What's the evidence for... change management?

Change management is rife with unsupported theories, so here Rob Briner examines the actual evidence.

Is it just me, or is the whole organisational change management thing a bit odd? Not because it doesn’t happen, or doesn’t need to be done, but because it’s hard to know what it is. Organisations change all the time anyway.

‘Organisational change management’ is a label we stick on some kinds of activity but not others that may actually achieve the same ends. At 9:30am we’re just ‘managing’ or ‘doing stuff’ but at 11:15am we suddenly switch to ‘change management’.

Embedded within most change management programmes is some notion of a change process or model. Search online for images of ‘organisational change models’ and you’ll find endless pretty pictures of stages and steps that are mostly completely unsupported by research evidence.

Managing change on the basis of such misleading models is likely to cause problems – although it may provide those managing the change with a reassuring illusion of control. 

What’s the problem it aims to fix?

So what are the differences between ‘change management’ and ‘making things happen’? One is fear. Managers fear that they don’t know what they’re doing and might screw up. Employees worry about what might happen to their jobs and similarly fear that the management might screw up. 

And everyone ends up talking a lot about their fear by trying so hard not to talk about it. We reframe the fear as challenge, turn that frown upside-down and remind ourselves we have nothing to fear but fear itself – even though fearing fear can be pretty terrifying. Why does organisational change seem so scary? One reason is the baseless, though widely-repeated, claim that 70% of organisational change initiatives fail. Just how did this wild guesstimate become change management ‘fact’?

The assumption that organisational change is very likely to fail is anxiety-provoking and creates resistance that needs to be overcome – and it is hardly evidence-based. Yet such assumptions can strongly shape the perception of the ‘problem’ the change management strategy is designed to fix.

Yet another unhelpful yet popular assumption is that the world is changing much, much faster than ever before and in ways that are completely different. The current cliché du jour to describe this is VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Next time someone tells you the world is becoming more VUCA just ask them: compared to when? Compared to where? Measured how? And why does it matter? 

What is it?

Like some other HR and HR-related interventions and activities it’s quite tricky to say what change management is and is not. The Society for Human Resource Management describes it as ‘defining and adopting corporate strategies, structures, procedures and technologies to deal with changes in external conditions and the business environment’. This makes some sense but it also means that many quite different activities are part of change management. So in part it’s Change Management (with capitals) and in part the things we might do in our everyday work that help make organisational change happen. 

Does it work?

From an evidence-based perspective it’s very difficult to establish whether or not something works unless it is precisely defined and has explicit goals. Change management often has neither of these qualities.

However, a definitive review of change management research looking at many types of organisational change interventions, conducted by Eric Barends of the Center for Evidence-Based Management and colleagues, drew some very clear conclusions. In particular, it found that although there was quite a lot of evidence about change management there was almost no good quality research. This means that we simply cannot say with much confidence whether change management works.

So does this mean we shouldn’t do change management? Of course not. We must. But we need to take action knowing that there isn’t much evidence rather than pretending that there is. We should proceed by questioning popular change management models, challenging our own assumptions around the area, and being clear about what the change will achieve and how it’s going to work. And, of course, collecting good quality evidence as we go.

Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath's School of Management and a founding member of the Center for Evidence-Based Management. He was ranked third Most Influential UK Thinker in the HR Most Influential list