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Change management theory


Change management theory seems to form part of every management course; enormous numbers of managers must have studied this subject. Change management is also relevant to training since training is meant to change people in some way. However, I can’t recall ever seeing anyone apply change management theory to practice in any of the organisations I have worked for, in terms of SWAT analysis, project management or any other techniques advocated for successful change management. I worked for the NHS for 30 years and the culture always seemed to be to just get on with it, do as you’re told, and if you don't like it you know what to do!

What is other people’s experience of seeing change management in practice? Please tell me that I have just been unlucky and that change management theory is used widely. If that isn’t the case, then why not?

Eddie Newall

16 Responses

  1. I wish!

    I would LOVE to see theories used in reality and although I see change project managers walking around with change management books under their arm, it would seem that none of the content makes it into practice.

    I am having a meeting today with a group of managers to discuss how the theories can be used in practice after them having recently attended a course. Again, i would love to see something practical and angaging come out of this for our team members!

    I’ll let you know if it makes a difference.


  2. Wouldn’t it be lovely

    I very much agree with Paul’s comments, and my experience supports the oft quoted figures about the majority of change programmes failing – they fail because they were never designed and carried through with sufficient eyes on the theories not just of pure change management, but about human adaptation to change as well.

    Still we can all live in hope can’t we?


  3. managing change – in practice
    Is this the ultimate challenge of Developers? Can this really be achieved?

    Yes I believe so. Some years ago I was employed as a training manager in a large private hospital group (over 500 employees in the business unit). I had been recruited just 12 months after a large ‘reorganisation’ that had resulted in 30% of job losses. Morale as you can guess was not high, and customer satisfaction was poor (in fact that particular business unit was 41st out of 42 – it had previously been number 1)

    My objective – set by the Executive Director was to achieve IiP status AND get us back up the Customer service ladder.

    Suffice to say that training had been used to manage the staff reductions, there was a real animosity towards training or development.

    The objectives set could only be achieved through managing change.

    I used a simple change model and slowly set about helping people through the resistance to change, and preparing them for the ‘new world’. This was about building trust, as well as helping staff to ‘let go’ of what had happened.

    It took 15 months for us to reach number 5 in the customer care chart and 18 months to obtain IiP (6 months longer than I had been set). One year later we were at number 2 in the customer care chart.

    So yes change can be managed. It needs TOTAL commitment from the development team and the senior sponsor. It needs simple tools.

    Change often fails because there is not transparency from the change agents. The change focuses upon process and not human reactions to the changes. This is an area of emotions and must be managed in such a way.

    The models I used are listed in my ‘coaching guide for managers’ resource on TrainerBase ( or on my website ( in the resources section.

    Managing change IS difficult, it is about recognising the read barriers to change and being in a position to do something (in the case stated above I can tell you I had some very difficult discussions with the Exec Director, it was not an easy journey – for either of us)

    Happy to talk through my approach in more details
    [email protected]

    Mike Morrison

  4. All this change is too much
    Megan, who is Paul or are you looking at another thread?



  5. a furtherance of the discussion rather than an answer

    Though not exactly an answer to your question the following is an extract from a study by Mercer conducted with several thousand people who had been through change programmes.
    I use it as a prompt for practical change planning when I run any change management workshops….

    Top Five BEST Change Practices

    ~Effective communication
    ~Employee involvement and buy-in
    ~Leadership and commitment from senior management
    ~Evidence that management is living the change
    ~Explicit business imperative for change

    Top Five WORST Change Practices

    ~Failing to communicate to all employees about change
    ~Not articulating change vision/objectives/ rationale
    ~Being dishonest about change processes and implications
    ~Not giving employees a voice in the change process
    ~Failing to plan for change

    I find it really helpful to look at what to do and what to avoid like the plague

    Hope this helps

  6. is change management a misnomer?
    When I think back to the organisations I’ve worked in over the past 20 years, ALL of them have been engaged in change. ALL of it was difficult. A couple of them worked. Those that worked certainly demonstrated the 5 ‘best practice’ behaviours/actions listed by Russ. Those that failed certainly had many of the ‘worst practices’ listed by Russ.

    The theories can help in educating and raising awareness. Project management and these structural tools CAN help change run more smoothly.

    I’m not sure that managing change in the sense of actively leading the organisation by the hand according to a plan/schedule and prescribed set of interventions will do the trick – I’m even of the opinion that change management is a bit of a misnomer!! In this sense I wonder if any one theory or model can say enough about change.

    I see organisations as complex adaptive systems – each part is connected in some way, not always obviously, directly or strongly, to every other part. A feature of complex adaptive systems is that they exhibit ’emergent behaviour’ that cannot be predicted simply by analysing the constituent parts and the major relationships between them, and they can be very sensitive to the slightest variation of seemingly the most trivial factor.

    People generally will listen to what management tells them, perhaps even politely, and then decide things for themselves, and act accordingly. They want answers to some key questions, which, if they don’t get, leads I beleive to behaviours that APPEAR to be resistance to change. These questions (after Bill Jensen) are

    1 – what is the meaning of the change?
    2 – what are the goals of the change (and how does it affect my job/me)?
    3 – how is this change to be structured and integrated in to everything else that has to be done (such as running the business for today even as we get ready for tomorrow)?
    4 – what tools, information, support and other help is or will be made available to help me deal with all of this?

    An interesting thread – thanks!



  7. Change management
    I agree with Martin & Russ, the point that I would like to build on was that ‘change management’ is a missnoma – Indeed I do not usually use that phrase beyond ‘selling the idea to managememnt’


  8. understanding attitudes
    In my early career as a development consultant I was involved in an 18 month departmental change programme. We endeavoured to run the project in the way that Rus, Martin and Mike have described. Most crucially highlighting the importance of two-way communication. We did everything we could to ensure that we communicated effectively, and enabled people to talk openly with us.

    Half way through the programme we were challenged with ‘we’re not being communicated with enough’. This was gutting – we couldn’t see what else we could do or could have done to facilitate open and honest two-way communication.

    Within a couple of days I came across details of a conference workshop on emotional intelligence and how healthy attitudes are what are needed to embrace change.

    To cut a long story short, I knew this held some answers for me, I subsequently enrolled on a 9 month EI practitioner programme, and haven’t looked back. This actually changed the course of my own career.

    As Mike has identified, at the root of resistance to change is emotion. Whilst every resistance can be countered with a rational argument (thinking), if the associated feelings are not also accepted and resolved, the change can be a painful and drawn-out process.

    Building in attitudinal-based EI coaching and interventions into a change programme will help some participants reduce the discomfort they experience during the change, and help others become excited by the change (everyone’s response will be different because their emotional histories are different).

    Attitudinal EI – known as AppliedEI – is offered through the Centre for Applied Emotional Intelligence (CAEI) at

    Best wishes

  9. Change Management
    I found this thread very interesting. I have been involved in Change Managemnt as a Training Manager/OD Manager, Consultant, HR Director and Chief Operating Officer. ( The last role being a line role which required me to apply the theories I had learned).
    I found that process and structure is useful for providing some kind of map or general direction but it does not necessarily buy agreement or support. Eveyone has their own agenda to some extent. The reference to emotional intelligence highlights this.

    I found in the line role that the theories acted lke tenets of faith which I had to hold on to but the day to day reality of delivering products and services needed to be dealt with first. So urgent matters often took precedence over teh important matters.

    The one thng I did notice was that when I stopped pushing too hard and asked people to help then resistance lessened and support increased. For me the first thing that needed to change was me. When others saw this they tended to loosen up and join in.

    Like most thngs you need to start with yourself and your fixed views before asking others to change their views. This is not the norm in most organisations as the company expects others to change to accommodate its end goals.

    This kind on unilateral change imposed on others has the appearance of speed and dynamism, but it is in fact slower and more problematic. Lao Tsu says the best leader is the person of whom the people say “we did it ourselves”. I think this philosophy extends to change management

  10. Change Management
    Can I add to the experiences of everyone else?

    In brief:

    First, I haven’t ever found ‘theory’ very helpful in managing change practically as a Director of several organisations myself (nor even in helping many others as a consultant); but I have found ‘understanding others’ pretty critical!

    Second, building shared values and purpose for all is essential – for which see all the helpful thoughts already offered…

    Third, just knowing what can *damage* the building of ‘shared values and purpose/mission’ may be just as helpful as what may actively promote these.

    Finally, commitment to ‘change’ MUST start at the top and never waver, to be successful. (Not a theory! – just a hard-earned observation.) And that does not just include trite ‘injunctions’ – but consistent personal adherence to the organisation’s Mission, Vision and Values.

    Where there are external ‘complications’ (such as changes in ‘political will’, for the Public Sector by way of example), there has to be perceived integrity in communicating these to all to achieve success in practice, and no ‘theory’ is likely to gainsay this in a free labour market…

    I believe so much is self-evident. The practice is rather more difficult! But I will gladly offer further tips and experience more privately if welcome. This will be context-specific (as I think it has to be?) – but I think all may agree it is the practice that is far more important than the theory?

    And to close? Think of the role and qualities of genuine ‘change agents’? They may not be the most senior, they may even be the most ‘anti’ at the moment, and they may still be your best allies!

    More off-line?

    Good fortune


  11. CM
    In order to run a successful CM project, you need to look at the past, the present and the future. I.e Where you were, where you are now and where you want to be. Many make the mistake of not looking at the past, but valuable data can be gathered by doing this. E.g. If you’re trying to change the culture of a company. (1) How was the culture before (2) What made the culture change (3) How is the culture today (4) What would an ideal culture look like.

    Ofcourse, you then must PLAN, PREPARE & PRODUCE.

  12. Elephant Training Experiences
    A stimulating thread, thank you and here’s my pennyworth.

    I have been involved in change (‘done to’, ‘involved in’, ‘managing’, ‘facilitating’, ‘leading’, ‘consulting on’ ….) for a very long time – you might say all my life, but the organisational context is about 30 years old.

    How much would I like to drop the phrase ‘change management’? In principle I have no problem with CM – the frameworks offered by Kotter et al all give useful guidelines about structuring approaches to change and the various tasks that have to be completed to be successful. But they are only frameworks, not prescriptions…

    The challenge is to beware of the impression that CManagement is enough, when the critical capability is that of LEADERSHIP.

    All of my experience suggests that changes go off line, that the context changes during the process, that the issues (people, process and task) change during the change effort, that we come across unexpected waters, etc. This is the leadership arena, not that of management. No pre-ordained management plan can prepare me for the unexpected (after all, planning for the unexpected is somewhat of an oxymoron – if I were being impolite I might suggest that only a moron would think they can plan for the unexpected!)

    We need to
    * prepare our people (all of them) to be resilient in the face of adversity and the unexpected,
    * develop leaders throughout the organisation (Managing Directors often don’t have much credibility with toilet cleaners, they are more likely to regard one of their own as their leader – and it won’t necessarily be the ‘Chief Toilet Cleaner’ either),
    * recruit the leaders throughout the organisation to the Why?, teh What? and the How? of change (these people are our advocates and we need them in every corner),
    * Communicate, Communicate, Communicate (even when there is nothing to say, rumours start and corculate in the void, so don’t let there be a void)
    * Lead from the top – VISIBLY. I swear that I will never again work in an organisation where the visible commitment of the formal leadership is not present – “If they are not living and breathing the change, why should I?” is a perfectly legitimate question
    * acknowledge (and learn fromn) our mistakes as well as successes – leaders own up to their vulnerabilities and seek help
    * trust that our people can make the changes, perhaps with help from outside – but the help is most effectively targetted at helping the people (the process and task stuff is realtively simple!)
    * burn a few bridges – when it can be seen that there is no way back, it is easier to forge forward
    * persist – in the face of adversity, your leaders must become even more visible and positive

    WHEW! I could go on, but you have possibly had enought by now and anyway my brain is starting to hurt.

    And why elephant training? Well, read ‘Teaching the Elephant to Dance’.

  13. In theory …
    ‘In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.’

    So said Yogi Berra and it has never been more true than in the field of Change Management.

    I remember, when studying Change Management some years ago, being enticed by the straightforward theories available as I then had little experience of their practicality in the real world.

    In practice, in my experience, the main blocker to change is captured in this thread under the top 5 reasons for success – Evidence that management is living the change – being neglected. Too often, management instigate the change, talk positively and politically in public and then behave in ways in which it becomes very apparent to those having change ‘inflicted’ upon them that they do not really believe in what they are doing.

    I am working with a client at the moment who has instigated a major business change, lit the blue touchpaper and then stood back, apart from getting regular updates on progress to report to the Board. Unfortunately, he does not appear to have recognised that the culture change he has instigated in the organisation also applies to him and he continues to bully and undermine his staff. It will, therefore, never work even when supported by the best change management theories.

    I wonder how many of us will have our work squandered and blamed when positive change does not occur because the person instigating it does not believe it should?

    Jooli Atkins
    Ever Hopeful …

  14. as they say…
    Re your comment to Megan: “Megan, who is Paul or are you looking at another thread?


    …try starting the thread at the very beginning.

    You’ll find the ‘Paul’ referred to.

    Cheers Euphrosene

  15. missing comments?
    Euphrosene – when I first read this thread, for some reason Pauls comments were not visable in my browser.

    This thread has again proven the power of TrainingZone in that it can provide great insight, and is a valuable resource.

    The thread has been read over 1000 times – and I for one suspect it will be read a lot more!


  16. See your name in lights!
    Thanks for your comments and contributing to this interesting thread – please see our latest feature which reports on what you’ve told us about – that is how you manage change at:

    Change: Planned or haphazard?

    Please do add your views.

    Best Wishes,

    Annie Hayes, HR Zone Editor


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