Change Management From an Engineer’s Perspective

In my 28 years with Shell I have seen many change initiatives. Some were effective, many were not. I never really thought about why. That all changed when I was assigned the task of implementing a series of six business improvement best practices at our two oil sands manufacturing facilities in Alberta. The work processes were already written and the supporting IT tools were developed. All that was left was to roll them out. I quickly learned that this meant the easy part was done.

I am an engineer who had spent my whole career in manufacturing in either technical or management roles. That part of the job was already done. Now I had to learn about change management. I started out reading some books by respected Change Management authors such as John Kotter, Peter Senge, and Jim Collins. I read information on our Shell internal website to see what other countries had done for their implementations. Finally, I attended some training courses put on by change management professionals (none of whom seemed to be engineers, I noted!).

I began to see some trends emerging. The theory is divided into two camps. The first model is the programmatic model – a linear program that takes you methodically from a to b to c. This logical sequential approach leads to a nice neat plan, which appealed to the engineer in me.

More recently an emergent model has come into play. This is a more organic approach where some seeds are planted, but the growth is not systematic or even predictable. You need to be much more flexible to work in this environment, aware of the progress and ready to ride the leading horse. You may not be able to control and report progress as easily as with programmatic change, but with emergent change, when it catches it can spread like wild fire.

The reality is that change is not about one or the other. Truly successful change initiatives have elements of both. Armed with this new-found knowledge I began to reflect on some of the changes that I had seen over my career. What was it about the successful initiatives that made them effective? What was missing in the painful ones? I began to see that there are some fundamentals that must be followed and failure to dedicate the time, energy and commitment to each one is likely to sink your ship.

What is Change Management

When I use the term “Change Management” in my company, most people think of our Management of Change Procedure, which is the technical review of process and mechanical changes to the facility. This is not surprising given the strong process safety focus we have for plant changes. It also speaks volumes about how limited people’s knowledge is about change management which addresses the human element of a new way of operating. It is an enabling activity, laying the foundation for a successful implementation, and it must live at the site level. Successful change results in changed behaviours which is what is needed for it to survive long-term. It can not be imposed from outside of the location.

Change Management is the management and support of organizational and human change. It is about preparing the business for change and ensuring the capability exists to implement and sustain such change. This is not high-level fluff. It happens at the coal face and must be managed there.

Programmatic Change

The dominant theory from 1947 onwards has been that change happens in a linear fashion. This was popularized by John Kotter from the Harvard Business School in 1996, who built on the early work of Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947). Kotter’s research into successful and unsuccessful change initiatives led him to conclude that failure to adequately address all eight steps in order is a precursor to an unsuccessful change initiative.

It begins with establishing a sense of urgency. This is easier if there are market and competition realities, the so-called “burning platform”, that employees can understand. If they don’t improve they will soon be out of business. It is tough to create a sense of urgency if the business climate is good. This is where you have to focus on problems, threats and opportunities. Employees have to see the new way as better than the current situation or you will stall at phase one.

The next step is to create a guiding coalition. This is a group with the power to lead, working as a team. They must comprise senior decision makers in the organization because “what interests the boss fascinates me”. If upper management is not actively involved, anyone opposed to the change can use this as justification for holding back. The guiding coalition must create a compelling vision of the future to direct the effort and develop strategies to achieve the vision. Above all the guiding coalition has to communicate, communicate, communicate using every vehicle possible. They also have to be role models for the new way. Because they are senior influencers, every step is watched and magnified.

Once the direction is clear it is time to empower broad based action. This is where more and more people begin to get engaged. The role of the guiding coalition is to remove barriers, change structures, and encourage risk taking. Support the new behaviours by purposefully creating short-term wins and visibly recognising people. Create momentum by expanding the reach. Hire people who fit the new model and keep the change alive.

It is all worthless if you do not anchor the new approach in the culture but unfortunately this is where most change initiatives fail. You must ensure that it is imbedded in the leadership and link personal results to the new behaviours.

Emergent Change

The mid 1990s saw the beginning of the emergent change model where change does not have a defined start/stop. It is always happening though progress does not follow a neatly developed plan. Humans are naturally self-organizing. Work with the energy and shape it rather than expecting people to follow a top-down programmatic approach.

Peter Senge has a model called “The Dance of Change Tree”. Reinforcing loops are represented by the visible parts of the tree and include new business processes, networking, business results and personal results. These drive the change process forward. The roots of the tree are the factors that can hold your change process back. These limiting factors show up at the beginning of the change process (no resources, inconsistent leadership behaviours), in the middle (fear and anxiety, resentment, lack of measurement) and ultimately when trying to establish sustainability (lack of linkage to business plans, unclear governance).

In general we spend too much time on the reinforcing loops – the “what” of the change. Be mindful of the limiting factors. Anticipate them and put actions in place to address them. Senge maintains that successful change leaders spend 80 to 90 percent of their time on the limiting loops.

The Change Plan

There is a tendency to undervalue the benefits of a comprehensive change management plan. It is a lot of work, and it takes time and resources so it must be a conscious decision. An analogy is the age-old maintenance repair conundrum, “We don’t have time to fix it right the first time, but we have time to fix it again!” Incorporating change management is akin to “Fix it right the first time”. Failure to get this right will result in resistance to change, project slippage, and lack of sustainability.

There are six steps for managing reactions to change:

  1. Plan – Prepare for people’s reactions. Acknowledge that resistance is natural and expected. Use those who will react favourably to sell to the others.
  2. Communicate – Recognize that communication happens, so decide to manage it rather than letting it manage you. Communicate openly, often and in two-way discussions. Tailor your messages to the audience.
  3. Participate – Participation increases a sense of ownership and control. People want to be part of the solution so find as many ways as you can to involve them.
  4. Influence – Use opinion leaders to send the messages. Early actions demonstrate that this change is serious.
  5. Train – Build confidence and promote skill development with those leading and those being changed.
  6. Respond – Everyone needs to see WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) before they will change. The “What’s In It For the Company” is not what an employee wants to hear. Coaching will help them see the benefits. Adjust the reward system to encourage contribution and change.

There are six elements of the change roadmap and there are no shortcuts. You need to work through all six and continually reassess the status of all six.

Identify the change management activities that ensure the success and sustainability of the program. I like to start with a logo or a slogan that brings an identity and a branding that runs through the stages of the project. You will need a robust governance model involving the site leadership team. It will outline explicit roles and responsibilities for those on the change team and those impacted by it. Detail the timeline, the completion criteria, and the measurement systems. Establish accountability with regular reporting. When using external consultants be sure that they are in a coaching and supporting role. Do not let site management abdicate accountability.

I cannot overstate the importance of leadership, but it is also the most difficult hurdle to cross. Everyone’s already busy but now you want some of the busiest people at your site to take on more responsibilities. Success will only be achieved once you have the commitment of leadership at all layers of the organization. People take cues from the behaviours of their leaders and any inconsistency here is a licence to ignore the change initiative.

Failure to develop a compelling business case is a recipe for disaster. There needs to be a clear business case and the organization must understand how this is relevant to them. The return on change must be well defined. Include the anticipated benefits in the business plan to show that reaping the rewards is not an option, but be sure to also include the implementation costs on the other side of the ledger. At the same time, do not undersell the cost or the time lag before the benefits kick in.

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder Engagement, the process of identifying stakeholders, understanding their concerns, and building their commitment, is the most important element of Change Management. You need to know who the stakeholders are, where they sit on the issue, and what you need to do to ensure that you are all rowing in the same direction.

A stakeholder is anyone who touches the project, has influence on the project, or is affected by the project. This becomes a very long list of people. Develop your list by also considering who can provide or withhold key resources, who stands to lose and can prevent a decision from being implemented, and who needs to be informed or kept in the loop. Be specific as you build the list because your action plan will not be a generic one. You need names!

Stakeholder analysis is the process of assessing where teams and individuals stand on your project, identifying how to allocate your resources and efforts, identifying needed interventions and engagement activities and ultimately building your communications plan. The first step is to create a “Stakeholder Map” as shown in figure 6.1.

This is a matrix where you plot out where your key stakeholders sit on the issue. It is not for circulation because it will include your judgements about people’s support for your project. Being very specific about your targets is essential to effective engagement. Focus your energy on the highest priority stakeholders. The Highly Important NoGo’s merit a lot of attention. At the same time the Highly Important Go’s may prove to be a good resource to help this. There is no cookie cutter for this; it is specific to the players, the project, the timing, the environment.

Getting down to detailed engagement strategies is key. Where we often come up short in implementations is in doing broad-brush communications and not truly engaging. This takes time and effort and must be tailored appropriately, but it is one of the most effective change management tools that we have. Each level of leadership needs to be at least one step ahead of the next level in terms of education and support.


A comprehensive communications plan will ensure that stakeholders have the information they need or want in order to participate in successful implementation. The plan will detail what message should be sent to which stakeholder by when and what is the method to be used. Use multiple styles and forms of communication and recognize the need to repeat the message many times.

Match the communications style to the desired outcome. For general awareness and information sharing, a presentation is effective. To build understanding you will need a two-way dialogue with questions and answers. To gain commitment and alter behaviours you will need time and effort covering training, coaching, and reinforcement.

Your communications plan starts with a calendar showing the key milestones. Superimposed on this you add communications vehicles to support these milestones. There are many communications vehicles at your disposal and you need to use them all. Information sharing can be accomplished through presentations, lectures, memos, and videos. Posters and banners provide a visual stimulus. Newsletters can be used to support the e-mail and paper-based audiences, but websites have the advantage of 24/7 access. Clearly the most powerful communication method is face-to-face sessions, both planned and ad hoc, by the site leaders.

Capture and Share Learnings

To improve the implementation’s effectiveness you need to rapidly take advantage of successes and mistakes across the location and continuously improve team and organizational performance. Harvard Professor John Kotter advocates creating “quick wins” as a strategy for broadcasting success. It is just as important to acknowledge mistakes. This serves two purposes. If you have made a mistake you do not want to repeat it. Admitting to a mistake is a big trust builder. Word of mistakes travels quickly so public acknowledgement of this is important to maintain credibility.

Capturing learnings is part of the Think – Plan – Do – Review cycle and must be a conscious effort because organizational learning does not just happen in most cases. Establish the right environment for learning, then apply the change learning competencies of coaching, listening, inquiry, and knowledge management.


Everyone must have the knowledge and skills to perform their roles in the new environment. Training must cover both the business process itself as well as the technical aspects of the job. If people know their roles and they understand how those roles fit into the new process, then you will stand a much better chance of making the change stick.

Sustainability Plan

To be successful the change must become the new reality. This means that it must be embedded in the management system. This is accomplished by implementing processes and structures that promote site ownership. Health checks, using external and internal resources, are an effective way of keeping the assessment unbiased. Here are three key roles that need to be in place:

  • Site Process Owner – is the management sponsor of the process. He/she is the visible champion accountable to ensure that the process delivers the intended results. This involves measurement and audit to ensure that players are fulfilling their roles and to initiate interventions if there are gaps.
  • Site Process Focal Point – is the subject matter expert. He/she is the implementer who knows the details of the process’ inner workings and can coach and educate the participants. The focal point captures the learnings and makes the adjustments in support of the Process Owner.
  • IT Tool Super User – is the person who fully understands the use of any Information Technology programs that support the process. This is not a computer programmer, it is the expert user who understands how the tool supports the business process.

Identification of these three roles for each new business process is fundamental to sustainability.

What Have I Learned?

Leading a change initiative is not for the faint of heart! At the same time it really is not an optional part of implementing a change. Here is a quick list of Do’s and Don’ts:


  • Stay positive
  • Leverage other locations’ experiences
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Build a strong governance structure
  • Develop site ownership
  • Pay close attention to resistance
  • Celebrate success


  • Add a new initiative without removing one first
  • Wait to develop your change roadmap
  • Underestimate the need for constant reinforcement
  • Claim victory too early


Kotter, John, Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, 1996

Senge, Peter, The Dance of Change, Nicholas Breasley Publishing, 1999

Lewin, Kurt, The Dynamic Theory of Personality, McGraw-Hill, 1935


Brian Pritchard is a Reliability and Maintenance Manager for Shell Canada Energy.

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