What, Really, is Change Management?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Many companies are perpetually awash in improvement projects. Yet, all too often, projects succeed in producing committed deliverables, but fail to achieve performance goals. By the end, all that remains are project documents filed in electronic team rooms, like the final scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Why do so many big ideas achieve so little? Because most projects focus on deliverables rather than on behavior change. If improvement projects fail to create behavior change -- if people do the same things this week as they did last week -- the project adds no value at all.

For example, if you designed an outstanding employee selection protocol, but no one uses it, you failed. Changing behavior to align with business strategies is the objective of change management.

Many executives underestimate the importance of change management. They think that good people will readily adopt "good" thinking.

Not so. Even good people think about their own needs first. This makes leading change very complex. It not only requires excellent diagnostic and solution development skills, but also political insight and influence skills. These skills are difficult to teach in a classroom. They're learned through the school of hard knocks.

Contrast the job of a physician with that of a change management professional. Physicians assess the patients' symptoms, triangulate the symptoms in their head or with the aid of a computer, render a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment.

Now, consider the complexity of making large-scale organizational change. Is the diagnosis correct and solution sufficient to completely resolve the problem? How do the desired changes align with the organization's history, culture, processes and IT and HR systems? How must past disputes between key stakeholders be considered during implementation?

Let's look at change management through three high-level principles.

Principle No. 1: Stakeholders Must Believe They Own the Change

A well-known theory of behavioral science is Reactance Theory. The theory states that humans react negatively when their freedoms or choices are threatened. Reactance occurs when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude.

In the mid 1980's the emerging management practice was Quality Circles -- where teams were empowered to improve their work. In graduate school I interned for the QC program at Martin Marietta.

After decades of factory worker complaints that management did not listen, Martin Marietta created a QC program. Yet, surprisingly, the new program encountered tremendous resistance. Workers told us that they did not want to be accountable for quality improvements -- that was a manager duty. Why the sudden reversal? Because employees saw their work environment changing without their consent and they reacted against the change.

Principle No. 2: Management Must Give Sufficient Support

It takes a certain amount of energy to send a rocket into orbit. Once in orbit, the rocket continues on forever. But if the rocket cannot escape the atmosphere, it falls back to earth and produces no value. With rockets, there is no such thing as a good try -- it either breaks the atmosphere or falls to earth. There is no other outcome.