principles to shape your actions as a change agent. If all you do is the former, I think you’ll be surprised at how much better things can be.

7. When it comes to change, what is the blast radius and why it important?

Despite the terrible name, the blast radius is a way to think about the intended, and potential unintended consequences of the change. The traditional change world might call this an impact assessment. It’s important to know what you may be disturbing when undertaking a change. The blast radius helps you visualize how severe an impact might be to a certain department, or process, or group of people. Then you can choose a course of action.

For example, it’s common for multi-team organizations to run pilot agile projects. That is, they take one existing team and cram it into an agile box thinking it’s a safe way to start. It sounds logical but what usually happens is that the teams end up having more process and rules to deal with because they have to do all the old world process stuff, and they have to do all this new agile process stuff.

It’s important to use a blast radius visualization to help people understand that you can’t isolate a team from the rest of the organization. At some point, the team will change something about how they interact with the rest of the organization and someone higher up will notice at which point they’ll either get curious…or furious.

8. Which is better when effort can only be spent once, spending effort on building the foundation for a successful transformation or spending effort on building the foundation for continuous change?

I would take a different view outside of those two options, but if it came down to choosing, I’d pick building a foundation for continuous change.

I don’t like the term ‘transformation’. It implies a starting and ending point and most organizations I’ve seen that ‘do transformations’ really just optimize their already existing processes, which is probably all that was needed in the first place.

All organizations continually evolve. None of them intentionally set out to transform to a horribly bureaucratic organization that can’t deliver anything. They’re in the mess they’re in because of thousands of tiny paper cuts over time. One day production went offline and someone high up demanded a new sign-off form be created and voila, 20 years later, there are 43 different gating phases, checklists, and forms to fill out because that first action shaped how that organization responds to problems.

Real transformation happens when people consciously choose to behave in a way that supports the new values they aspire to have. That will take years, if not decades and it happens by bandaging up those thousands of paper cuts from years gone by. That probably sounds crazy to some people, but it’s the reality of deep, long-lasting change.

Building foundations is a tough concept because it’s the leaders at all levels that literally become this foundation. The organizational view of the transformation, or continual change will evolve based on how those leaders operate and interact with people. A change process, or change agent can’t directly control that, but they can influence it by how they behave.

9. What are your favorite methods for creating alignment for change?

I prefer doing something creative to jump-start it, and then doing something at regular intervals to stay in a groove. Sometimes I think we assume creating alignment is a one-and-done activity, but for me, it’s a continual process because as our organization shifts, we learn what we really want to change into and adjust. That process, if you call it a process, is continual.

I’ve been a Lego Serious Play (LSP) facilitator since 2012 or so and love co-creating change though high-impact activities. The great thing about doing creative exercises is that they are infinitely customizable. Some organizations take a past-thinking stance to change, which means they look at problems, decide on mitigation strategies and create actions. Other organizations take a future-thinking stance to change, which means they envision a future and manage towards it by ignoring, or ploughing down problems.

For past-thinking exercises, I’ll have them build a current state or obstacles that are in the way with Lego. Then they’ll explore how to manage those obstacles.

For future-thinking exercises, I’ll have them build their utopia and ask them “what needs to be true for that utopia to become a reality?”

It comes down to who’s in the room, some people are more negative by nature, some more positive so it’s important that they understand the method and approach so I typically have at least 5 or 6 backup plans so I can adjust.

10. The term change agent gets thrown around a lot. What is a change agent in your view and why are they important?

For me, it’s a catch-all term for the people I call movers. It’s the people who’s internal believe system aligns with the purpose behind the change and whether they’re an external consultant, team member, manager, or executive, their actions will shape the change.

I’ve had people come through my workshop that have told me afterwards that changing their title from ‘change manager’ to ‘change agent’ helps them move away from control, and managing, and towards a facilitation stance. It’s also helped with how people perceive what they do. The term Change Manager implies control, especially from the perspective of the people affected by the change.

Follow @IXCHAT on Twitter

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:

Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, builds sustainable innovation cultures, and tools for creating successful change. He is the author of the five-star book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire and the creator of a revolutionary new Change Planning Toolkit™. Follow him on Twitter (@innovate) and Linkedin.

Innovation Excellence




Our Annual Trends Report: Boosting the Possibilities for 2021

By Shawn Nason | February 25, 2021

  I still remember the day we got the email telling us that the in-person version of the 2021 Consumer…

Read More

Controlling the controllables

By Janet Sernack | February 22, 2021

A recent article by McKinsey and Co “COVID-19: Implications for business”  describes a paradoxical dilemma for managers: the need to process both the…

Read More

Leave a Comment