4 Lessons for Balancing the Art and Science of Change Management

Change management is a very challenging, complex discipline. It is one of the most difficult things to do in organizations, and yet, it can also be the most rewarding. For me, change management is both art and science.

There are a lot of speakers, classes, and books about change management. Frameworks and several different approaches that might work in different organizations. That’s the science behind it. There’s also a soft side to it because it has to do with helping people do things differently and break old habits. This requires creativity and managing emotions, that’s the art.

Here are the four biggest lessons I’ve learned from balancing the art and science of change management:

Alignment at the Top is a Prerequisite

There needs to be alignment around the purpose for the change that you are starting. It’s super important that decision makers and leaders are aligned on the why for starting a journey of change and rally around it. If there’s no alignment on the purpose and need that you’re seeking to address, the best change plans won’t work. Secure buy-in from decision makers before getting started in this journey.

Consciously Managing Discomfort is a Must

There are two types of discomfort that, as a change practitioner, one must learn to manage. The first, is the discomfort needed to kick start the change journey. Identifying when something is not longer working, being able to illustrate what’s wrong with it, is uncomfortable. It’s also the catalyst for change. Illustrate the problem with data and get leaders to say “Okay, we don’t want this reality, we want a different reality.” Leverage discomfort to ignite action.

The second type of discomfort, comes from being asked to do something in a different way. That requires us to get out of our comfort zone and make an effort to change. This type of discomfort needs to be minimized. Facilitate the new behavior and celebrate wins often to minimize discomfort with the new.

Everyone Moves at Different Speeds (and That’s Okay!)

Another big lesson is that different parts of an organization move through change at different speeds. Some will get at the “new normal” faster than others. Whenever you ignite change in a company, you need to identify early adopters and resistors. Enlist the former and keep reminding the latter of the vision and benefits at every step.

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Deep organizational change can take a couple of years to solidify. That also makes change initiatives risky because in that time there could be a big change in the business, such as new leadership or disruption in the market. A change in context could mean a change in organizational needs or priorities, so you need to monitor the environment and be ready to adjust your plan and timeline.

Don’t Think of Yourself as a Change Agent

I used to think of myself as a change agent, because I’ve ignited a lot of significant change in the companies where I’ve worked. Now I see myself more as a practitioner because, although I’ve been a catalyst and driven change at scale, I’ve done it mostly from behind the scenes.

Change agents are the leaders who voice their support for the cause as well as those influential employees who bring others along in the journey. As a practitioner, you need to empower them, and all employees, by making the transition as easy and rewarding as possible. You still might get recognition for your effort, but that should not be your motivation. The biggest reward, is seeing organizations transform and make long lasting improvement. This is a rare sight, but it’s a beautiful one when you get to author it.