The ‘C’ word

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Change – we actually manage it every day, considers M Moser’s Steve Gale

To practice workplace strategy you must keep a note of the buzzwords and recycle them as they fade in and out of popularity. This is easy because they all begin with the letter C. We have had collaboration (ad nauseam), creativity (still being used, not yet on the shelf), culture (hugely popular last year, a favourite) and this year I reckon it will be change, or more likely change management (CM if you like). It has been a business school staple for decades and now it’s hot in the design industry. So let’s look at change management.    

Change is not an occasional event, most businesses are in a permanent state of flux, dealing with shifting technology, products, customers, fiscal plans and legal constraints. It’s business as usual.

This makes managing change a core business discipline, but not a new one. Wars, famine, and scientific discoveries have been the backdrop to industry forever. The difference today is that businesses are theoretically more able to adapt rather than fail. We can meet new challenges with the flexibility technology gives us. Think about the inertia of a 19th century organisation, with long term apprentices or heavy machinery, and compare it with a modern car plant with programmable robots or a tech firm that can shift its focus to suit evolving demands.

If firms are more nimble and able to adapt, it does not mean they actually do. The problem is less structural and more about attitudes and vision. Curiously, we find that there are few things as ponderous as the weightless human mind.

We can see that plenty of modern organisations need change management expertise, but why is it an active field in the world of design? Design firms rarely need it for themselves – they are not complex enough to need it and they muddle through. But their client constituency is frequently burdened with change – and a big one is very likely to be a new workplace.

Examples of workplace change that go badly are legion. I have witnessed the total collapse of a project because users didn’t buy it – and it’s not unheard of for poorly communicated plans to take many months to bed in. Gaffes like these are very expensive as well as being embarrassing and damaging to reputations. But they are avoidable risks in a project.

It is hard to be sure why change management is becoming more frequently requested by clients, but one reason is probably linked to a maturing of procurement methods in big organisations. A wider range of client-side skills are applied to the workplace, which helps employee engagement as well as brief development. More often now we see HR executives on a project team, as well as operational heads’ giving input from the outset. There is also a greater understanding of the workplace as a complex environment, more than just a shelter for people and kit. Workers often have choice, seeing the workplace as just an option, not a permanent base.

“Curiously, we find that there are few things as ponderous as the weightless human mind”

This wider view seems a reasonable approach to procuring the second most costly asset for a business.

A better understanding of the risks makes change management a key for a successful project. It might be done almost accidentally as a design is developed and discussed with the client but increasingly change management gets specified as a stand-alone discipline, so designers might partner with a CM specialist, or hire the skills and bring them inside.

But here’s an observation: Every design creates change for the host, each new project is different to what went before – so designers are managing change all the time as part of the daily grind. When things go smoothly we can say the change was managed well – and some of the credit must go to the designers who assess the flex in their client and communicate the design options for consideration and help them during occupation.

There is an argument for designers being natural and competent change managers, but they rarely claim those laurels. It’s a skill we all need – and already practice without knowing it. Maybe now is the time for designers to step up and get good at it.