The Space Between – The People Side of Change

I was a fresh MBA student, on my intern assignment between semesters at the ripe young age of 26. I had just finished a year of “Business 101” and was bursting with confidence (some might say cockiness) across every function of business. My assignment was to implement a recently purchased Accounting System (AccPac) across a small manufacturing business. This enterprise had just been spunoff from its parent and had no business systems of its own (unless you count a half dozen paper rolodexes as ‘CRM’). My response to the challenge: “What do I do the other 3 months of my assignment?”

Of course, (I would learn later) I was making the same mistake most organizations make when they set out on an ambitious course for change: Underestimating the people-side of the equation. We refer to this as “The Space Between” – it’s the space between the new direction, and the technology. The new direction is critical, the technology choice important, but it’s the space between that often gets underestimated and as a result, under-managed.

In this case, there were only six front-office staff, but the work involved to gently bring them along to the new system was an immense undertaking. The System choice was made for me, and it very well could have been the best choice for the situation. The objective of my assignment, and the direction made a tremendous amount of sense. But, what no one fully appreciated until well into the project was that modernizing this small operation in less than four months, was the business equivalent of trying to turn an aircraft carrier 180 degrees in 30 minutes.

My being a temporary resource, and leading the change as an ‘outsider’ didn’t help. In some cases, when there were new activities the Managers needed to own but weren’t interested, it became a game of ‘chicken’ – who was going to blink first and give in and do the task? They knew if they resisted long enough, I’d do it for them, and soon I’d be gone and “everything would be back to normal”!



In retrospect, and from experience of a number of similar assignments since, I can now identify a number of areas organizations often under-estimate, and leave to their internal Agents of Change (e.g., PMO, Performance Management Office, Strategy Office, etc) to cope with:

  1. Marketing, Selling, and Promotion – Someone in a Senior Leadership position needs to ‘sell’ the change to the organization and answer the critical questions of ‘Why’ and ‘Why Now’ in some form or another. This needs to happen in advance of mid-level managers approaching Departments with new activities to undertake which can often be viewed as ‘extra work’, if not properly positioned.
  2. Content Readiness – Someone with enough experience to judge, needs to take the time to review what data, sources, definitions, and interrelationships exist prior to transferring into an automated system. Remember, if one teaspoon of sewer water gets into the system, the entire system can get contaminated (not to mention, lose all credibility!) This is the ideal time for example, to challenge the feasibility of KPIs or the alignment of Strategic Projects that plan to be tracked within the system.
  3. New Management Practices – These are the new behaviors that need to be driven to get the most out of the new program and direction. Activities like regular reporting, management accountability for data and analysis, alerts as early warnings for outliers, management review calendars, report designs, etc. These need to make sense for the organization, and again be ‘sold’ to the practitioners to ensure compliance.
  4. Training – Everyone from IT Admin staff, to super users, to active practitioners, and executives need to be made fully aware of their new role as it relates to the new way of doing things, as well as feel completely comfortable within the new realm. Often Systems providers will include sufficient technical training (e.g., login, define a new KPI, etc), but frequently a broader scope of training is required. This broader scope of training would answer such questions as ‘What is my role in the new way of doing things?’, ‘What about my manager’s role?’, ‘What was wrong with the old way?’, ‘How does this make us more competitive?’, etc. This offers another opportunity to promote the benefits of the change, but the main objective here is building confidence and comfort among the workforce in the new way.

The challenge with the above-mentioned activities, is that since most organizations underestimate this ‘People Side of Change’, they make a number of false assumptions that add risk to an already ambitious program.


Given these common pitfalls, a few challenge questions to the program can help ensure the proper planning and staffing is in place ahead of time.

Keep in mind, if your change managers can get freed up from doing repetitive work (e.g., scrubbing KPI’s or training numerous departments), their value to the program as well as their drive will go up by focusing on what they’re trained for: facilitating the process internally and ensuring the organization is reaping maximum value from their investment. This focus will also bring them back to the table to assist in performance analysis and a contribution to the direction of the organization.


The main goal in most change programs is better decision-making for the organization, and this can only be helped by not being too distracted by the performance process, and by keeping focused on ‘what are we going to do about it?’.


Neil McDougall

Neil McDougall is the Managing Director of Dubai-Based CalShea Management, and Published Author of the article “Promoting Economic Development: Strategic Agendas in Action”, Harvard Business School Publishing, November 2007


WordPress Lightbox Plugin