Is change management still relevant?

I’ve worked in all levels of government in Canada — municipal, provincial and federal — and one common thread I’ve noticed in all (besides…

Is change management still relevant?
Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

I’ve worked in all levels of government in Canada — municipal, provincial and federal — and one common thread I’ve noticed in all (besides bureaucracy and process) is how in each level, there is always someone on every project/product team who says, “we need to do some change management around this.” Everyone is aware of change management, some people are even “certified” in it. It’s always lurking under the surface, ready to leap out as soon as things start to get complex.

Curiously, I can’t recall a single time during my years in the UK government where someone mentioned change management. I assume it exists as a concept and practice, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the hold it does here.

Last week, I attended a two-day change management course run by business consultants, and one thing stuck out to me: it felt like change management was essentially a series of tactics to make it easier to impose change on people and overcome resistance to what was happening. These tactics were presented as “levers” which to me suggests their purpose was to force something. As a user-centred designer, this idea is really uncomfortable to me. I think that if there’s resistance to change, it makes more sense to understand and improve the change than to force it.

Reflecting on this has brought up a question I can’t stop thinking about:

If an organization is human-centred, is change management even relevant anymore?

My opinion — which you should take with a very large grain of salt because I am not an expert on change management, and also not a leader — is no.

Because if an organization approaches every decision with a human and user-centred lens, they are designing change with and around the people affected by it. There’s little resistance to change because the users are part of the change and have a say in the decisions being made.

That said, I don’t know of any government teams that are properly human-centred. The most user-focused org I’ve worked for was Government Digital Service, and they haven’t always done a good job of helping staff navigate re-orgs and changes in strategic direction, situations which business consultants will tell you change management is necessary for.

But I don’t think change management is the answer, or at least not the kind of change management I see being taught in government by business consultants.

I think the answer is doing the hard work to become more human-centred in everything we do — not just the outward things, but the inward things too. The messy things like re-orgs and leadership changes and strategic direction. Being user-centred in those things makes change management irrelevant.

We’re a long way off from that ideal future so in the meantime, I imagine change management will stick around for a few more years yet.