Beyond Motherhood and Apple Pie: isn't it time we mastered managing change?

So many approaches to managing change are mired in old-fashioned ways of thinking and acting.  It's high time we all moved on, says AptumX CEO Tim Connolly..

I recently read yet another article by a leading ERP change management consulting firm about the mistakes commonly made in managing process improvement projects. I’m not going to name names, but I confess my heart sank as I noticed my motherhoodometer clicking into action and beginning to rack up quite a count. “Vision for future state… define organisational goals… executive buy-in is the linchpin… all seniority levels work together… continuous improvement culture… right people at the helm.” All true, whether we’re talking about process improvement or just managing a business, but honestly, we all know this, and if this were all there was to it, would we still be talking about failure rates in excess of 70% of all change programmes?

Then it got to the more contentious part: “put steps in place to reduce change resistance… communicate… explain why it’s necessary… listen to employees’ concerns.” Well, I’m not going to argue against listening to employees’ concerns, but the problem is that the whole context is of change being done to people - it’s so 19th century. If we have to “explain why it’s necessary”, it doesn’t sound as if it’s going to be perceived as good news by those who have to have it explained to them, and we’ve already missed the most important point, which is that successful change isn’t imposed. Even when the outcomes are undesirable, it’s accepted as a natural and, often, welcome aspect of business as usual in any organisation that is equipped to survive and thrive in the world of the 2020s.

AptumX exists to make change an integral element of how an organisation thinks and operates. In our experience, people’s attitudes aren’t the main blocker to managing change successfully; rather, it’s the processes, systems and structures of most organisations that get in the way. That’s why we believe that “digital transformation” should be about creating the environment in which those factors – the processes, systems and structures – enable change rather than obstruct it. That’s how change becomes a business-as-usual competence, and it’s what we call a business change platform.

Some argue that all that is needed is a ‘to-be’ definition of what the changed environment looks like. Others will say that for successful change you must define what you’re starting with, the ‘as-is’ as well as the future ‘to-be’. The problem with both positions is that they are talking about snapshots in time, when with change upon us constantly we need an understanding that is current at all times. This predicates being able to change the definition quickly, without introducing errors. For this you need a model not a map.

Although the two words seem to be used interchangeably, they are very different when it comes to defining business for change. The content of a process map ‘knows’ nothing of the content of other process maps. In a model all the components are interrelated. Change one and immediately know what other components you have just affected.

The answer is a Digital Twin model of business. In addition to the changeability of being a model the Digital Twin is a digital replication of the real world it defines, so its model components will have real world equivalents. This provides a far more accurate and usable definition of a business than using a conceptual map that doesn’t offer users a one-for-one fit with the world they are used to.

Rather than a single level line of boxes representing some form of work activity, a model makes the distinction between the flow of work between people (or machines) and the sequence of tasks that must be performed at their desk or work centre as a part of a process workflow. This enables the model to define transactions end-to-end and gives CEOs the visibility they are looking for, rather than the detail level of the individual tasks people are performing.

Next, according to the article that provoked this reaction from me, it’s important to ensure you have a clear vision for your future state. True – but the risk is that you become focused on something that is both too far out and too loosely defined to be either tangible or useful. The question is how that vision and the resulting strategy translate into the right end-to-end workflows, because this is the only way that you can be sure that processes are being designed, operated and continuously improved in line with strategy and vision. This means the strategy is articulated in terms of the processes through which it will be delivered and the measurement and management of those processes in terms that feed back to the strategy – all within the Digital Twin model.

With this, we’re beginning to get to the heart of the matter, and that is how change becomes accepted as the norm and as something that is actively supported and advocated by people throughout the business – as a means of making things better, to be sure, and in ways that are consistent with that vision and the overall direction of the business, certainly; but also in ways that enable everyone to shape that direction and execute change.

And that brings us on to engagement, at every level from executives outwards. It’s really hard to engage in a business the workings of which you don’t understand. Process maps and systems flows don’t cut it. They serve their own narrow purpose and their own masters, but they don’t facilitate understanding to the woman or man on the factory floor or in the sales office. Far better to create and maintain a multi-dimensional depiction in AptumX of how the business really operates, using business artefacts and language that can be changed to adapt to real or planned changes at the drop of a hat. From this, it’s a small step to the reality of what a “continuous improvement culture” should really be: by putting process modelling and automation in the hands of the business, we can achieve a systemic way of creating ownership and giving people the tools to identify inefficiencies, inconsistencies, workarounds and other blockers to effective operation – and the means to design, systematise and implement the solutions, rapidly and safely.

And so a change platform, an environment in which change is accepted as a welcome norm, comes into being, thereby minimising the risk of reaching that situation in which change management is done to people not by them. You can communicate and explain until the cows come home but when it feels as if the solutions are being imposed, resistance will not dissipate. And if you need to “explain why it’s necessary” you’re onto a loser before you start, because the very phrase has negative connotations. When change becomes a business as usual competence and is driven by business people who have the tools and the motivation to identify improvement opportunities, from the immediate and tactical to the strategic, the need to explain and justify becomes consigned to the past.