It’s time to change change – forget change management.
Here is my analysis of the crisis of change management:
1. Everything is change
After 30 years after the first concepts of change management emerged, there is still no common understanding of what change actually means. Just look at the following list of change projects:
- A company wants to implement an enterprise resource management (ERP) solution. It takes twice the time and much more resources than originally planned.
- Two companies merge but after a couple of years people still stick to their original corporate identities. Value is destroyed.
- The largest economy of the world tries to reform their health system but fails to do so for a period 20 years.
- Somebody needs to move to a different country for his job. His family is upset because they feel uprooted.
- The government of an OECD country supports the capacity building of the administration in an Asian country to fight corruption and to introduce good governance.
- People of a country overthrow their government.
Can change be defined as a planned or unplanned transformation of any social system? Where are the boundaries of our discipline?
2. The terminology is a problem - "change" is a war term
“Change” has been devaluated and in many organizations, people freak out when their bosses or some hired hands just mumble the word change (or any of those fancy project names, like “Horizon 2010”, “One Blablabla”, “Fit for the Future”, etc.). It seemed for a moment in history that President Obama was able to give a positive twist to the word change. Yes, this is history as well…
It is not that people don’t like change at all – it is more that they are tired of their leaders’ big but shallow promises. People are tired of simultaneous change programmes imposed on them. At Harley Davidson, they used to say “Bend over, here it comes again” when a new change programme was introduced. I don’t think that we will be able to give change a general positive connotation. As a consequence, any given change programme has a close to 100% risk of resistance.
3. Change cannot be managed
The idea of change management suggests that given the appropriate resources, a change project can be implemented according to Gantt charts. What a weird idea! Change in social systems is complex because social systems are complex and their behavior is largely unpredictable. How could anybody believe that change management plans have anything to do with organizational life? Let us face reality: soft sciences like sociology, psychology, economics still seem to suffer from an inferior complex vis-á-vis “exact sciences” (like physics etc. – mind you: the predictability of physical effects has been questioned ever since Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principle). They make us believe that more research will eventually explain how the world works. In don’t buy into that.
Let’s assume that all things in the universe follow a finite set of rules and that every single cause-action relationship could be theoretically determined (including all human reasoning – an issue which is still heavily debated). N. N. Talib, in his groundbreaking book “The Black Swan” explains that when you want to compute the way of a billiard ball, you might be all right for the first two, three, four contacts with another ball or the wall of the table. I am always stunned by the capacity of the world billiard elite to estimate up to eight movements of their game. However, Talib says that to make an exact physical prediction, starting from the ninth move you have to include the gravitation effect from the person standing next to the table. Let’s say that it would be possible to let a ball have 56 touches with the other balls or the wall of the table – in that case you would have to take into your calculation every single particle of the universe. That’s physics, let’s move on to social science.
Organizations and societies are complex social systems because:
- Each person in this system has their own set of believes, attitudes, concerns, needs and purposes which determine their behavior. You have 500 people – you have 500 variables to consider.
- People make many unsupervised decisions every day. Some estimates say it’s thousands of decisions a day every person takes. Researchers at Cornell university say, we make more than 200 food and beverage decisions every day. Can anybody compute the compounded effect of those decisions?
- People are related to each other in many different ways. We know that an organizational chart doesn’t tell us much about the real relationships people have at work, or out of work. There are pretty good network analysis tools out there, but what they provide is only a model of reality.
- There are unlimited small and large external influence factors interacting with any give system. Stock brokers are usually great to compute these effects but have recently experienced that their models aren’t worth the paper they are written on.
4. Models don’t work
Change management specialists have come up with models that help us to understand how systems react, and what needs to be done to transform them. I know around hundred of them, and new models pop up like crocuses in spring. The problem of models is what they do is reducing complexity to an extent that they have nothing in common with reality. The fact that 60-80% of change projects fail is in my view largely attributable to the blind application of change models. Let’s trash them all – they make things worse!
5. We are not living in an ideal world
Why I got into change management was because I liked the human touch that most text books have. Change management is about the people in organizations, and it is about creating conditions in which people are motivated, engaged, and passionate about what matters for them. So, shouldn’t we just create conditions for people to collaborate and we’ll be fine (like my teacher Robert Dilts once said “Creating a World to Which People Want to Belong”)? This assumes that the ultimate motivation of all people is actually to live in a world that is just. It assumes that money and power does not corrupt people. The capitalist system is built on greed (and the socialist system discourages people to stick out be exceptional). We haven’t found the right rewarding systems that would motivate anybody in an organization or a society to work for the benefit of all (including their own). How can we develop organizations if people have their hidden (or not so hidden agendas)?
Frankly speaking, I don’t think we can get out of this misery if we just try to improve our models and tools. We might still find clients who buy in to our approaches, and some change projects will actually work out well.
So, what's the next step if we want to change how we think about change?
Meet us at Berlin Change Days 2010!