“Sorry, I really can’t do anything until you provide me with an official change request.” Simone’s response is calm, but Ron can see his jobs going down the drain already. Hearing that sentence every time just drives him crazy. But he should have learnt by now: nothing goes quickly around here, everything is done very, very thoroughly. Hopefully.
In Ancient Greece, the rather succinct expression "panta rhei" (Greek: "Everything flows") described a philosophy of life that embraced constant flux and change. Today the concept is rendered even more emphatically: "Life is change". Following Barack Obama’s triumphant 2008 election, even the non-English-speaking world had become intimately familiar — thanks to the Internet and his campaign’s deft use of it — with the word "change".
It is on everyone’s lips at the moment, especially when it comes to ecological and economic matters, whether people are talking about climate change or the energy transition. The enormous potential for change can be discerned in other prominent questions and debates, including in the increased demands for reform of the global financial system, for example, or in the quest for a more sustainable economy, one not founded on unlimited growth. It is impossible to ignore the fact that our unlimited exploitation of resources has already vastly outstripped the earth’s ability to replenish itself.
"Change" is more relevant and important today than ever before. Everything comes down to the question of how to handle change. In most cases, at least two possible strategies present themselves. The first is to manage change in an orderly and structured manner. The second is to ignore the need for change or the urgency of that need and to simply stumble into it, one crisis after another.
When a pebble is dropped into water, the energy from that initial impact of stone against water radiates out in all directions unless there is something there to stop it. The same is true of processes of change, whether we are speaking of large, global issues that impact humanity as a whole or those changes we experience in our individual, daily lives. The momentum generated by change in our networked world should never be underestimated.
Our modern work environments are perhaps the best example of this. Over the course of the last few decades, change has become permanent. Digitalisation, increased mobility, new methods of knowledge production, knowledge-based working and global economic structures have revolutionised the workplace.
It is therefore all the more important that change be the result of a well-considered and managed process. If not, tradition deteriorates into chaos instead of providing a foundation for progress, and routine leads to a decline in quality instead of prompting innovation.
There is no exact definition of change management — or rather, there is an almost endless number of definitions depending on the degree to which one actually engages with the concept and the direction from which one approaches it. So let us start by agreeing on the following: Change management is a systematically applied process that directs the comprehensive modification of an organisation (or a large part thereof) and thus provides a structured transition from a present state to a target state. This transition, which is ideally actively managed throughout, generally takes into account strategy, processes, structure and culture. Real change management involves support for the organisation at all levels. The success of any process depends on this, and this is doubly true if the change is to be reflected in the mindsets of the organisation’s members.
The literature on change management as well as practical experience demonstrate that the work of approaching and effecting change management follows three general patterns.
Type 1: Organisational development — This practice is characterised by its evolutionary approach, which proceeds either through gradually successive stages or takes the form of a smooth steady progression to the desired transformation. It is not only vital that those who are impacted by the process are informed early on, but that they are included and involved throughout. Active participation is explicitly sought and encouraged. The goal is not simply to enhance the organisation’s productivity, but equally to effect an improvement in employees’ professional lives. The individual employee stands at the centre of change.
Type 2: Business reengineering — This is a more severe, revolutionary approach. The implementation of change proceeds abruptly and from the top down without the active engagement of employees, who often learn of the changes only when these have already been implemented. The organisation regards the individual employee as a means, not an end. The employee must adapt to the changes if he or she hopes to remain with the organisation. This process is characterised by a particularly increased likelihood of conflict and an (apparently) quick implementation. In the long run, however, this tends to provoke increased tension between management and employees, which negatively impacts productivity and the business’s success.
Type 3: Transformation management — This final approach takes the form of a third way, staking out a middle ground between the above two types. Change is implemented in a process that alternates between a gradual implementation and a set of more discrete, distinct changes. Employees are actively engaged in selected phases, and communication between management and employees takes a variety of forms as appropriate.
More than anything else, any process of change requires a goal, one which can convey a clear and easily communicated vision of the organisation’s future. Equally necessary are plans for how the transition will proceed (process design) and how it will be managed (control architecture). Likewise, there must be a decisive but thoughtful supervision of the process (possibly including the involvement of external consultants) as well as good project management.
The greatest challenge, however, is communication, which is vital for the successful completion of any transitional process. A company that undertakes such a project is looking for more than short-term successes reflected in two or three quarterly reports. Long-term success requires overcoming internal resistance, not with recourse to compulsion and sackings, but with the skilled deployment of information, communication and motivation. It is therefore all the more important to establish a proper framework for comprehensive communication from the start. Channels and means of communication can and ought to be designed to incorporate a variety of formats and should provide for formal and informal conversations, presentations and possibilities for personal discussions. Efficiency — perhaps the key word in the modern workplace — is important, as is effectiveness. Above all, change must be processed, and that includes dealing with change psychologically.
Appropriate spaces are enormously important for all of the above communication strategies, each of which takes place alongside and in addition to regular daily business. Certain interactions are surely best suited for those so-called "we-places" or the cafeteria; meeting or conference rooms may be more fitting places for other conversations. Professional and spatial flexibility are vital. The organisation itself must be suitably adaptable, of course, but so must the spaces, furnishings and settings. This is all the more important when the targeted objective amounts to developing and maintaining new structures, processes and workflows.
To repeat: instituting change cannot be accomplished at the individual level, but must involve the entire organisation! Teams are necessary, as is teamwork. And one must not forget the significance of providing the space to develop employees’ and the team’s full potential. Creative engagement needs to be sparked and sustained before, during and after those moments intended in the project planning. It is an ongoing process both in the minds of the organisation’s members and in the physical interactions among them in the workplace. Take the place you need.