Complex Change Management | OTM
20th February 2022

Complex Change Needs More than Change Management

10 minute read
Takeaway: Readiness is a particularly well-suited change strategy when confronting complex change. The immediate benefit is that you’ll stop setting unreasonable expectations for complex change management.

Complex Change Management

If complex change management is what you need, change management, as you likely understand it, is not your solution. It will not lead to commitment, and it will not lead to readiness. This is in large part because of the mindset used in the traditional management of change. It positions people as objects that the organization must change. Push-oriented change management often creates resistance.

There is an alternative. It is an approach that positions your people as the subject of change, which allows people to change themselves. This article argues that only the latter view is sufficiently powerful and suitable to succeed in bringing complex change in your organization.

The most productive single thing you can do is to stop believing you can change people. Consider traditional change management as a remedial activity. It is intended to remedy the fact that the people impacted by the change had no choice or voice in the process. By making this mindset shift, you’re taking a significant step forward in your ability to lead successful, complex, transformational change in your organization. You are shifting your view of leadership from telling to convening.

Built to Control, Not to Change

All traditional change management models share one thing in common. Their objective is to change people to conform to a different reality. It is an intentional use of formal power, however benevolently discharged. The decision to change, what the change will look like, and what the change will require from others is made elsewhere. Complex change management is then applied reactively to structure programs of short, sharp tactics comprised of persuasive communication, training, and compliance mechanisms pushed onto a target population.

These models take a narrow view of change. Some are constructed to follow the stages of commitment, but that’s rarely achieved. Since someone else defined the change, it is difficult for change agents to build commitment using remedial methods. Worse still, these models for managing complex change make leaders believe that significant change is easy to delegate, quick, and inexpensive. “Just follow these five steps.”

Traditional change management is best suited for simple changes or cultures that accept top-down, chain-of-command control. The process has three steps that are easily adaptable.

  1. Identify the rational reasons for change.
  2. Ensure people have the knowledge and ability to enact the change.
  3. Design reinforcements for the change.

This is a rational approach of institutionalized change. Perhaps the heart of the organization follows obediently, but it likely isn’t committed to the change.

Missing Elements of Change

Change is a process, not a product. The people who design the change are the ones who take the journey. They are the ones who have concluded the current state is not sustainable. They are the ones who define the foundations of vision and the detail needed to achieve it. This explains why change efforts frequently fall short of their intended impact or fail the sustainability test. Change that is defined, packaged, and sold to others as a product misses the point that process serves a purpose. That purpose is to provide the time and context for people to participate in the change journey.

A critical mass of horizontal leaders is vital. A basic assumption of work-life is that a line worker will take operating cues from their manager. The same is true all the way up the hierarchy. Some will recognize this as the chain of sponsorship. The horizontal alignment of leaders, who are genuinely committed to the change, facilitates change throughout the organization. Without this distributed commitment, the change message is inconsistent and will promote pockets of overt or covert resistance.

Complex change management

Change is expensive, and you will pay for it one way or another. If you prefer to pay later, you are making resistance payments.


The Pull of Change Readiness

As Paul Tolchinsky says, people support what they help create. The prescription for effective complex change is deceptively simple. It’s one we all intuitively understand. I am willing to change myself if I have a choice and voice in the process. And if it is not me directly, then it’s someone I respect and who understands my life space at work. Acting on this idea requires leaders to reassess their role in change. There is a shift away from defining the change and selling it to others to convening the organization in the process of change.

Change readiness is a commitment-based, pay now strategy. It’s important to remember that the choice isn’t between paying now and not paying. Let me reiterate that there is always a cost associated with change. Choosing to pay now achieves faster overall change that is sustainable and based on head and heart commitment. The initial price is high, but the resistance and maintenance payments are low.

The fundamental difference between change readiness and complex change management lies in the leadership’s mindset and methods. Change readiness still requires all affected parties to understand the need for change. One way or another, this involves communication. If people are asked to perform different tasks, training is required. Because of these similarities, many will claim there is no difference between complex change management and change readiness. These are the people who want to sell you change management as a quick solution. They will gladly leave you to not only pay now but also pay later.

Your People are the Solution

Resistance and loss of the familiar walk hand in hand. Complex change management that pushes the unfamiliar into an organization is the cause of resistance. It injects uncertainty, imminent changes in social relationships, status changes, and to some, a profound sense of unfairness—a maelstrom of emotion. After creating the situation themselves through a top-down approach, leaders often then blame the people when change fails.



Start your leadership transformation by changing your perspective. What you see as resistance isn’t a people problem; it’s a process problem. Your people, properly involved, are the solution to effectively implementing change. Recognize that there is an alternative to change management—it’s change readiness. Readiness is a particularly well-suited change strategy when confronting complex change. The immediate benefit is that you’ll stop setting unreasonable expectations for change management. Instead of being surprised by the failure to achieve change, you’ll be impressed with the changes that occur within your organization.

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Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK.

OTM is the leading global boutique organization design consultancy with offices in the USA and UK. With over 450 successful redesigns and operating model modernizations completed, OTM is owner of the industry’s most integrated, comprehensive and holistic organization design solution. OTM enables its clients to realize their future ambitions.

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