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The Change Problem as a People Problem

  • “‘If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people,’ said Finnerty, ‘always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.’”
  • —Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

One unhelpful, yet commonplace, way of looking at change is as either a technical problem or a people problem: “hard stuff” or “soft stuff.” People problems involve engagement, culture, resistance, communication, morale, involvement, skills, attitudes, behaviors, and so forth. Technical problems, on the other hand, involve budgets, planning, quality, risk, controls, change processes, system/user requirements, or other challenges of a technical nature (such as how to integrate two CRM systems during a merger). The insight that belies the false hard stuff/soft stuff dualism is this: The technical dimensions of a change, strategy, tactics, planning, risk management, and design of new processes and structures become people problems because people have to solve them. For example, a massive systems project was four months behind schedule because of a technical programing issue. Our change team found that this was caused by a shortage of internal C++ programmers with the right skills. The issue then became a people issue that found its way to HR (recruitment). Then we found that HR could not simply hire more programmers because it didn’t have the budget, or the clout. The problem was weak HR leadership. The program delay was eventually (after months) escalated to executive leadership, who were irked that the $120 million program was delayed because of inability to hire a few people at 60 bucks an hour. Yet the program governance structure did not permit the program director to easily push such issues up the chain of command. The problem of getting some C++ code written was, in fact, a leadership and governance problem at multiple levels.

The soft/hard (or technical/people) dichotomy has its roots in the canonical writings on organizations in the 1950s. Businesses, of course, are not really hard or soft, but most people see this metaphor as a natural, intuitive, and practical way of looking at the world. The metaphor lives on, like so much in management, unchallenged, as if it were Truth. I am not so sure. The split engenders entirely the wrong kind of thinking about the capabilities needed to implement change. The split leads to people issues (the soft stuff) often being thought of as separate or peripheral from the main objective (getting the “real” change implemented). Indeed, even the word soft seems to diminish its importance.

This split often causes the people side of big programs to be undervalued and the change experts to become necessary evils (which would be unnecessary if Finnerty’s “god-damn people” did not cause so much trouble). For example, British Petroleum’s (BP) Global Head of HR said of the change management plan of a $100 million project, “I certainly do not want my people sitting in bean-bag chairs, next to lava lamps, talking about how they feel during this project.” Accenture technical consultants had a nickname for change management experts: “chicks making slides,” a stunning, one-two combination of ignorance and sexism. When I became a “change guy,” more than one PwC colleague challenged my sexual orientation. The soft, in business, is associated with the feminine, and the feminine is still regularly discounted. Sexism is alive and kicking in the twenty-first century, and it affects how both women and people issues (HR) are seen and heard in the workplace, which is a much bigger issue than just change. One IBM partner, who runs billion-dollar projects, described it this way: “When budgets get tight, the first thing to get cut is change management, the second thing is user skills-training, and the third is the program management office.” If it is true that the most difficult aspect of change is the people side, then it seems self-defeating that change is the most quickly slashed part of program budgets.

As alluded to earlier, this devaluing of the people side of change is also found in business school curricula. A two-year Harvard MBA has no leading or managing change in its required, core curriculum of about 15 subjects. Managing change is 1 of about 100 electives (although there are one or two that are change-related). The Europeans do no better. INSEAD’s MBA also has zero change leadership/management electives, and ostensibly squeezes what leaders need to know about change into their core Organization Behavior (OB) module. It is not a stretch to say that graduates from top business schools emerge with little or no change management theory and (because the courses are theoretical) zero change management experience. If we accept that juggling multiple change programs is part of every manager’s job, and that leading major change most severely tests executive mettle, then the content and structure of business education may be part of the change problem.

In summary, technical problems (such as technology, systems, and processes), project problems (such as governance and planning), and people issues (such as stakeholders, engagement, and culture) are all leadership issues. How we educate business leaders in change and how we think about change (technical versus people, soft versus hard) seem to be at fault.

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