Confessions of a former anti-change management type

Alright already. I was wrong. Again.

It’s not that I didn’t think that the broad category of work called “change management” wasn’t a good idea (how’s that for a tangled knot of double negatives?); I just didn’t think that it was absolutely necessary to “do” change management in order to be successful with big IT initiatives.

I had thought that the folks who did this kind of work were interesting, that their specialization was a curious adjunct to the services that big consulting firms offered, that they existed in sideline practices full of touchy feely types who talked about the need to address change readiness and cultural change, that they were interesting, but not necessarily to be taken seriously.

Most of them, it seemed to me, came from non-IT and non-technical backgrounds (psychologists, reformed lawyers and an assortment of others who had stumbled or wandered into the IT world), and now that I think of it, most of them were women.

They talked about the need for change management accompanying any major initiative, about how issues of change readiness and culture had to be addressed alongside of any technical solution.

Nice words in and of themselves, I thought, but I really couldn’t see the value, couldn’t see how to sell the idea to my clients, couldn’t see how “doing” or “not doing” change management could make or break a project.

I thought that if we just did our jobs well, if we just built the best systems, if we just kept the communication channels clear and strong, all the stuff that the change people talked about would take care of itself, right? Just do a damn good job in the planning and execution of the big projects, and the rest will take care of itself, no?


It occurs to me that Prospero (the main character and good guy in the Tempest) thought the same way I did before his brother launched a palace coup and set Prospero adrift with his daughter Miranda.

Like me, Prospero thought that if he just concentrated on doing the technical stuff well (“neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated to…the bettering of my mind”), that he could pull anything off. Running a nation state where his citizens loved him. Or building a new ERP system that the accountants would rave about. You get the point.

What I’ve come to realize (and so did old Prospero) is that it is the people issues, the change issues, the issues of culture associated with change that make all the difference. Just what the change management people have been arguing for years.

I was reminded of the former error in my ways last week in an elevator cab somewhere between the third and eighteenth floor of a large office tower in a large U.S. city: I was thinking about what it would take to drive big changes in the way my clients chose, sponsored, executed and measured its critical portfolio of projects – this appeared to be an organization that was not a company comfortable with significant or rapid change.

Not so deep in my own thoughts (I’m not smart enough to be deep into deep thoughts) I was standing at the back of an elevator when two women stepped in to the cab in front of me – clearly part way through a conversation – talking about a meeting they had both been to in the previous week.

And one said to the other “And did you see how he reacted to that suggestion? He actually raised his voice!” Emphasis on the actually. Wow.

Rapid change in an organization where the raising of a voice is noteworthy?

The change management guys are right – its starts and ends with culture and change readiness.

No matter how clever the IT solution, you can’t just ram it down the throats of an organization (build it and they won’t come) – and that recognition has all sorts of implications for those who would propose to introduce new systems, new ways of doing things, for those people that we call change agents.

Just like secret agents, change agents live in a dangerous and uncertain world – much more dangerous if they’re not listening to the change management professionals. More next time.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at