Self care for change managers

Many change agents join the profession because of a genuine desire to assist people through change. It can be extremely fulfilling work. A group of people, empowered through effective change management, can be the difference between success and failure of an intiative. To know you have successfully shepherded such a change can be deeply rewarding.

However, there are many statistics that discuss the high proportion of failed projects, so our chances of success aren’t high to begin with. While poor change management is one reason projects fail, rarely are conditions optimal for a change agent to provide quality work in the first place.

Individuals drawn to change often care deeply about the success of the initiative, the organisation, and/or the group of people impacted. We can ask ourselves why there is this high level of care. There are many personality based models that will recognise those of us who have higher tendencies to protect, support and/or nurture others. It may be that change agents think the ‘people’ side of business is more interesting, or the intellectual challenge of working on a project of high complexity and challenge. It may simply be a matter of a change agent having personally lived through a poorly implemented initiative, and “knowing” that it could have been managed so much better that brings someone to the change management field of work.

With that said, many change agents I have met are idealistic to the point of it being self defeating. They strive for a very high degree of change management effectiveness, for a high level of success, yet often work in some kind of structure that inhibits their ability to reach their change goals, for instance, working for the delivery arm of the business not the receiving arm. The effective identification of the issues impacting success must be understood and accepted by a change agent to ensure their continuing sanity.

Some change agents will aim for 100% success. Which means: all stakeholders happy with the change, understanding the impacts, on board with the new vision, and happily achieving it. Even though they may intellectually know better, these change agents set out to achieve complete success in the change arena and can feel like a failure when this is not achieved. Change agents can spend a disproportionate amount of time with the reticent group trying to bring them along, and may take it personally that this group was not able to be persuaded.

So a change agent who is built like this may be unhappy with anything less than 100%. They may take it as a personal failure in some way. Models about change (lots of disciplines, in fact) can make it seem that if you follow steps 1, 2 and 3, you will achieve change nirvana – but of course this is not going to happen. The realities of successful projects are unique to each project, can rarely be artificially created, and are of critical importance to success while being difficult to ‘pin down’.

Change agents need to find a way to navigate through this balance between what is personally desired and what is realistically achievable. It is incredibly unrealistic, given all the dimensions that impact on change, (the maturity of the discipline and resultant organisational recognition, organisational politics and internal drivers) that anything close to 100% can be achieved. In fact, in some cases, avoiding mass walkouts, redundancies, mutinies or other avoidance tactics are by themselves worthwhile and challenging goals. Let alone having lots of happy staff.

So change agents must find a way to be happy achieving what is realistic for that particular project.

Here are some ideas to help set your personal expectations and complete your project with your health and sanity intact.

  • What are Executive expectations? While they will never say this, be prepared to accept that they may be happy simply that basic communications occurred. Your presence in and of itself is the tick-in-the-box to give executive coverage they may need. You need to be able to read the actual lay of the land in order to manage your expectations.
  • Think Reality, not Theory. The theories are wonderful, and it looks so straightforward (remember they’re trying to sell you something!!), but of course the reality is far more complicated than that. I am not anti-theory at all, effective change practices encompass the theoretical agenda, but I am encouraging keeping a healthy dose of pragmatism alongside that theory.
  • Remember how complex people are. It’s impossible to change one person, let alone several (hundred? thousand?) with personal and professional agendas you can never realistically uncover.
  • Keep it simple. Keep your goals simple, keep your messages up, down and sideways simple. People are busy, make it easy for them. Of course, as the saying goes, the paradox of simplicity is that keeping things simple is hard work. But there’s a lot of bang in your buck with this one.
  • Look realistically at how well the project is likely to meet the business needs. Are user requirements clear and correct? Are users appropriately engaged throughout the project? Will the decision makers make the right decisions at the time those decisions are needed? Is the budget appropriate?
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of your key relationships. I know of at least one project where it was the quality of the relationship between the business and the change agent that took the project ‘across the line’.

All the best!

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