On Organizational Change Management, What It Is & Why It’s Important

Written by: Barbara Palmer

“Organizational change management (OCM) is a discipline that enables organizations and individuals to become more resilient and effective in times of disruptive change and transition, as well as more consistent in their ability to build and sustain productive work environments”, says Barb Palmer, Change Management Specialist.

Palmer is one of eight AMSG employees supporting the Employee Education Services organization, now merging with another internal department under the leadership of a new Chief Learning Officer, within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Health Administration (VHA). She joined the VHA team to expand and implement the communications and change management activities that will underpin and accelerate acceptance, adoption, and goal realization.

With decades of experience as a change management practitioner and organizational development consultant, Barb explains why change management is important, the tools needed to manage the process, best practices for implementing change, and how she stumbled into this space after her boss tapped her to lead a team and initiate her then firm’s first-ever venture into organizational change management. Read her interview below.


AMSG: What is organizational change management? 

BP: Fundamentally, organizational change management (OCM) is nothing more than a discipline that enables organizations and individuals to become more resilient and effective in times of disruptive change and transition, as well as more consistent in their ability to build and sustain productive work environments.

AMSG: Describe the change management process.

BP: Every effective change management program contains five basic process components: 1) an overarching communications strategy and plan, supported by 2) an ongoing assessment process, 3) a sponsor/leadership engagement and development process, 4) a stakeholder engagement and training process, and 5) a resistance management process.

AMSG: What tools are needed to manage the process?

BP: A solid project plan is the essential foundation. Additionally, tools are required to assess the organization’s change history, current “change load”, resilience and change capabilities (leadership and employee), as well as its clarity about change objectives, expectations about the transition process, and identification of success indicators/metrics. Diagnostic tools are also employed to identify project/implementation risks, potential organizational obstacles, and anticipated employee/stakeholder resistance. Beyond the use of tools, there also needs to be a process for utilizing every available communication mechanism and channel to reach and engage impacted employees in the change process with “what’s in it for me” messaging and to provide the knowledge and support needed to help them from current state (status quo) to desired state (realization of a new way of doing business).

AMSG: What are best practices for implementing change management?

BP: Let me answer that by making a distinction between “best practice methodologies” and “best practice capabilities” for organizational change management. In terms of methodologies, there are now many popular change management models and well-known providers in this space, including Kotter, Prosci, and Conner Partners to name a few. All offer tools and guidance that can provide solid change and transition support to organizations of every size, type, and industry. Because the VHA has broadly adopted the Prosci methodology with its Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement (ADKAR) framework and supporting tools, we are using this framework in our engagement.

Beyond these popular, conventional frameworks and approaches there is a best practice that is still frequently missing in change management consulting, but critically important. It is an understanding of organizational culture and its impact on every aspect of change management from producing and delivering communications to understanding and managing leadership expectations to recognizing and reinforcing strategic priorities. The integration of cultural context in an OCM delivery dramatically enhances change management effectiveness. It is my hope that organizational culture awareness and integration will emerge as a key component in the future evolution of the change management discipline.

As for “best practice capabilities”, success factors for change management come down to the core consulting skills of patience, listening, flexibility and resilience, respect for the inherent gifts, wisdom and capabilities in others, and a strong service orientation. In my humble opinion, any change management methodology can be effective when employed by individuals possessing these capabilities.

AMSG: Why is change management important and why do organizations need it?

BP: Historically the vast majority of organizations attempting significant change initiatives such as reengineering, ERP adoption, and mergers have failed to fully achieve their desired objectives. Unfortunately, this is still the case, with many organizations continuing to fail miserably despite extensive planning, solid strategic objectives, and extraordinary budget and time investments.

Research indicates that the main reason for these failures can be traced directly to the failure, or absence, of “change management.” These organizations expend tremendous energy on the development of the right strategies, products, services, structures, and tasks, but grossly underestimate, or ignore, the need for the equal or greater requirement to support the people who need to change and keep on changing if the organization is to realize its desired goals. To be even more specific, clients usually fail to consider, engage, support, or hold accountable the leaders, managers, and direct supervisors who are absolutely critical to the successful achievement of every organizational change. In change management lingo these are change “sponsors” and they are most often the weak link that hinders or prevents the workforce from moving through the transition process successfully.

Because change management addresses our understandable human need for support and inclusion in responding to the changes we experience in the workplace, the provision of its structured “people plan” and ongoing advocacy process can make all the difference between failure and success. OCM provides the constant reminder that “organizations and cultures don’t change, people do.”

AMSG: How did you get started as a Change Management Specialist? What drew you to this career?

BP: I would say that most of my career moves were “accidental” (perhaps, serendipitous)! My entry into the field of change management was no exception. I was working as a consultant for an international outplacement firm, when its leadership decided to expand their business by adding a Change and Transition Management practice.

Unbeknownst to me, they were actively promoting this concept with clients and, much to their surprise, landed a significant contract with a major client before they anticipated it happening. The contract called for a change management component to be provided in tandem with a major reengineering effort the medical center was just kicking off with another consulting firm. The client hired my firm for this because they did not want to experience undesired staff turnover, employee disengagement, or a loss of high-quality care as they moved through the organizational restructuring and process changes, and they didn’t trust that the reengineering firm they had hired could deliver on those “softer”, people-oriented objectives.

So, after signing the contract to deliver transition management support, my boss asked me to head up a team and initiate the firm’s first-ever venture into the “change management space” starting the very next week! And that began my mad scramble to learn everything I could about this emerging discipline. (Yep, I actually came into this field decades ago when change management was still in its infancy!) So, with no plan or intention on my part, I kick-started my new career and the firm’s change and transition practice while simultaneously building and flying that plane, running the project, training the team, and delivering on our promised change management commitments. No doubt many of you reading this story can share a similar learn-as-you-deliver experience!

Thankfully I can report that, at the close of our nine-month engagement, the client cited our change management component as the factor that had made its reengineering program a success. One project under my belt and I was “hooked on change management.” The adventure of growing and evolving as a change management practitioner and organizational development consultant with a wide range of clients has continued ever since that first experience.

AMSG: What do you enjoy most about your career as a change management specialist?

BP: I love the ability to help clients and stakeholders as they navigate the uncertain waters of a changing workplace. While human beings are beautifully designed for change and it is a natural part of our lives, we generally don’t handle significant, disruptive changes very well, especially in the workplace. I believe research indicates that less than 25% of the overall population would claim to enjoy change, even when it is of their own choosing! (It should come as no surprise that I happen to be in that minority and actually thrive on change!) So, in my CM role I get to help others view change as a natural and normal process, reframe their reactions to it, find personal opportunities and benefits in the chaotic transition experience, and experience less angst throughout the change journey. How cool is that?

Side note: I generally don’t get to stay with a client all the way to the project’s conclusion and see the end when organizational outcomes are achieved, but I do get to hear individuals say along the way that they have gained new perspectives, experienced less fear and anxiety, moved through obstacles and resistance that had them stuck, and grown personally and professionally as a result of my contributions to the process. As you can imagine, that is super satisfying.