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Change management skills and experience are ‘must have’ qualities for many senior jobs.

If you want to progress to the top, you’ll need to tick this box.

Job advertisers misuse the term. A advertisement using the term change management might mean a willingness to sack people.

Others use it as a nice way of describing aggressive or even bullying management. I’ve also seen it used where the recruiter meant ‘an ability to get things done’.

When an employer genuinely asks for change management skills they are looking for someone to steer a team, department or organisation through business change.

Business change

Business change takes one of two basic forms.

The first happens when an organisation decides to remake itself. This could be part of a merger, demerger or management buyout. It could be when a company changes focus. Under Lou Gerstner IBM moved from a hardware orientation to consulting services. Or when Apple switched from computers to making music players and mobile phones.

In theory this kind of change is orderly. You’d start with a master plan and make considered changes.

Any change will lie mainly within the bounds of the organisation and controlled by the organisation.

In this case change management is like looking at a map and saying to yourself ‘we’re are now at point A, what is the best route to get to point B?’ When things blow off course, you can always go back to the map and find a new course.

Change due to external forces

If only things were always so simple. The other type of change happens when external pressures drive organisations to reconfigure.

This may happen because of a new piece of legislation or government regulation.

An example might be the changes required within accounting businesses when governments introduce new tax rules. To understand how complex this can become imagine what processes might have taken place if the US government had broken up Microsoft.

Government led change may be negotiable and comes with plenty of warning.

Other external forces driving change are less predictable. For example: social upheaval, radical technological advances, economic upsets, competitor action, accidents, war and so on.

Some change is merely the rough and tumble of market forces – nobody would deny Cisco has been through periods of unforeseen change over the years.

Although there are exceptions, few companies can expect to have much influence over these external forces and even where there is an opportunity to influence external change, things might not happen the way you expect.

Types of change

It’s worth making a clear distinction between the two different ways of dealing with external change.

Usually external changes push companies into reactive responses. These can be knee-jerk responses or more measured approaches. The key is going through the change and dealing with problems as they arise. When change is sudden and unforeseen, there is no option but to react this way.

Alternatively, companies can attempt to anticipate change and prepare for it. This doesn’t necessarily need a crystal ball. All it requires is keeping well-informed. For example, agricultural companies already know the climate is changing; some will be making plans as evidence of global warming emerges.

Software developers can look at the road maps for future product development issued by companies such as Intel, Google and Microsoft. Carmakers know some jurisdictions will require zero emissions by as set date.

Role play

Multinational oil companies like BP and Shell have role-play exercises coaching executives through dummy external shocks. For example they might look at how a military coup in a major oil-producing country might affect their business. This is an important way of preparing for radical external change. It enables executives to build teams and learn how things get done when the everyday rules of business change.

Companies in other industries engage in similar speculative activities or have informal think tanks to work through various scenarios. You may apply a simplified version of some of these techniques to your own situation.

Preparation, planning and research are important keys to dealing with change in any area of activity. But no amount of planning can adequately prepare you for some events. Companies at the World Trade Centre might have had plans to deal with computer failure, or even a large-scale disaster. They may have work-shopped a whole range of ideas. I doubt if many expected the bulk of their employees to die in a single morning. Yet, companies looking at other possibilities would have had a starting point for dealing with the crisis.

You may think dealing with a terrorist attack has little to do with change management. The connection is slim. Yet, airlines faced with plummeting ticket sales and security companies faced with increased demand went through their own change management processes after the terror attacks.

Most of the change management you will need to deal with will be on a smaller scale and less dramatic. We’ll look more closely at the issues for change managers in another post.

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