10 Key Competencies for Change Managers

Although change management is founded on established theories, in too many cases initiatives fail to produce intended outcomes, and go over time and over budget. One study by Gartner Research, for example, found that of the companies surveyed 90% had experienced significant change within the past two years, but only 5% had avoided substantial disruptions and finished on time. Why do problems like these exist? Is there something wrong with change management theory? Or does the problem lie with how people perform?

In this article we examine 10 key competencies for change managers.

1. They must have proven research ability: Change management is a form of problem-solving. The best solutions to the problems are not discovered by guesswork, hunches, a ‘sixth sense’, or past experience. The stakes are far too high to trust unreliable processes. Problem analysis and solutions must be based on scientific evidence, and that means change management must be seen as a social science research exercise. Managers don’t need rigid ‘maps’ of how they work or get overly excited about the tools they have at their disposal. What they really need is a sound knowledge of how to conduct excellent research in social sciences. They need to know how to design research projects to collect sufficient, valid and reliable data; how to analyse data; how to report findings; and how to use the findings to create practical and workable solutions.

2. They must have a clear understanding of the change process: Nobody is going to do a good job if they don’t know what change is, how it works, and the theory and principles of how to manage it. Their understanding must be based on well-established research. It cannot be based on what the person ‘thinks’ change is, or on past personal experience. Change management is on shaky ground without a thorough understanding of the change process and established management principles.

3. They must be able to overcome resistance to change: It is a well-known and often lamented reality that people in organizations resist change. They do so for all kinds of reasons – and the manager must be aware of what those reasons are and how to overcome them. Failure to manage resistance sees most change initiatives ultimately fail in a slow war of attrition.

4. They must be able to identify and work with key change agents: Key change agents are people who are ready for change, and people of influence. People with readiness are unlikely to resist the change (providing it is introduced well) however, they are likely to spread positive stories about it. Those are the kind of stories you want.

5. Change managers must be able to harness the power of narratives: Stories create extremely powerful forces that can make or break change. Change managers must be able to tap into those forces and shape the kinds of stories people are telling within the organization.

6. They must be able to address cultural issues: Organizational culture is a broad concept that includes elements such as belief systems, attitudes, use of language, expectations, management styles, etc. These cultural elements must be examined to see if they are contributing to resistance, or contributing to change. The manager must know how to assess them and how to influence them, as required.

7. They must ensure organizational processes and structures support change: The processes and structures within the organization must support change for it to be successful, and it is essential the manager is aware of how these processes and structures impact the change process.

8. They must be able to use the power of organizational networks: Organizations are networked structures. Certain people are influential, and certain people have power. Change managers need to be skilled at working with different types of people. They need to be able to influence powerful and influential people so they become engaged with the change and contribute positively to the process.

9. They must have commitment for the change: Change can be tedious and exacting – most complex problem-solving exercises are. The manager must be dedicated to continually solve problems as they arise, to change tactics, and to see the process through to completion.

10. They must have realistic expectations: Change managers must be realistic about how difficult the process might be, and how long it might take. They also need to be realistic about how staff might react, and what their challenges could be.

The role of change manager is a complex and demanding one that requires a specialised skillset and extensive knowledge. The list of competencies listed here is by no means exhaustive. If the manager is not up to the task change can become very expensive, very disruptive, and potentially toxic to the organization. Even if you have skilled and experienced internal change managers, there are advantages to securing help from outside. External change managers provide an objective view and not caught up in organizational politics.

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