I believe that many organisations err in being too casual about their change history. I also believe that the cumulative change history of an organisation is probably one of the most reliable predictors of its success with future change, and is also a very important factor in shaping organisational culture.
The cumulative organisational experience of past change has a very significant impact on how change will be dealt with in the present – a history of “bad” change will tend to:
- Make stakeholders more resistant to change
- Lead to the development of counterproductive learned responses (habits)
- Undermine trust and confidence in change leaders
- Limit opportunities for organisational learning of good change practice
- Increase the likelihood of further instances of “bad” change.
Conversely, a history of “good” change will tend to
- Lower stakeholder resistance to change
- Build trust and confidence in change leaders
- Present opportunities for organisational learning of how it “should be done”
- Increase the likelihood of further instances of “good” change.
If we accept that - with regard to organisational change management – the past is an important predictor of the future, then we have to do three things:
- Assess our change history.
- Find ways to learn from what happened before and apply these lessons into the future.
- Realise that we are creating tomorrow’s history today, and take extra care to make sure that we change well.
Assessing Change History
Change history is a combination of objective and subjective realities – one needs to understand to what extent a particular initiative reached its objectives, but also how stakeholders have experienced the change. To assess change history effectively, one therefore should combine objective and subjective sources of information – for example:
- To what extent did Initiative X meet its objectives?
- Was the initiative within budget?
- Did it complete within the agreed timeframe?
- Were there significant negative unintended outcomes?
- How do people describe their experience of Initiative X?
- What were the good things, and what were the bad things about the initiative?
- How did it make you feel?
- What was the overall impact of Initiative X with regard to how people feel about the company and about working here?
Learning from the past
When any initiative concludes, a formal “lessons learnt” exercise should be conducted. This information should be properly captured and made available for easy retrieval. Then, as part preparation phase for each new initiative, the lessons learnt repository should be reviewed. Change leaders should also review this information periodically, to identify trends and patterns that require attention.
Where issues or problems that impacted stakeholders are identified, these should be acknowledged and explicitly addressed – this will build trust. For example: “On reviewing our ‘lessons learnt’ from Initiative Y, we can see that we did not always take enough time for proper dialogue, and that this led to several misunderstandings. We intend to address this in Initiative Z by scheduling regular discussion sessions with you.”
Sieze the day
Whether your assessment of your organisational change history shows that change has been experienced positively, negatively or (most likely) a combination of the two, it is important to realise that what happens on your initiatives today will become the change history of the organisation tomorrow. You can influence what happens today – but once it becomes history, it cannot be changed.