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Getting the Right Change Leaders

It’s not easy leading and managing Change Programmes. In fact it’s bloody hard, because ultimately you need to aim to please all of the people all of the time. An executive who initiates and sponsors a change programme needs to look very carefully at the person they choose as their key change agent - selecting the wrong individual will doom the programme from its outset.

In software process improvement initiatives, especially in an organisation which is relatively new to the experience, an executive will often look to one of two places to find their change leader. The first is an experienced and successful technical project or programme manager. The second is the quality manager, because process improvement is considered to be a sort of quality thing. Whilst individuals in these types of role may succeed as change managers, the selection process should really be more thorough because neither of these roles naturally leads to a change management role.

Let’s look at the quality manager first of all. What I call “old school” quality managers have often moved through the ranks over a number of years until they have exhausted all potential opportunities and their experience and seniority makes them ideal candidates to run the quality team (or in some cases become the quality team). 

Quality in such organisations tends to be oriented towards compliance to standards and procedures, and highly focused on checklist based audits. Projects tolerate the quality activities, by and large, because they realise there is no escape, but they make no secret of the fact that the quality activities are a waste of their time and effort and add no value to the real work of the organisation. In this environment, adding change management to the quality manager’s responsibilities is a recipe for disaster because the key change agent is either unable or unwilling to change either themselves or their behaviour. 

The successful technical project manager is likely to perform best within their own project environment, where they have a large element of autonomy, power and control, and live in the world of the tangible. Good project managers who keep their eyes on all the balls they are juggling will often succeed, especially in a relatively stable and competent organisational environment, with good controls and balances, and senior staff who support their project managers. These project managers will often still succeed if small elements of the project or the environment destabilise, but may become vulnerable when the destabilisation is of greater magnitude. These managers are also unlikely to make the transition to become good change managers, where destabilisation is the project norm and where the intangible is the order of the day.

I believe that the best change managers are those individuals who are difficult to put into pigeon holes. They have a good understanding of project and quality management principles, they are great communicators and are personable and approachable, they have a passion and an indefatigable belief in what they are trying to achieve on behalf of the organisation. Critically, these people are able to look at their own behaviours and adapt them as necessary, they are prepared to accept when they are wrong or when they make mistakes and will learn from the experience. Above all, their enthusiasm is infectious, their attention to detail is meticulous, and they genuinely care about the impact of their work on their colleagues. With these types of change agent at the helm, the organisation will find it difficult to resist them.


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