The Growing Immunity To 'Change Management BS'

In an era of competing and conflicting crises few things are certain.

One thing we can count on though is our organisational ability to cope with change is going to be stretched to breaking point. This is concerning as our track record in delivering change in a more stable past has often been less than great.

We know that a large proportion of change programmes or digital transformations fail to deliver their promised outcomes on time, sometimes if at all. You can take your pick on the actual number that fail as the research is undecided. An optimist will say 50% of transformation programmes fail and a pessimist would go for 99% – which is a factor that led to the emergence of the ‘70% of change will fail’ narrative.

By the time people hit their 30s and 40s their experience of organisational change has been more negative than positive – so they build up a kind of autonomic immune system to Change Management Bullshit (CMB).

How do you know you’ve built up an immunity to CMB?

  • You begin to show disdain for roadmaps, ‘plans on a page’ or corporate visions.
  • The term ‘change readiness’ induces feelings akin to nausea.
  • You find yourself rolling your eyes when a new initiative is announced that sounds eerily similar to the last one that never happened but cost a hell of a lot of money.
  • You stop getting excited by the Change Evangelists who are indeed changing lots of things – albeit not the really important difficult things that need changing or transforming.

If everyone over 35 (a huge and growing percentage of the workforce) has built up enough CMB antibodies to repel an army of Change Management Consultants – how can our organisations manage to cope with a world that is experiencing what Tom Cheesewright has termed high frequency change.

Arguably we need to radically rethink our approach and move away from the tools and methods we have used in the past.

In his latest post Chris Bolton argues that we need to rip up our road maps to change and learn to use a compass instead.

Some of my irritation with these road maps comes from a feeling that they are a bit dishonest. They ‘promise’ a future that is certain and guaranteed. If you just do all of the things on the road map, you WILL get that better culture

This is true not just of road maps but of most transformation project plans. They promise a degree of certainty, almost arrogant in the determination that goals WILL be met and people WILL accept the change.

We know this is BS. Life just isn’t like that. Maybe it’s just me, but virtually nothing in my personal life has gone to plan in the last 10 years. Even a holiday has to pivot and change based on travel disruption, illness or global pandemics. We miss our targets. We don’t lose that weight. We do buy a new iPhone when we said we wouldn’t. We read fewer books, not more.

More from Chris:

A vector based approach is better. Work with the disposition to change within the system, use a ‘compass’ to guide you along the direction, and Trojan Mice to probe the territory. It has a far better chance if ‘arriving’, especially if it’s done together,co-productively.

When Chris talks of a vector based approach it makes me think of genuine holistic change, which means embracing the complex and the messy and being prepared to explore dead-ends and tolerate failure. You need to be ready to rework anything and everything – being constantly open to new ideas and methods.

Most organisations exist in a fixed state of transformation – time-limited programmes of change (usually 3-5 years) rather than a flow state. 

Amazon say they have never had a transformation programme. That’s because they exist in a flow state – where the culture is accepting that change is perpetual rather than something that – if we just grin and bear it – will be over in a few years.

The danger with a fixed state is that the driver becomes a business plan focused on implementation not experimentation. 

For too many people change management has become don’t change anything management. The opportunity here is to rip up traditional tools and techniques and instead explore new and foreign ideas and quickly assimilate (or abandon) them.

Additionally we need a culture where change is led by everyone – not initiated and owned by leaders and consultants. Where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and using that compass to find a better way.

“No bullshit” change would be to take back control from the bottom up, whilst accepting that the end destination will look significantly different when you finally arrive.

Related: The Problem With Chasing Zeroes