Yes, someone had to say it. Change management as we know it has been laid to rest. Cremated, to be more specific. We held onto this notion for far too long, that change management was essentially just some touchy-feely semblance of a communication and training plan that was a late in the game appendage to a large-scale transformation program. In life sciences, where I spend all of my time, this transformational change might be in the form of a new Commercial operating model, or a massive new digital capability, or an R&D reorganization, or even a new approach to patient access services. For our purposes though, the specific change itself doesn’t matter too much. We’ve taken the same, somewhat arcane approach to change management for the last several decades (and before that, we did even less when it came to the formal practice of change management). It’s time to rethink our approach to managing change, as what we thought mattered most, it turns out, matters so much less.

We’ve all been there. If you are a people leader, at any level in a life sciences company, you’ve surely been asked to play a leading or supporting role in making an important change happen. And while we all knew enough to include a line item on the program management plan called “Change Management” it generally consisted of a couple of lines items, usually something about “communications” and something about “training”. If you were really well-schooled, you might also have included something about preparing a “change plan” which often closely resembled a basic project timeline of key milestones and deliverables, including said communications and training. Well, the truth of the matter is, that those particular components of change management, while important, are really not major determinants of success.

So, if it’s not communications, training and change plans that matter most, why do we put so much of our change management time and emphasis there? Simply speaking, we often just don’t know any better. From my years of practical experience in managing successful (and some unsuccessful) transformational change programs in large global life science companies, as either an internal corporate executive or an external transformation consultant, there are three, major ”make or break” aspects of most large scale, change initiatives – namely, strategic fit and the case for change, an agile change design, and outcomes focused execution.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these more critical determinants of change management success:

  1. Strategic Fit & Case for Change – Too often, busy life science executives have already made up their mind that a change is required but it then falls flat because they are missing several key ingredients right from the very start. First, successful change programs generally start with an insight driven change strategy. These successful programs have an evidence base to answer the all-important questions “why should we change?” and “why change now?”. In a life science company, any truly transformational change program means formulating and articulating a change strategy that is in tight alignment with the business strategy. Too often, leaders fail to see the linkages between change in one area to their overarching business strategy, and the need to align them for strategic fit. And finally, storytelling is a powerful means of helping people to make a mindset shift due to a compelling and memorable storyline. If you can’t tell a compelling change story, with strong linkage to the overarching business strategy and goals, your people will quickly lose the plotline, and gladly return to status quo thinking and behaviors.
  2. Agile Change Design – A great transformation strategy is often just a set of nice PowerPoint slides until it is accompanied by an agile change design that considers shifts in people behaviors, new ways of working, technology and culture. So, what do we mean by an “agile” change design? Essentially, the meat of the change process requires two proven components, perfected already in other industries such as consumer products and high technology – product design thinking and agile management methods. To succeed in life science transformation, we must learn to rapidly iterate our change design from a set of often imperfect, ”minimum viable changes”, to a more optimal end state, making rapid incremental improvements over time. So, with the death of change management as we knew it, you can throw away those big, old change methodology manuals that say change requires many months or years before transformation can really happen. Instead, we must pride ourselves on making a series of “agile leaps” meant to enable more micro, productive changes to take place, even when there’s still more to do. Change becomes recognized for what it really is – an ongoing, continuously improving cycle, and no longer viewed as having a defined beginning, middle and end.
  3. Outcomes Focused Execution – When it comes to organizational change, fatigue often begins to set in once the first components of useful transformation have been put into place. We can often get wrapped around the axle at this juncture and try to “make change stick” with some good ole fashion communications and training. But those of us who dance on the grave of the old change management paradigm, know this is when we must shift the emphasis to outcomes – igniting the opportunity to win in increasingly competitive environments. So, what exactly does it take to get transformative changes to take hold in an organization? Too often, life science leaders are antsy to see a Return on Investment in a complex change program, when the first signs of success often have more to do with a different kind of ROI, namely Return on Inertia, and how we go about rewarding early adopters of new ways of working and behavior change. While change dashboards are certainly part of what we deliver during the execution phase, it’s much more important to link change success to leaders and key employee’s goals, objectives and incentives. Finally, we sometimes forget that change is all about the people, and the relationships between people. All too often we notice that the leaders who are put in charge of a change program lack the confidence or the aptitude to lead large scale transformation. Often, it isn’t a lack of training per se, but more so a need for transformation coaches, who can help keep key leaders on a clear and accountable path to success.

So, I will say it again, just to make sure you were listening – change management is dead. Sure, we can still use the “change management” moniker so that we all know what we are referring to at a macro level, but it’s what’s inside the name that will ultimately determine the fate of any attempt at transformation. While there’s no need to throw away your trusty communication plan or those informative training courses, we ultimately need to take notice of what really makes change stick. Do you have a strong alignment and supporting insights between the changes you want to make and your business strategy? Is the case for change clear and compelling, like a good story? Have you adopted design thinking and agile methods into your approach to change design to deliver rapid (yet imperfect) results sooner? And finally, are you measuring and rewarding the right outcomes for business impact, and coaching your change leaders to ensure accountability? If so, you might just be witnessing the phoenix rising from the ashes, and the rebirth of change management as we knew it.