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Change (part 2/3)- Bad Assumptions = Bad Change Advice

Mar 14, 2019

In my last piece, we talked about the assumptions behind classic change management advice. OD and leadership folks, like me, love to dig down to core assumptions and plumb the depths of the managerial psyche. While it’s fascinating, it’s also more than just idle academic curiosity. Our assumptions drive what we do. If we don’t look at them, it’s really hard to change our approach. We can easily keep doing dumb stuff, or at least stuff that doesn’t work in the situation we find ourselves.

Those classic assumptions about change inform all of the classic change management advice. Of course, there are as many different versions as there are scholars and consultants out there. While each has their own particular terminology and points of emphasis, the sum of it looks something like this:

  1. The leader sees the problem that others don’t
  2. They decide what needs to be done
  3. They convince everyone else to agree with them
  4. There are project plans and timelines
  5. They may decide to restructure the organization (in fact they do it every few years)
  6. They make sure everybody knows exactly what they are supposed to do
  7. They remind everybody repeatedly to do it
  8. And they have a dashboard of key indicators to see if it’s being done.    

It’s pretty logical and it lines up nicely with a lot of the stereotypes of a successful leader:

  • The leader has vision
  • They are the expert with the answers
  • They’re persuasive and influential
  • They have power to set and enforce the rules

Except it doesn’t work.

Organizations have had access to classic change advice for decades. So, they’ve racked up lots of practice with classic change management techniques. But the stats on change failure rates are still pretty bad. Depending who you ask and how you ask it, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of major change initiatives don’t meet their goals. By some recent indicators, that number is only getting worse, not better. Why is that?

It could be that lots of change initiatives were just bad ideas with crazy expectations and were doomed from the start. That’s certainly possible. However, you find this data even in large, conservatively-managed companies with strong processes to screen out wacky and risky ideas. You find it even in firms where experienced managers know how to do the dance of managing expectations. And for each of those failed initiatives, there’s probably some competitor who did manage to pull it off. So, it’s hard to believe that nutty ideas are a large fraction of the problem.

Now some people would say that change is just really hard, experimentation is important, and we should simply accept a 70% failure rate. If your company has a big enough war chest to happily eat all those wasted investments, then god bless you. If your firm is in an industry slow-moving enough, that you can waste all that time on big initiatives that don’t pay off, then you probably aren’t even reading this article.

Change is hard and experimentation is important. But remember – that 70% failure is on major initiatives vs expectations, not small experiments where failure was acceptable for learning. If you’re like me, you’d like to eat away at that number – maybe even flip it. So where do we start?

I say we have to start with those change assumptions. The classic change management advice is only working 30% of the time, because that’s approximately how many of their major initiatives match up well to the classic change assumptions. Increasingly, the big change initiatives look very different:

tactical transformation cambridge leadership

While the need to meet tactical challenges will never go away, a large and growing portion of your organization’s change challenges are those transformational ones. They aren’t just bigger, more complex versions of your every-day business challenges. They are fundamentally different. And these different challenges require a different kind of change leadership.

What do you think?