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Bart Perkins: Change management is not optional

High-impact projects -- those aiming for streamlined, redesigned and transformed business processes -- require more than incremental change. But few people embrace change enthusiastically. Staff can be stiffly resistant to new processes, interfaces or job responsibilities. It's a challenge that calls for effective change management.

Unfortunately, even multinational enterprises often ignore change management until problems arise. Many good project teams naively assume that if they just design a better approach, people will automatically embrace the new system. (I'm still waiting to see this happen in the real world.)

Other reasons that projects often neglect change management include the following:

Incomplete analysis. Lacking a full understanding of job content and interactions, project teams might not see the need for change management. Analysts at one large manufacturing company decided that field repair technicians should be able to complete more than their current 3.2 service calls per day. To that end, the analysts decided that techs no longer needed to start their day at the supply depot. Instead, supplies would be shipped directly to the techs, transforming each truck into a mini warehouse. Result: Calls completed per day decreased sharply. The analysts had failed to understand the flow of critical information. Techs routinely shared their diagnostic and repair experiences with one another during their time at the depot. Without this forum for sharing information, the techs were less effective and required formal training.

Resource constraints. Change management requires time and money and might be deemed wasteful. This was true at one Fortune 500 company, where the extremely powerful accounting department regularly put project plans through four or five rounds of cost cutting. Project teams that saw value in change management had to create small additional projects (which received less scrutiny) for training, documentation and change management. Unfortunately, this approach resulted in out-of-sync schedules and poor integration among other project activities, severely hampering change management efforts.

Politics. Teams might be reluctant to challenge entrenched interests. A state governor announced a program to implement common systems across all state agencies. The project team recognized that the resulting new business processes and job content would be so different that the only hope of success lay in a massive change management effort to get buy-in from the people who would use the new system. They were confident that, given enough time for communication and training, workers and middle managers would embrace the changes. Unfortunately, prior governors had allowed each agency to build its own IT capability, and none of the agencies wanted to relinquish IT staff and funding. Since the governor was unwilling to confront the entrenched bureaucracy, the team backed off and eventually reproduced each agency's legacy package in the new system. The governor declared success, and the bureaucrats retained power.

Even when change management is employed, other factors can dilute its effectiveness. In one case I'm aware of, store managers at a regional grocery chain were essentially crew schedulers whose performance metrics demanded optimal staff scheduling. When the position was upgraded to include P&L responsibility, corresponding metrics and compensation plans remained the same, and the project team had to drop a major component of its change management effort. Predictably, schedules remained optimal, while profits dipped.

Successful projects require organizational acceptance to achieve their full potential. Even otherwise well-designed projects often fail when change management is neglected. Be proactive! Require high-impact projects to include a change management analysis and plan. Otherwise, you risk impacting your project's acceptance, business benefits and ultimate success.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners, which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

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