How do you manage organizational change when the change is mandated?

This is a question I am often asked in the Living and Leading Executive program.  A great question because the short answer is, change cannot be mandated. You may be thinking, oh yes it can, it happens all the time in my organization.  But let’s take a closer look at what is really happening.

First it will be helpful if we review the landscape of change.  Change consists of two dimensions. The first dimension is the Event. The event dimension of change is concrete, visible and finite. The event is, for example, the new computer system, the hiring/appointment of a new leader, the reorganization of a department or company, that acquisition or merger, or any of the other events your organization undertakes to grow and maintain its business.

The second dimension of change is the White Space.  The white space dimension of change is personal, context sensitive and intangible. It is that space between where your people are before the event and where the organization needs them to be to achieve the outcome of the change event.

Organizational Change is like an Iceberg

Organizational change is like an iceberg. The change event is above the water line. The white space sits below the waterline

To understand the significance of these two dimensions, picture your organizational change initiative as an iceberg.  The event dimension is the portion of the iceberg that floats above the water line. The white space is that larger, and often more dangerous portion of the iceberg that is below the waterline. It is not the portion of the iceberg above the water line that usually sinks the ship.

Just like the iceberg, it is the white space that will define the success or failure of any organizational change. The white space is where the people affected by the change event (the change recipients) turn their knowledge about it, into the actions needed to successfully achieve your organizational goals.

When an organization mandates a change, it is really just defining the change event. Whether any real change occurs will depend on the change recipients’ willingness to move through the white space. People make a choice about whether to journey through the white space and unless they make the journey– change cannot happen.

Recently one participant raised the change in the law regarding cell phone use while driving as an example of mandated change. Yes, it is true the Event has been mandated, it is against the law to drive while talking or texting on a cell phone.  But has change really been mandated? At the next opportunity, look around and see the number of people still texting or talking (not hands-free) while driving.   Think about your own organization and the number of changes that have been mandated, only to realize no real change took place.

Organizational Change Management Focuses on the White Space

Virtually all organizational change is mandated; consider that in most organizations the change event  is defined by one level of the organization, but will affect people that are at a different level or place in the organization.  Therefore regardless of whether the change is mandated or not, your organization’s success will depend on the willingness and ability of the change recipients to navigate the white space.  Successful leaders of change understand this and balance the activities needed to support the change event with the  actions necessary to prepare and enable people to willingly navigate the white space.  In short, they have integrated change management into their leadership practices.  Change management’s focus is the white space.

Remember when it comes to change; all you can ever really mandate is the change event.