I had two discussions yesterday about Organizational Change Management, or OCM. It was during the second that I realized the person I was talking with was using the same words as me, but with different meanings. I realized those different meanings began with a different premise. Now I’m wondering if that’s a common situation with OCM. So I’ll throw my thinking out there for your consideration and comment.

The folks I was talking with saw OCM as something done to make a painful plan for major changes happen with less chaos. I was using OCM as a synonym for engaging the organization to succeed in a changing environment.

As background, OCM traces its roots to grief studies conducted in the ’60’s where researchers concluded that dealing with death and workplace changes were a lot alike. With that inauspicious beginning OCM was developed to help folks gain buy-in for big changes and to make those changes without creating a major disruption in the companies outputs. 

Usually this change was, or is, in reaction to decision around a merger, restructuring, layoffs, or the implementation of new technology. And by “folks” I mean rank and file employees and low to mid-level managers, and by “decision” I mean one not made by the “folks.”

OCM tools include surveys, fact finding workshops, building burning platforms, internal marketing, training around new workflows, progress metrics, carrots and sticks, and often even a Resistance Management sub-plan. 

Other times OCM programs are launched when an organization is seen to be broken or deficient in some way. Usually consultants (think the Bobs in Office Space) are brought in to get things back on track.  In other words, difficult parts of leadership and management are outsourced as OCM. I’ve been heard to complain that OCM is often used as a BandAid for poor leadership. A little harsh maybe, but with an element of truth.

I know how my OCM ideas diverged from the mainstream: I started doing OCM fifteen years ago as damage control for a consulting group’s big IT projects. I was asked to quickly create an OCM capability as projects were blowing up and people, including us, were getting fired. So I took a few days to read a bunch of OCM books, built some PowerPoint decks around what I thought to be core concepts and practices, created a team, and just started doing OCM. We were experienced consultants using a mishmash of concepts but the projects quit blowing up, even when we were thrown into situations where major restructuring was already underway. That was a big win.

But as a process focused person, I couldn’t stop analyzing the differences between OCM projects that worked only for the time it took us to finish our IT work and the ones that ran long afterwards through other difficult changes. And I’ve kept doing that with every project I’ve worked on since. I've also spent years studying leadership, persuasion, and engagement - more about the “why?” as the “what?” and “how?” no longer seemed enough to me.

As a result, how I see OCM as working best has changed a lot and will probably change some more. Which is good because I think I’ve lost all those old PowerPoint decks.

For starters, I don’t see OCM as a BandAid, rather an essential vitamin. When I say OCM today I’m talking about the mindset and tools that enable an organization to evolve and to grow its impact. 

I no longer see OCM as a crisis event (ok, maybe once.) Rather I see it as a key a priori component of the “Plan” and “Process” which should both be dynamic and responsive to the environment and opportunities. Meaning OCM has to be responsive too. 

And in a changing environment with changing Plans and Processes, it becomes Organizational Change Management’s somewhat ironic job to provide stability for culture and a foundation for management. Which could be another post by itself.

I’ll end by suggesting that the very best OCM works backward from the client and mission. Everyone should be involved in ideation around the why, what, and how of better serving clients and achieving more of whatever the organization was created to do. 

Folks, and by “folks” I mean diverse (and brave) representatives from different levels and parts of the organization, some who will naturally have a shorter term focus, some longer, with different ways of processing and sharing ideas, can create a world class OCM process for themselves. Something better than in any book or “best practice.”

I believe this kind of upfront engagement in OCM will beat after-the-fact manipulation and buy-in attempts every time.

Where do you stand on this topic? Is OCM an after-the-plan or crisis activity, or an everyday one? Is it best top-down executive/consultant dictated or when created by the organization’s most valuable assets?