Gods, Monsters, and Organisational Change

14 May

We no doubt consider ourselves a far more rational and enlightened society than we were thousands of years ago. For example, we no longer shout at the sun during an eclipse to frighten off the great wolf which was in the process of devouring it, as the Vikings did, we know it’s the moon simply passing in front of the sun. For the Vikings however, it seemed a reasonable and rational thing to do- the sun began to disappear, they began shouting, and the sun reappeared, which amounts to an empirically observed cause and effect.

What separates modern society from the Vikings is that we allegedly know far more about cause and effect through the scientific method and this has allowed us to leave these superstitions and rituals behind; or has it? In this blog I’d like to argue that the world is just as much about Gods and Monsters as it ever was, and nowhere is this more evident than in the processes and decisions behind organisational change.

The Vikings just like the ancient Greeks relied on their gods to explain the world around them, and it made perfect sense, producing highly functional and culturally rich societies. The eclipse example demonstrates how there existed “empirical evidence” to back up these beliefs, until it became disconfirmed and things moved on. Similar superstitions and rituals dominate the domain of organisational change, the belief that a model, something on paper or a spread sheet, can transform people and institutions into something new- death and rebirth.

It’s a well known statistic that well over 70% of change projects fail, and they fail because the thought process behind them is identical to the eclipse example, and built on a similar evidence base. An organisation is having trouble, either the culture is stale or its market share is declining, and management know things have to change. As human beings, the management are automatically biased toward the quick fix, so when a tale starts spreading about a similar organisation, somewhere else, which changed, transforming into something new and improved, it begins to sound very appealing. All this organisation had to do was read from a book, written by a guru, assemble the staff in a certain formation, a change agent would recant certain passages from the book at certain times, and then- Transformation! It all seems so simple and full of hope. Unfortunately all the organisation would be doing is reading a spell, performing a ritual, and expecting magic.

At least the Vikings had the luxury of appearing right for a few centuries, and not only that, it performed a useful cultural function which helped their society develop as it made tangible improvements in areas such as manufacturing, shipping and international commerce. A modern day organisation implementing a change programme dreams of comparable outcomes.  On most occasions the damage is already done when an organisation makes the decision to manage large scale change, heaping new problems on top of the old.  The situation is further aggravated because managers are reluctant to admit defeat and see the investment go to waste, prolonging the damage.

Large scale projects based on outcomes where people are expected to change are always subject to large risks. Change management is designed to “add” something to a dynamic and unpredictable domain (human behaviour) and because change is an addition, no one really knows how it will turn out, how people will react in small and large numbers. So, when the change project is large, the addition is large and the results more likely to spiral out of control- you’ve no idea what result you’ll get, it’s simply not possible to know.

So, if contemporary change management operates on the same rational basis as ancient superstition and rituals, how do you compete and stay relevant in a dynamic economy? Firstly, abandon the magic spells, you can’t control the outcomes of change with a great looking chart and model. Secondly, abandon the large scale change projects; they’ll never achieve a return on investment. Thirdly, take a look at what’s working well in your organisation and the people who make that happen. The best place to start looking is areas, people and projects which have survived and succeeded over time across numerous contexts and through numerous challenges. Longevity is a strong indicator of successful adaptation, so protect and learn from these areas, don’t change them because of what’s in a book; and put a chunk of the change budget in supporting these areas.

Finally, experiment with change, and focus on driving innovation in new areas on a small controllable scale so the risks have a floor. Within these change areas give the people who are in them two things-the freedom to experiment and try new things, and a feeling that there is meaning in their work.

Superstition is part of our DNA, we’re inclined toward it, and in most cases we don’t even know we’re making decisions on this level.  But next time you read about organisational change, or are thinking about implementing a change strategy, ask yourself- is this realistic or I am just shouting at the moon?

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