This is the first entry in my Change Management Contrarian series, which raises challenges to some of the concepts and conventional wisdom in the change management field. I believe that productive discussion starts with diverse perspectives, and hope I can stimulate some thinking and dialogue with these articles.

As I hear people articulate definitions and descriptions of Change Management, I often hear a phrase that jars my brain every time—“Change Management begins after the decision is made.” WHAT?? While I know that not everyone in the field would agree with that statement, I hear it often enough in “official” definitions and descriptions that it is clearly a core assumption made by a large portion of people who identify as CM professionals.

Here are three reasons I believe this is a really bad idea, not to mention an ineffective way to describe what we do:

1. It puts us in “selling” mode rather than “engaging” mode.

I have stolen a quote from David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve university who is a thought leader in the Appreciative Inquiry and organizational change arena: “Communication for buy-in is the worst idea ever.” His point is that most change decisions are made by a small group of people who do a lot of great thinking and come up with a brilliant solution, and then they need to figure out how to explain their brilliance to those who weren’t in the room. This is essentially a sales job—convincing people that this new solution is the right thing for them. If we took the same amount of energy required to “market” a new approach to the organization, and used it instead to convene participants and engage them in creative thinking, design thinking, brainstorming, and other ways of including their voices in the process of defining the change, we could take advantage of the sense of ownership created by participation in the process and be much farther down the road to acceptance once the decision about how to move forward is made.

2. It reinforces a culture of top-down decision-making.

It is very easy for people to get into an “us” vs “them mentality in organizational settings. “They” (the people in power) make the decisions and “we” have to do what they say. This is a recipe for disengagement, cynicism, and apathy. As organizations seek to increase engagement and foster diversity and inclusion, effective leaders typically seek to increase collaboration and open themselves up to influences and perspectives from across the organizational network. When the change management function positions itself as a receiver and executor of decisions, rather than also as a a source of expertise and guidance on open and effective decision-making processes that invite a rich range of perspectives into the discussion as decisions are being made, we become enablers of “old-school,” top-down mindsets.

3. It positions CM as a tactical function.

In my experience, the decisions that can be made and handed off for execution are primarily “transitional” changes that have a clearly defined end state. As we move into the realm of transformational change, the process is much more exploratory and iterative—taking a step, gathering information, taking another step, learning from the experience, piloting and testing ways of operating, etc. If we are waiting for decision clarity and clear guidance before beginning CM work, we will forever be seen as too linear and tactical for real strategic change work. Even when the organization is engaging in more transitional changes, having a seat at the table while decisions are being made allows us to help decision-makers anticipate issues and concerns related to human impact and potential responses, and take them into account in the decision-making process.

A Better Way to Frame Our Work?

I do understand that we need to be able to differentiate CM from strategic planning, project management, providing guidance about specific solutions or technologies, and other adjacent but different functions. At the same time, we need a better way to think about how our expertise can be applied in meaningful ways as decisions are being made, so that the benefits of those decisions can be optimized and fully realized.

My proposal here rests on the distinction between the “desired state,” which is the future we intend to create, and the “solution,” which is the specific approach we will take to getting us there. I’ll say more about this in a future article, because I think we ignore this distinction far too often. I would like to suggest that our work starts when a desired state has been defined—that is, we have an image of a desired future we would like to move toward. (I do think many of us also have skill in facilitating discussions to create clarity around the desired future, but that’s also a topic for another time.)

The space between the desired state and the decision about how to move toward it is rich with possibilities. This is where we can help leaders understand how to listen, how to identify the voices that need to be brought into the discussion, how to engage in iterative and agile approaches to transition, and how to incorporate an understanding of human responses to change in making decisions that can be implemented effectively. This involves a broader set of skills than executing decisions that have already been made, but it’s also a heck of a lot more fun and interesting.