Change is not a project that can be managed (revised Dec 18)

In recent posts, I have elaborated on some of the differentiators between Organization Development and Change Management in coping with the implementation of  complex organizational change. This post will illustrate provide a short case illustrating the differences.

Change Management approach is mechanistic. CM believes that change has a beginning and end, and the transition between the two is “manageable”. Change management focuses on delivering predefined changes to managers more than happy to in-source their woes. CM provides well documented and rational road maps on how change management delivers. CM uses a wide of tools, many of them mechanistic to the extreme.

OD views “changing” as ongoing and constant state, not a project with a beginning and end which can be managed like a software release. OD has a dynamic approach to the way events unfold in an organization. OD address underlying dynamics which impact the ability of organizations to adapt, such as power struggles, poor teamwork, lack of engagement, detached leadership and pissing contests. Professional OD consultants are suspicious about constant change programs and futile reorganizations.

The basic approach of OD is that “change” is likely to be subverted unless the underlying dynamics are dealt with. CM often blames underlying dynamics for screwing up their well drawn up plans.

OD focus is on achieving ongoing systemic flexibility and agility, not a one time hit and run change.

Let’s look at this real case which shows the difference.


MBK, a small Israeli  firm with a cutting edge technology, buys an American competitor with an older and out-dated version of the MBK’s technology in order to gain access to their former US competitor’s install base. The CEO wants to realize these synergies quickly via rapid integration, so he calls in both an OD consultant and Change Manager to get their cut on how this can be achieved as fast as possible.

The CEO wants the propagate the vision of “our wow new technology to our new US  install base-all leveraged and done in 6 months”.

OD’s Plan:

A realistic (aka pessimistic) OD consultant confronted the CEO that the transformation cannot be done that quickly; he suggests a 3 year year period adjustment time is more of less what is to be expected. The OD consultant claims that a vision of  “our new  technology to our new install base” means nothing very practical to the leadership and troops of both organizations. Each and every individual is worried about “what happens to me” and that is the issue which needs to be addressed, claimed the OD consultant.

The OD consultant wanted to start the integration by developing the framework of a flexible planning platform with a very small group of key people from both the US and Israeli organizations . This group is to be tasked with making (and re-make) plans and managing the integration activities which go on. The “plan will probably changes tens of times”, as it  takes into account the  goals of the acquisition, factoring in ways to deal with the massive resistance, fear, anxiety, and political agendas of all. The OD consultant called this plan a “a rolling out plan”, which changes all the time based on obstacles encountered and the derivative adjustment of the integration goals.

The CEO thinks the OD consultant has no  business focus and that he is negative.

CM Plan:

The CEO chooses to work with a  user friendly and less argumentative Change Manager!

The optimistic Change Manager draws up a plan (with his bare hands)  that creates synergies to leverage the newer technologies in the large US install base, creating huge revenues. The Change Managers’ plan, covered in 70 slides, takes 6  months to fully implement. The plan consists of redrawing roles, responsibilities, creating new processes and  some team building (via cooking classes and golf tournaments.)

The CEO is impressed and the CM is hired.

The Results:

3 months into the the plan, the CEO and his change manager look at the organization, and all they see is resistance and push back:  The US team had blocked access to their clients, and the Israeli team works directly with clients, causing friction. Sales are down and the organization is inwardly focused.

The CEO and his CM have stormed ahead, but the troops ain’t there. There are three months left to go and the integration has yet to begin.

The Change Manager and the CEO agree that a motivational speaker will be brought in. The cost of the motivational speaker is $9000.

PS. Naturally, CM and OD have their place in the current marketplace. For commercial reasons, CEO’s prefer the quick and often very ineffective CM fix. OD, caught up in its past, has yet to adapt itself to being relevant in global change.


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Allon  אלון

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12 thoughts on “Change is not a project that can be managed (revised Dec 18)

  1. Dear mentor,

    What an vivid story to differentiate OD and CM! So OD is long-term based change and development by rebuilding system and structure, while CM is short-term based change by solving abrupt problem through certain of projects. Am I right?

  2. The CEO has no new strategy to communicate, what is vital, and seems to have no involvement (looks for a motivation speaker…), he just want a quick return of investment… maybe a former CFO ot too technical fellow…
    I understand OD can claim changes take time, but MUST work with deadlines, a professional activity oriented to a middle path.

  3. Alon
    A 3 year process as the OD suggests is not a change process but a normal evolutionary process. A change like your case study is describing cannot last 3 years.It has to be quiecker-6 months max. Change means a dramatic turn of the boat from its normal rout and has to be lead by a professional change manager ,either one from the organization normal team but it is preffered to have an outsider .This guy is hired with 6-9 months contract without any option to additional period.This is done to block him from any idea that he found pemanent nest for the next decade and hence he will finish his mission on time
    Change results always objections and turmoiles from the regular team.The OD will follow the process and will collect feedbacks from the teams but will intervene where it is needed only if and when the change manager asks his assitance .

    • A “dramatic turn of the boat” is only justified when you suddenly discover there’s an iceberg directly ahead and the collision is more or less imminent. Why? Because such maneuver is very likely to capsize the boat: you simply increase a possibility of survival (though probably not a lot). But doing it in any other case rarely makes sense…

  4. This is not a story about OD and CM, it is a story about an out-of-touch OD consultant who is – uncharacteristically for OD consultants – a pessimist.

    Conversely, the CM guy – how fortunate – is an optimist.

    This is such a shallow mischaracterization of both fields as to be useless for practical learning lessons.

    btw, even in CM change is not a project, managing a specified change is a project. Happens to be so in OD, except perhaps a different verb, e.g. planning, facilitating, leading.

    As for the time horizon, that depends on variables that include competence of consultant/change manager, competence and committed involvement of CEO (and others), size and complexity of company, and consulting approach used. Change in any open system never stops until death. Specific changes within a system may have an “end” when the work/social/cultural patterns of the “newer” way seem as natural as the “old” way. Even then, it will change, it just won’t need specific intervention.

  5. It’s all relative.
    I personally believe that “Change Management” has become an oxymoron.
    Certainly, as change relates to organizational culture, in many cases, excessive management merely gets in the way!
    True cultural change must be promoted through a forward thinking leadership …pointing the direction of business goals, providing the appropriate tools and allowing their respective associates, as individuals and in groups, the autonomy to reach their objectives.

  6. I believe “change” is a “shy” beast. The first thing I do in nearly any project, is to purge the word “change” out of the “project vocabulary” (sometimes, not often, replacing it with “transformation”). And somehow that simple trick always works: the actual change “miraculously” starts happening…

  7. Yes indeed, another Allon gem. Change is granular in that it has varying tentacles of varying reach depending on the stakes: My experience of change ranges from mergers to introducing new technology in a “stable” organization to a new mandate for a Public Agency resulting from a legislative change. My learnings: One does not implement or change a culture; one can only create the conditions for the emergence of a culture. Mergers very rarely yield their sought after promise unless the under-the-waterline stuff is addressed ecologically with the above-the-waterline stuff. Attending to change is an act of creation more than an exercise in problem solving.

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