Managing Complex Change

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Change is difficult and it rarely occurs as a binary process.  There is no single “success switch” to flip.

Managers need to think holistically when planning a change process.   I’d encourage you to imagine your change management dashboard to contain many dials and switches requiring your constant attention.

Neglecting even a single dial may very well result in something other than the expected change.  When planning your change process, consider the multiple dimensions that will contribute to the success of the project.

The Managing Complex Change framework displayed below was published in 2000 by a group of educational leaders (Knoster T, Vila R and Thousand J).  It contains five variables for predicting outcomes when managing complex change.  The chart simplifies visualization of the relationship between neglecting a variable and the likely outcome.

Managing Complex Change

Anyone finding themselves suddenly in a role where they need to implement a program or manage change may find the volume of change management literature overwhelming.  My advice is decide on an approach and monitor its impact.  Make changes when necessary and don’t worry about the academics.

I favor the Kotter 8-Step Process for Leading Change.  It is based on four decades of research and it’s been recently updated.  I was pleased to observe the similarities between the Managing Complex Change framework and the Kotter model.  The two models, are in my opinion, complimentary.  For this reason I decided to share the above chart.

As you view the above chart, and imagine your change project, here are a few additional details explaining the variable titles:

  • Vision – Form a strategic vision for the project.  Link strategic outcomes with key initiatives.  Share the vision freely and make sure everyone in your project team is capable of explaining the desired state.
  • Skills – This variable is not a direct match with the Kotter model but it makes sense to me.  It is important to make investments in the people who will help bring and sustain the change.
  • Incentives – It’s time to resist the do more with less mentality.  In my opinion, we’ve permitted the pendulum to swing too far on this topic.  Work needs to be prioritized and key change initiatives need to be incentivized.  This doesn’t necessarily have to mean direct compensation.  It might mean recognizing people that take the risk change when change is unpopular or difficult.  Sometimes the only incentive necessary is an explanation of how the project will improve the lives of customers, or patients, or staff.
  • Resources – Enable action by equipping with the tools to do their job and remove obstacles.  This would be one of the first questions I’d ask to my change team – what do you need to be successful?
  • Action Plan – Keep it simple.  Make sure it’s always updated and easily accessible.  Finally, make sure people understand there is only one plan and who is accountable for its success.  Usually there is one project owner – they are ultimately accountable for the project’s success.  There are also multiple contributors to a project – they too are accountable for their contribution.

There’s one more thing I like about this model – its simple visual presentation lends itself to as a job aid.  I’d recommend printing the model and having it handy as a memory jog during regular project reviews.

Hope you find this model useful.

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