Managing Change: From Theory to Effective Implementation

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Image reads: Managing Change: From Theory to Effective Implementation: An interview with Professor James McCalman by Cameron Conaway

Organizational resiliency. Change management. Self-disruption. Digital transformation. If shortening S&P 500 lifespans and an increasingly global economy weren’t enough to do it, the COVID-19 pandemic gave all of the terms around managing change perhaps a greater sense of urgency than ever before.

The result? The discipline and practice of change management is preeminent and beginning to embed itself throughout the organization. Some enterprises even have dedicated, formal change agents whose job is to listen for external shifts so they can more quickly surface ideas for necessary internal changes.

Today’s senior business leaders are realizing that it’s no longer enough to brush up on the change management fundamentals when they happen to have a project in mind. Managing change is now seen as a prerequisite continuous process, and whoever does it best is more likely to proactively get ahead of industry shifts and ultimately stave off competitive threats.

But managing change isn’t easy. And it’s made more difficult because, in their search for trusted change management information, many students, practitioners, and change managers run into either heavily-biased content from change management consultancies or heavy-on-theory academic papers and textbooks. Both, of course, have value, but cutting through the noise can be a challenge — especially for busy professionals who feel a profound sense of urgency.

I’ve worked through many of the leading change management textbooks out there, and one certainly stands out. Although it was published in 2015, Change Management: A Guide to Effective Implementation (SAGE Publications) by James McCalman, Robert Paton, and Sabina Siebert feels even more relevant and practical today than when it was published.

The book does a fantastic job of offering clear prose and real-world case studies — many of which offer insights that leaders can lift and shift and then tweak to fit their particular industry, environment, and change context. The book draws heavily on organizational development, culture, and change management research, including some going back decades. Still, unlike other textbooks, it highlights only the most critical points those managing change should know so they have the building blocks they need, for example, to understand how cultures are formed.

Of the book, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Professor Anne M.J. Smith said: “In a dynamic and unpredictable world, this text writes the roadmap for managing change.”

“Roadmap” isn’t exactly a term often used to describe change management textbooks. Despite the many change management models out there, many change managers struggle with the herculean task of trying to lasso the essential elements of their change project so they can use the framework as a kind of scaffolding to build upon.

The book’s Foreword, by Christopher Rodrigues, the former chairman of VisitBritain, lays out the fundamental imperative of change and provides a glimpse into the kind of straightforward language used to drive home the importance of managing change:

“We live in a world full of change. The ability to lead change even became a platform on which the 2012 US Presidential Election was fought. Mastering change management is a key skill for the twenty-first century and living with change is a key survival skill.”

Professor James McCalman heads up MBA Programmes at the University of Portsmouth. Before that he served as the Chief Executive at the Windsor Leadership Trust based in the Queen’s royal residence at Windsor Castle near London, England, and he was also Managing Director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

Professor McCalman offered to answer a few questions for us about the book and his career as a change leader.

CC: Professor McCalman, deepest bows to you for taking some time for us here. First, as we have many early-stage change managers as readers, can you walk us through your journey as a change management researcher and practitioner — perhaps starting even before your research papers in the 1980s?

JM: I kind of like to describe myself as a recovering academic! Throughout my career, I have had the enviable knack of knowing when to move on. Some would say that’s luck, and I would tend to go along with that, but you make your own luck and that’s about understanding when your own change project and journey is coming to an end and working out what’s available for you within the organization or beginning to look elsewhere.

I’m a Scot and we notoriously have a low threshold for boredom and BS. Academic life contains strong elements of both, and I always wanted to see what life was like elsewhere, over the horizon. Chris Argyris made the argument that the older or the longer you are in an organization the more frustrating you find bureaucratic structures. That is certainly true of university organizations and that led me to want to experiment with ideas of change and management and leadership elsewhere. I’ve been lucky that I have been able to move quite easily.

My journey is also one which epitomizes the last 30 years in the sense that people don’t stay in the same organization for very long anymore. When I graduated I so wanted to be an academic because I loved the idea of teaching and research. That’s how my interest in change was piqued. I was lucky to have two really good professors as mentors who exposed me very early on in my career to Executive MBAs – part-time, practicing managers – who would attend the University of Glasgow in the evenings and on Saturday mornings. To say this was a tough gig would be putting it mildly and woe betide the Academic that was unprepared, didn’t know their stuff or was unwilling to defend themselves vigorously in the classroom – they would eat you alive! However, they always had great war stories and the common theme that I and others saw developing was the growing significance of how one manages change.

As a young academic you can get drawn into the system and that didn’t hold an attraction for me. I wanted to experiment or try out my own change management and leadership skills which led to ever more senior positions. I’ve done so in the IT sector, healthcare, the arts and in a charity, and also interspersed these with academic positions elsewhere, mostly as MBA Director.

CC: From the early days of organizational development (OD) through to today’s change management, what shifts have you seen both in academic research and in how business leaders are managing change? And an add-on to that, where do you see the field and these shifts in, say, 2030?

JM: The thing that strikes you about change is that back in the 1990s it was one issue amongst many that managers had to cope with. Now, it seems to me, it’s the only issue.

There is a sense that we have academically manufactured this to create a marketplace, publish or die so to speak, but there is also a reflection here of the speed, complexity, and pervasiveness of change in organizations. Change crosses numerous spectrums nowadays and there is a strong notion that we don’t have a handle on it. Well, maybe that’s not truly right. What I mean is that we still seem to see change in highly mechanistic, rational, linear ways rather than focusing in on what the problem is – trying to solve that and assessing what the knock-on effects are likely to be. Look at the response to the Covid-19 pandemic in both the UK and the US. We have been blown away by this because we have attempted to see it as a critical problem that needs some command leadership and some management applications.

So, you have Boris Johnson (BoJo as he is lovingly referred as) and Donald Trump trying to model Eisenhower/Churchillian figures when what was needed was a more sensitive, acutely aware form of leadership that recognised that they didn’t have all the answers. The novel Coronavirus is a wicked problem, and you don’t solve wicked problems with tame, managerial solutions; you need to nurture clumsy solutions which brings people and resources together from a range of expertise bases – science, healthcare, public service, pharmaceuticals, and other private sector organizations to work collaboratively at stitching together change solutions.

In terms of where change as a subject goes in the next 10 years – who knows? I’d like to see some kind of counterbalance take place in the sense that we’ve overdone change leadership and under-cooked change management.

Everyone wants to be a leader today and nobody actually wants to manage anything – you know get the job done! What I have found out is that leadership, management and change are intertwined. Leadership comes from within and Good Leadership, if it is anything, is Leadership for Good. That is to say, leaders need to surpass themselves and their organizations and see the ethical and societal responsibility they hold. Leaders need something to stand for; something others can believe in. Similarly, the best leaders are mentors, they understand their nurturing and development role. So, leaders can be part of the solution of where we as a society progress to. However, many in our current crop of leaders are egoist and mired in their own self-importance and self-indulgence. In that sense, they are the problem, and it is not until we demand more from our leaders as custodians that we will truly get the leaders we deserve. That’s true in any walk of life.

In terms of management, a paper in the Journal of Management titled The Dark Side of Visionary Leadership in Strategy Implementation: Strategic Alignment, Strategic Consensus, and Commitment diagnoses lack of commitment at middle or lower levels of the organization as a key reason for failure to implement strategy.

The role of the middle manager is typically seen as less than senior executives when planning transformational change, yet the middle manager is often left with the task of communicating, explaining, and clarifying the change strategy sometimes without a sense of ownership – while attempting to avoid any misinterpretation or internal incoherence, or accidentally creating a conflicting paradigm.

The role of the manager as a stakeholder in the process is often seen as merely the implementer, and yet their role as change agent will continue to increase in importance as organizations become increasingly complex, even when senior management has already laid down a strategic direction for the business to follow. The manager as change agent involves multiple roles in including acting as champions of change issues, making sense of strategy, being the adapters and interpreters of strategy, and as local leaders – embodying change at a local level. They add context and perspective to how vision and strategy is communicated by senior management.

What I can also say is that the publication business as we know it is dead and gone! We’ll do a 5th edition of the book but selling hard copies won’t be our raison d’être or route to market. What we need to get our heads around is how do we help people learn how to deal with change in a different way than before.

CC: The book, published in 2015, states that: “Today, organizations throughout the world face unprecedented economic drivers for change. These change drivers are forceful beyond any recent historical precedent.” Later in the book, you even mentioned issues of global health, such as the spread of bird flu. What were you and your co-authors seeing back then, and can you give us your perspective on how the last five years have changed and/or intensified some of these drivers?

JM: I just think we saw trends before any others. Well, that’s not strictly true either – we weren’t the only ones. It didn’t take too much brain power to see that Bird Flu was only going to be the first. What I have found surprising in talking with the Heads of Pharma companies for example, is how unprepared they were! Environmental scanning should have had this one on their radar far quicker and their response times haven’t really been what one might have expected.

The last five years have shown three major trends which we really need to debate, make sense of, and establish responses to:

  1. The growth of nationalism – I find this frightening! American isolationism, BREXIT, the creeping imperialism of China and the shenanigans of Russia all point to a world turning in on its own borders. Covid-19 is a classic example of how we don’t talk anymore!
  2. The impact of changed work-life patterns as a result of the pandemic. We have become Zoom societies and that can’t be good for managers especially trying to manage organizational change remotely. We need to understand the interpersonal management of home working more.
  3. The cults of time and celebrity – emphasizing the idea that social media is the only way yet failing to understand how it closes debate and stifles change. And this also relates to how we are time insensitive. Change projects nowadays are measured in weeks rather than months. As a result, there is less time to think and plan and rushed decisions result.

CC: You write that “successful change requires adherence to three key managerial rules.” These rules are: maintaining your focus, maintaining your awareness, and maintaining your goal. Can you talk a bit about how you came to these three rules, and what particular challenges today’s change managers are having with them?

JM: These came from making sense of what our management students working in organizations were reflecting back to us. I would argue that they are just as relevant today. In terms of challenges, the changing environment that we now find ourselves in requires us to look for continuous improvement rather than breakthrough, one-off changes. The management idea of ‘continuing change’ is now more significant than the management of discrete projects, and that change is increasingly driven by external factors which local senior management have little or no control over.

CC: Managing change effectively across a clearly-defined topic — an organization shifting its sales focus from B2B to B2C for example — is challenging but at least feels like there are clearly-defined barriers (even if those barriers eventually break down). But what advice would you have for change agents who are brought in to implement change across an organization’s culture? How can they make real the elements of culture that often feel abstract?

JM: You never change culture overnight! And anyway, whose culture? Organizations are a conglomeration of sub-cultures, tribes if you want, and it’s a fatal managerial mistake to think that they own culture and can therefore make changes to it. It’s perhaps better to focus in on changing what you see as not working and by that process begin to elucidate the behaviors that are valued. That slowly changes culture. I am always suspicious of anyone who claims they can change the culture of an organization – the world is full of snake oil salesmen!

CC: You provide quite a few change management case studies throughout the book. What examples of successful change management have you been part of or otherwise learned about since the book’s publication?

JM: Way too many to talk about here but the one I’m most proud of is being Chief Executive of Windsor Leadership Trust, and working on how it tries to get leaders to reflect on how they lead more ethically and responsibly. And all from the comfort of Windsor Castle! My successor has also done some pretty amazing things there too in advancing gender leadership issues in particular.

CC: Your latest research has focused on corporate governance and compliance in the financial services sector. What particular regulatory challenges in this sector have you explored, and what elements do you see as especially important for implementing effective change in financial services enterprises?

JM: The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and the Covid-19 pandemic have pointed out the necessity for Boards of Company Directors to ensure effective and timely risk management processes and procedures. The GFC left us ‘shell shocked’ from the fall out of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US. Financial systems around the world were on the verge of a meltdown. As a result, the G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance developed in 2015 placed risk management into a core aspect of good governance and a key function of the board of directors.

Notions of ‘Grey Rhino’ and ‘Black Swan’ events became familiar terms used by boards when discussing risk. By 2019, world economic growth and the expansion of international commerce showed signs that the financial crisis had abated almost entirely.

What escaped many people’s minds is that the requirements and expectations of risk management are embedded in company law. In the US, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and in the UK, section 174 of the Companies Act 2006, set out the legal duty of directors to exercise reasonable care, skill, and diligence. Directors are legally required at the minimum to monitor the affairs of their companies including the possible and known risks.

Another source is the UK Corporate Governance Code by the Financial Reporting Council where boards should monitor the company’s risk management, carry out a review of its effectiveness, and report on that review in the company’s annual report. However, there is no prescription as how boards and directors go about managing a company’s risk. This is where leadership is an important factor to bring about effective risk management.

With a few notable exceptions there are very few case studies of what caused the GFC.

One thing which is apparent when looking at leadership and leaders in particular is that they are very much seen as an elite group. This allows them to identify the importance of themselves (leaders) and their own legitimation – we can see this also in the political field. It would therefore make sense to look for movement towards ethical leadership in three realms:

  1. who they are;
  2. what they do and for whom; and,
  3. how they are accepted.

This reflects a current and continuing distrust of leaders. Why does this occur? Well, simply put, there are lots of elements which enhance mistrust and very little behaviour which encourages our belief that leaders act with integrity and ethics.

The ‘big’ questions of leadership are consciously and deliberately ignored by ‘small’ research. By this I mean that we have failed to investigate seriously what were the leadership causes of the economic crash. This failure to explore what went wrong in leadership terms encourages platitudes of change. Why does this occur? Well, one major aspect is that there is a bias in academic journals, which is skewing leadership research towards ever-decreasing levels of content analysis.

This prevents us from asking the ‘big’ research questions. By this I mean to suggest that if we wish to research ethical leadership, we need to concern ourselves with how leaders in major organizations deal with ‘big’ ethical questions. Until more explicit, narrative-based, processual-contextual approaches are developed these notions will remain too vague to be useful in leadership development terms.

My research in this area has led to some recommendations of my own. These may help us demand more from our leaders.

If Leadership matters, professionalize it. If it is suitable for the medical and legal professions surely it applies to leaders elsewhere.

  1. Continuing professional development should be compulsory at boardroom level.
  2. Make leaders mentor others and work more and more often with ‘ordinary people.’ Going back to the floor works.
  3. Make executive coaching compulsory, tighten up on who can be an executive coach and provide leaders with the resources they so desperately need yet deny.
  4. Make power time-related. By this I mean that leaders should not be allowed to perpetuate ad infinitum. How many stayed too long and lost credibility accordingly?
  5. Inculcate stewardship. A leader is a person in a role. Understanding the significance of that role, the real responsibilities associated with it, and the fact that you steward your organization towards the future would go a very long way indeed in removing narcissism and engendering a more values-based future for leaders.

CC: Lastly, what’s next for your work and research around managing change? And can we expect a 5th edition of the book?

JM: Funnily enough we are currently in negotiations with the publisher SAGE over this. What we want to see is it re-imagined, adding elements such as:

  1. QR links to relevant YouTube, TED Talks, etc., that people will be able to directly access from their phones.
  2. Change from a Hollywood perspective – each chapter will highlight a particular case from the movies/TV/real world which students can explore and relate to that chapter.
  3. “Get a real-life dose of change” – segments in each chapter which explore how the ideas and models of change play out and are represented in the media and online. What messages are being ‘sold’ and how would you respond?
  4. Revised and new case studies – each chapter to contain at least one case study which explores all or some of the elements of that chapter. Each case to have key questions and answers provided at chapter end.

If that doesn’t sound like a sales pitch, I don’t know what does!


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