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Book Review – The Change Management Pocket Guide – Bryce A Smart

by on November 5, 2007

Kate Nelson and Stacy Aaron, coauthors of “The Change Management Pocket Guide: Tools for Managing Change[i], draw upon a mix of academic theory and consulting experience with change management. List among Nelson and Aaron’s clients have been Detroit Medical Center, Dr. Pepper Cadbury, General Electric, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Standard Publishing, and Whirlpool. When collaborating on the Pocket Guide, Nelson brought with her the lion’s share of the business consulting experience, at that point having consulted for many of the companies list above. Aaron, however, brought a more theoretical, academic perspective, having taught Marketing at Miami University of Ohio[ii], and more recently Organizational Behavior at Wilmington College.

The “Pocket Guide” is just what it sounds like—their effort to simplify their insights and experience into an easily-digestible, anyone-can-do-it reference book. By providing a simplified instruction guide, Nelson and Aaron tacitly suggest that running an organizational change project can be easy. This attitude is magnified in the overall tone of the guide, which operates on the premise: “Follow these steps and you will have a successful change project.” Their attitude toward change management is naïve, but understandably necessary, as they are consultants, who rely on clients believing that successful change is guaranteed by hiring them. This is the same approach taken by John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen, coauthors of “The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations.[iii]” Kotter is a Harvard Business School expert on leadership, bringing a powerful academic repertoire to the book, while Cohen is one of the principals at Deloitte Consulting LLC. As with Nelson and Aaron, so with Kotter and Cohen: the combination of a consultant and an academic seems to create the ‘guarantee of success’ attitude. Another work, “Facilitating Organization Change[iv]”, evades this snare. Like the other two books, Facilitating Organization Change was coauthored by an educator (Olson teaches in the Leadership Program and George Washington University) and a consultant (Eoyang is president of a consulting firm specializing in complex adaptive systems). Unlike the Pocket Guide, the book’s ‘guarantee of success’ bias is mitigated by the oversight of several editors and a full editorial board. Overall, Nelson and Aaron’s attitude regarding change management is relatively on-par with much of the literature available.

The core of the Pocket Guide is the model “Plan, Do, Sustain”, broken into two parts each. This three-phased approach is easy to remember and can become a mantra for change project managers, providing them with a simple, visual roadmap of where they must go. Unfortunately, however, the descriptions of each phase are vague and do not logically tie to their subordinate components. For instance, I would have logically imagined that the “Stakeholder Commitment Meeting” would occur in the Planning phase, when it actually falls under the Do phase. The vagueness and disconnect are a significant detriment to the Pocket Guide, which, more than other change management books, must be especially logical.

Although the Pocket Guide is written for the lowest common denominator, Nelson and Aaron expend unnecessary amounts of space at the most rudimentary levels of understanding, explaining, for instance, what a SWOT analysis is. This is space that would be better spent explaining how to deal with change risks or how to deal with negative influencers, etc. In the Pocket Guide, Nelson and Aaron seem to think they’re teaching management 101 at the community college, rather than helping to guide capable and influential organizational contributors, who, almost certainly, already know the terms and understand the associated concepts.

Another major deficiency in the Pocket Guide is the lack of substantive risk management. While risk should be considered in the initial Change Readiness Audit, as the company’s capacity for risk may help determine the ideal time to launch a change initiative, it is not even hinted at until the SWOT analysis, where it is indirectly referenced under the Threats category. Even then, all the authors can recommend is to “focus efforts on the areas of greatest opportunity and to put issues and concerns in perspective.” The overall unhelpfulness of this advice on risk mitigation itself creates a risk of its own: stalling the change initiative partway through. A practitioner using this book as a guide will be aided in his or her change initiative until blocked by a risk that would have been detected by some basic risk management efforts at the outset. Detecting this risk might have allowed a contingency plan to be set, enabling the project to move forward or the risk could have been deemed too great and likely to continue the project. In either case, the change initiative would not have been left “dead in the water”.

Not only does the Pocket Guide fail to provide risk and issue mitigation planning, but it also provides no guidance on how or at what points the change initiative value should be reassessed and course corrections made. Nelson and Aaron naïvely push through in their guide without considering the possibility that things may not go according to plan. After the Plan phase, there are no opportunities for reassessment, change requests, or necessary scope modifications. Once communications are launched, the company has crossed the “point of no return”.

Perhaps the greatest failing of the Pocket Guide is its hypocrisy on how to address emotional change issues and mitigate change resistance. At the outset of the guide, Nelson and Aaron state: “Leaders and project teams must understand the human dynamics of change and prepare for the emotional response it can generate.” They also caution: “Your challenge is to apply effective Change Management principles to anticipate and manage resistance.” The hypocrisy is that nowhere in the book is either of these issues addressed. Moreover, the recommendations in the Pocket Guide actually aggravate the emotional and resistance factors. One sixth of the Pocket Guide is dedicated to establishing an effective communication plan, yet the recommended communication plan requires change team members to write and memorize one-minute “speeches” to give to fellow employees at every opportunity, brings up the potential for lay-offs in almost every template and focuses almost solely on one-way communication.
The authors do provide some “feedback” forms that employees can fill out to help gauge the status of the project. Unfortunately, the instrument is terribly constructed. Part A attempts to ask very leading, charged questions that are unlikely to be answered honestly. For instance, they insist that employees list the benefits of the project as they see them. While the idea behind this question is good, it unfortunately will not provide a valid response, as employees feel pressure to supply contrived answers. The next question asks what they perceive the challenges of the project. Again, to keep from looking bad, employees are more likely to provide vague or unrealistic challenges. The next question is perhaps the most useless: “I would like to learn more about ______.” This question is almost unanswerable, as employees will probably not know which questions to ask until much later in the change process (probably in the Sustain phase). Answers here will also be unlikely to provide any useful feedback, as responders will largely try to ask questions a level or two above their level of understanding, in an effort to appear more knowledgeable regarding the new system. In short, providing a formal questionnaire with these questions in their present forms will not only provide useless data, but will provide wrong data. Acting on the wrong information when changing one’s organization can have disastrous consequences. The questions just reviewed are the only open-ended questions of the feedback forms as well. Should an employee have useful, insightful feedback to provide, he or she will not be given the opportunity to do so, as the feedback forms don’t allow for actual feedback.

While the Pocket Guide certainly has its deficiencies, it also has the potential to provide great benefits to a user. In cases where a smaller, less experienced organization—like a startup—needs to make a dramatic change to reach the next stage of growth, the CEO or owner may not have the experience or intuition to handle the change effectively. Given the frantic pace of a startup, taking a class or spending time pouring through textbooks other large volumes is also impractical. Owners of startups are also more likely to be hesitant to hire a very expensive consultant to manage the process, especially when the expense comes out-of-pocket. Therefore, a quick, easy guide to expand their thinking and provide some methods and tools may be the best approach. That is what the Change Management Pocket Guide offers.

It is a concise, easy read that can be completed in a matter of hours and applied to an existing project or incorporated into a new project almost immediately. Furthermore, the simplified structure makes the information inside easily accessible.

One of the Pocket Guide’s best features is a “Successful Outcomes” box that appears after every tool which describes the objective of using the tool, ensuring that practitioners don’t become caught up in the documentation for process’ sake. Along with the “Successful Outcomes” box is a section called “Tips & Lessons Learned”. In this section, users can find very practical tips based on previous experience to remember and factor in when launching this phase of the project. This is perhaps the best risk management the guide has to offer, albeit slim. Nevertheless, its usefulness is significant.

In all, the Change Management Pocket Guide by Kate Nelson and Stacy Aaron is an important tool for those responsible for organizational changes who don’t know where to start. It seems to be designed to “attach” onto an existing process, helping to elucidate elements that may otherwise have been overlooked by the change team. Using the Pocket Guide on its own as a complete process guide, however, would be a very risky proposition, given the holes mentioned above. Still, it is better than nothing, and may even help to jog an experienced practitioner’s memory. The Change Management Pocket Guide has worth, but only if viewed as an incomplete add-on, rather than an integrated, complete strategy.

[i] Nelson, K., & Aaron, S. (2005). The Change Management Pocket Guide: Tools for Managing Change. Cincinnati, OH: Change Guides LLC.
[ii] Go to: for more information.
[iii] Kotter, J.P., & Cohen, D.S. (2002). The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
[iv] Olson, E.E., & Eoyang, G.H. (2001). Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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