Managing change – the power of the invisibility cloak

By Helena Cain

Thursday October 22, 2020


When change management is done well, organisations grow. When it’s done badly, people hurt unnecessarily. Management consultant Helena Cain outlines excellent tips for achieving high-quality change management.

The trouble with good change management is that if you do everything really well, the client thinks that they did it all themselves and that you haven’t done much at all.

This is an ongoing dilemma – good change happens from within, it’s internally led, the client ‘owns’ it, is seen to lead it and a decent consultant empowers the client team to do so.

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This empowering can take many forms, but generally speaking it is about helping. Strategically, it’s about helping an organisation understand the nature and demands of the change they are proposing, ensuring that what they are proposing supports their overall business strategy, and helping them develop a change approach that will work with their organisational culture and circumstance to deliver the results they are expecting.

At an operational level, it’s about helping them plan their way forward – across people, process and systems – in a way that leaves them feeling confident that they have a plan they can lead and implement, usually with a  high level of background support and guidance from the consulting team.

They don’t need to feel 100% confident, just confident enough to trust that there’s a practical way to drive and support their people through the changes and that their consultant will support them with tools and know-how at each step.

There are a few warning signs for the form of change management that’s not empowering and supporting you for the longer term.

Here are a few things to lookout for:

  • Swarming – if your external change-management team looks or feels like a swarm of doers instead of a few high-value helpers, they’ll probably do everything for you, which may sound great, but your own team is unlikely to own, lead or learn through the experience and you won’t be building long-term capability.
  • Ink-suckers – if you’re reviewing a lot of ink-sucking power point presentations or ‘decks’ with great graphics, sanity check the value of these. These can be powerful visualisation, explanatory, communication, collaboration and decision-making tools, but they can also consume a lot of ‘time and materials’, so let your consultants know if these are feeling a bit over produced. Change is about talking, collaborating, co-designing, engaging, communicating, listening, learning, adapting, accommodating, supporting, enabling. Very few of these things happen on paper. Some do, as a record of agreements, but change is in the doing, not the drawing.
  • Rock stars – unless they are your own staff. Ideally your leaders are recognised as the change gurus, well-supported from behind the scenes with guidance, tools, templates, schedules, specialist support when they need it.
  • The tool and template trap – don’t let available or proprietary tools and templates drive your approach. Let your leaders’ thinking and understanding of the organisation and its people drive your change, and then select or create any tools or templates that will help you. If you go straight to tools or templates, you’re skipping the thinking part.

Don’t get me wrong, I love change management. I think it’s important because when it’s done well, organisations grow, but if it’s done badly, people hurt unnecessarily.

I started managing change before change management was a recognised discipline in Australia. I’m going back to my first change role, in 2005 and because there were no ‘change managers’ on the market, I had to use a federated model, where I worked with about 12 branch heads who as part of their leadership role, had to drive and manage the change within their own teams.

I co-developed a shared plan with them, and then coordinated their efforts to ensure we took an integrated approach across the organisation, but they designed the solutions, and led the work – in 2005 they saw that as a core part of their leadership role.

About five years later, change management started to take hold as a discipline, with textbooks, adapted theories (think the Kubler Ross Grief cycle), models and accreditations.

It became something that you could outsource. But you can’t really outsource it, not when it’s about helping your own people understand why they need to follow you as their leader into change, and how they can adjust their ways of working to best support your organisational strategy.

It’s also not very logical to separate ‘change management’ from ‘management’, when organisations today need to treat change, evolution, adaptation, as the norm.

My expectation at this point – around 2010 – was that over a relatively short time, managing change would return to being an integral part of every leader and manager’s role. I thought that anyone who had engaged consultants to help them manage a significant change program would see how it works and feel and be upskilled enough to manage their own change the next time around. Eventually it would be a transferred skill, making the outsourced change manager redundant and we’d all move onto the next interesting thing out of the US methodology mill.

Fast forward to 2020 and change management is still big industry – around the world.

So how do you make the most of this situation – and bring ‘change management’ back into core-business ‘management’?

Here are my thoughts: if you are thinking about outsourcing your change management, rethink and find consultants – and there are several – who will help you insource instead, by helping you to do what needs to be done, through coaching and support, working with your own leaders and managers to:

  • co-develop the change strategy, design, and plan what’s best suited to your culture and circumstances, so that it’s internally owned, understood and fitted;
  • engage all stakeholders in multiple ways to build collective ownership and dispersed roles at all levels, in supporting and driving the change;
  • communicate effectively – then do it again and again. Don’t take short cuts here. It’s important and your internal team is probably very willing and able to do so; and
  • provide the oversight, guidance, structure, process, and tools they need, but empowering rather than replacing them in managing the change.

So if you’ve just been through a change process with consultants – introducing new ICT, moving to a new organisational structure, streamlining your processes, realigning your culture, etc. – spend a moment to determine where on the scale of ‘swarm to support’ your change managers operated.

If you think you did it all by yourself, despite some helpful people in the background, you’ll be at the high end of support – be happy, knowing that you had a good consulting team behind you. If you felt a bit more of a swarm, with a few ink-suckers – now you know you can do it differently next time.


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Chris Johnson
Managing Editor

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