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3 Fundamental Principles of Managing Change

As someone who spends a majority of her day engaged in executing change activities (which can be as diverse as designing a data model, analyzing processes and providing recommendations, leading software design and development, and managing projects), I often get asked questions like:

  1. For example, how would you handle [x]?
  2. I had this situation or circumstance, what do you think is really causing that behavior?
  3. What defines you as a change professional?

I would never pretend to have all the answers, but over the years, I have worked out three core principles, or ideas, which drive how I do my work and I would like to share them with you.  

Principle 1: Risk Acceptance
I have spoken before about well-intentioned managers who ask “why” and “how can we ensure that a bad thing never happens again”, and I have always felt that to be the wrong approach. On the surface, it seems reasonable, but if that becomes the default, it is no longer about logic; it is about fear.

Don’t take my word for it, though, have you seen the show Scandal? The main character, Olivia Pope, is based on a real life person, Judy Smith. In Mrs. Smith’s book, Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets, she says:

Perfectionism may not look like fear, but that’s often what it is.

Mrs. Smith is in the business of crisis management and if you, like me, are in the business of change, sooner or later, you will have a crisis. It can be big or it can be small, no difference: it is not about what happened but how you respond. If you accept that risk is fundamental to change, you are already a step ahead.

Principle 2: Be disciplined
In Eric Reis’s well-known and iconic book, The Lean Startup, the first chapter talks about the school of “Just Do It” management. Many startups had taken the approach that “chaos [was] the answer” because they saw the failure of traditional management principles in their environments.

We now understand this not to be the case. Startups require structure and repeatability just as much as megacorporations do – just a different type. Both of these speak to what I consider as “discipline.”

However, discipline is not just for organizations, large or small, discipline is useful for you as an individual, whether you manage a large team or just yourself. My habits have become repetitive; how I organize my work, when and how I answer emails, my approaches to problem solving and risk management, building my tribe (not my team!), the visual style I produce, and really in a number of other categories, both professional and personal.

When I descend into a chaos, I take that as a sign to step back and reassess because discipline and structure are fundamental elements of success.

Principle 3: Empathy
I once complained about a work situation to a friend and he responded to me simply with:

“Change is hard.”

He is right. Change is hard, and I know that! I have said it myself before! But, what an important reminder, right? It is the type of thing that I should put on a sticky and paste to my monitor: change is hard, change is hard, change is hard.

Why is that such an important concept to take to heart? Because, put yourself in the shoes of the folks on the receiving end of the changes – the projects and products, the processes and re-orgs – that you are implementing. How do you think they feel? If you, as a change professional, find it difficult at times – difficult to communicate, difficult to direct and execute, difficult to see through, and you are in the middle of it, how do your clients, users, partners, and peers feel?

This is where empathy comes in. Whenever you start asking questions like:

  1. Isn’t it obvious why this is the right way to go? (It is not!)
  2. Why can’t they just do what I tell them to do? (How well would you respond to that)
  3. Why don’t they understand this [fill in the blank esoteric topic]? (Because you are in it, day-in/day-out, they are not)
  4. What else can I do to get through to them? (More. Something else. Go back to the drawing board.)

Those questions should be a trigger for you to look at that sticky note again and remind yourself: change is hard. The most important thing you can do, the best value you bring to the table, is empathy. Exercise empathy with every single stakeholder with whom you engage; exercise empathy every single time you write an e-mail or create a document; exercise empathy.

You will not be able to do it 100% of the time and many times you will not want to, but of the three principles I consider fundamental to my work, empathy is the most important.

The Quick Recap
To drive it home, here’s the quick summary of what I find fundamental to being successful at my work:

3 Fundamental Principles of Change

1. I accept that risk is inherent to change and there is no escaping that fact.

2. I do my best to be disciplined about my business so that I have a stable, yet flexible, structure and foundation from which to work from.

3. Every day, as best I can, I try to exercise empathy because change is hard and a little empathy goes a very long way.

So, what are your principles? What drives your work as a change professional? Think about them and more importantly, share those principles with others.

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You can also follow me on this blog, follow me on LinkedIn where I post other items similar to this, or follow me on Twitter @cabigail2.

Also, let’s start a conversation! Please comment below or send me an email at

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