Who Should Be Responsible for Managing Change?

Effective change doesn’t happen by accident.  It is the result of careful planning and thoughtful execution. Leaders play a pivotal role in change because they possess legitimate power to sanction the change, establish the vision, provide direction and resources, and hold organizational members accountable. Everyone looks to the leader for guidance and that person must model the way for the rest of the organization.

Change would be a much tidier process if that were all it took – an effective leader who knows what to do and how to do it and is at the front leading the charge.

But as important as the leader’s role is, it isn’t the leader who ultimately executes change. Change (from simple to complex) is always a matter of people in impacted areas making the transition from the way things are now to the way they’re supposed to be in the future.

Transition at the people level involves, among other things:

  • Answering their questions about why and what it will mean for them
  • Describing how things will be in the future
  • Helping them understand whether or not they will be in that future
  • Involving them to co-create that future
  • Providing a credible plan for moving forward that speaks to them at their level
  • Communicating frequently and reliably about what’s happening now and what will happen next
  • Learning new skills and applying new knowledge
  • Becoming part of a new work group

Pregnant Businesswoman Leads Boardroom Meeting

How does this all get done? Who is leading the charge on this? More to the point, who should be leading the charge on this?

What are the options?

Organizations in change seem to locate the responsibility for executing change in one of three different places.

Some organizations outsource the responsibility. They contract with a consulting firm with change management expertise to manage the change for them. This is motivated at least in part by the belief that because these firms have done this sort of thing many times before, the likelihood of success in execution is increased. It may also be motivated by the fact that many organizations don’t have a  change management resource or skilled resources to execute on it. For both of these reasons, placing the locus of responsibility with an external resource is just neater and easier.

A second option is to delegate the responsibility internally. Many organizations have internal Organization Development, Organizational Change Management, Project Management or other staff groups. Leaders very often look to these kinds of staff to shoulder the responsibility for managing and executing change. In these cases, change management resources that were developed internally or acquired by the staff group likely exists.

The third option is to assign primary responsibility for managing change to the line managers who manage the teams in change-impacted areas. This is a more demanding task than either of the first two options because in this option line managers must develop their change management competency instead of depending on practitioners either external or internal. This requires the investment of time and effort. Option three depends greatly on the availability and easy access to a change management methodology and tools that managers can use for reference and to guide their efforts.

Each of the options is feasible. Each has its strengths and its challenges. However, only one of the options truly creates the enduring effect that leaders want for their organization.

I’ll reveal what I believe is the superior choice shortly, but first I want to offer some considerations for making it.

Considerations in making the choice

Experience suggests that there are at least five important considerations when choosing where to locate responsibility for managing change.

  1. Will it build internal capability? This one is obvious. Does the choice strengthen managers’ and others’ change management competence and thereby increase overall organization effectiveness? In so doing, does it increase the likelihood of reliable repeatability? If you want organization change to become an “organizational competency,” then everyone must develop that competency, especially managers.
  1. Does it strengthen the primary relationship in teams? Because managers establish and emphasize goals, give work direction, provide support, and evaluate work performance, the relationship between the manager and their direct reports is the primary relationship in an intact team. Does the choice reinforce that relationship?
  1. Does it deepen understanding of individuals’ needs in the transition? As noted above (and a bit further below), transition is highly individual. People require different kinds and amounts of support. The question for locus of responsibility is the degree to which the choice helps managers to be acquainted with what the people who report to them need to work through transition and be successful.
  1. Does it encourage the possibility of innovation beyond the intended change? This one has enormous implications. Stabilizing and achieving proficiency at the new level is the prize from the very start.  However, there is a risk at this point – with all of the effort expended it is easy for the organization to plateau and slip back into complacency in its new current state. Which choice presents the greatest likelihood for continuing on-going innovation, for encouraging people to continually challenge the process, and for recognizing risk when it is taken?
  1. Finally, does it demonstrate process congruence? Does the manner in which the change is being managed promote the kind of results you want to see ultimately? Does it model what you hope to see and experience when the transition is complete? Stronger primary relationships? Durability? Developed competence? Repeatability?

Making the Choice

We often think about and talk about organization change as a unified concept, e.g. the merger, the restructure, the new software, the move, etc. The way we refer to it belies the underlying dynamics. Organization change involves personal transition within a group context. At some level, people stop doing something they’re currently doing, learn something new (perhaps a lot new), shift patterns and habits, behave differently, use a new tool or process, join a new work group and form new primary work relationships, etc.

As a change becomes more complex, personal transition requires more individual attention and support. This calls for an approach that is highly person-centric – one that is sensitive to where people are and helps them to get what they need.

There is only one choice that best responds to each of the considerations above and creates the true possibility of being person-centric. It is the option that places primary responsibility for managing change in the line managers.

Some may argue that I’ve made the options too distinct. Whether change management is outsourced or delegated internally, the practitioners executing the change are going to work with the managers anyway, right? That’s probably true, but there is still a crucial difference for where ownership and accountability for transition are felt.

As I mentioned above, this option is a taller order than the others. Managers must build their competency in managing change and transition and they need two forms of support to do so.

First, they need instruction in what it means to manage change and they need support in the form of on-going coaching. You can’t simply hand them the responsibility and expect them to execute intuitively. They’re developing a competency and it must be thoughtfully supported.

Second, managers need a ready resource on change management for reference and to help them structure and guide their efforts. Such a resource should be easily accessible – at their fingertips on any device when needed. It should also be rich in practical information to help them understand their challenge in the moment and usable tools to structure and guide their actions.

The Change Kit is such a resource. It was developed with this purpose in mind. The Change Kit is a comprehensive, on-line reference tool for organizational change. It comprises reference information, assessments, templates, guides, outlines, cases, and other tools to help plan and manage change.

Where have you located primary responsibility for managing change in your organization? Are your line managers on-point? If so, how are you helping them develop their change management competency?

The Change Kit (thechangekit.com) – practical information and tools to build competence in organization change.

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