Tag Archives: organizational change

The Price Tag of Change

24 Oct

I was reading one of Gary Klein’s recent blogs on Psychology Today, where he discussed the characteristics of leaders who were able to make a difference to the organisations which they led. Klein, whilst acknowledging the limits of his observations, saw the “difference makers” as behavioral engineers.

As I see it, these difference-makers (a) were aware that the status quo wasn’t acceptable; (b) diagnosed how the culture needed to change; and (c) designed a minimal intervention, a leverage point, that would not only interfere with the status quo but would make it difficult to later return to the dysfunctional status quo. The difference-makers were all behavioral engineers” ( Link to full article)

What I would add is that good behavioral engineers also have a superior knowledge of risks associated with change in their organisations. In other words, when behavioral engineers make changes, they have a good understanding of the consequences the change will bring. This means knowing what skills and expertise the changes will retain and support, and what skills and behaviors the changes will wash away.

Without this knowledge change is merely an abstract exercise in moving around structures and shapes with little attention to consequences and human cost. Certainly, this change can look sensible and logical, but will come with a price tag which is both financial and behavioral. Without a good idea of the price tag associated with change, then a leader has no idea what they are retaining or losing in terms of skills and expertise. This makes medium to long term success very difficult.



The Psychology of Organizational Change

23 Aug

Interesting article on Psychology Today addressing the topic of organisational change, and entitled The Psychology of Organizational Change. I’ve quoted the conclusion from this article below in full

Traditional change in management tactics in organizations are based more on animal training than on human psychology and neuroscience. Leaders promise bonuses and promotions (the carrot) for those who go along with the changes, and punish those (the stick) who don’t with less important jobs or even job loss. This kind of managerial behavior flies in the face of evidence that shows that people’s primary motivation in the workplace is neither money or advancement but rather a personal interest in their jobs, a good environment to work in and fulfilling relationships with their boss and colleagues” Article available here

It’s difficult to argue with the logic of the conclusions. Evidence does clearly suggest that meaning, social interaction and a good environment are the most important workplace considerations for staff. However, the job of change is never done. The external environment changes jobs which had so much meaning, people who mean so much move on, and revenue can impact on offices which everyone enjoyed working in. So even successful organisational change, is simply a point on a continuum, and never done.

The above point highlights the importance of leaders and planners staying in frequent touch with frontline workers. This is important because not only is change an ongoing process, a way of life which can be too often left to chance in organisations, but human beings are notoriously poor at anticipating how much positive and negative change will impact upon their lives in the medium to long run (Kahneman, 2011, Wilson et al, 2003).

The consequence is that short term data on success can show very positive attitudes towards change, and then once adaption kicks in, the data can look like a decline in satisfaction. The two key points are 1) try and avoid declaring change as complete or a success too soon, and 2) leaders should stay in frequent touch with frontline workers to monitor adaptions. Otherwise the gap between implementation and feedback can cause inaccurate responses, for example

This data shows a sharp fall in satisfaction, we need to review the effect of our change strategy

Everyone has just adapted to change, it’s only natural that it’s no longer seen as something significant

Both these points require accurate feedback data to back them up, otherwise what’s really going on is lost.

We’ve written about the above points here and here in more detail


Wilson, Timothy D.; Daniel T. Gilbert (2003). “Affective Forecasting”. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 35: 345–411

Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin


The Problem With Declaring Success Too Early

19 Jul

The most common complaint I’ve heard people make about the books of sci-fi author, Philip K Dick, is that the books don’t end, they simply drift off. I’ve noticed the same thing when reading Dick’s work, but the slow drifting away is one of the things I liked most about his books. The reason is that the endings mirror real life very closely.

In many of Dick’s books a relatively normal person is swept up in extraordinary events, only to drift back to a life which the protagonist didn’t particularly enjoy or troubled them. In my mind, these endings were realistic, as many of us hope that big changes, decisions and restructures will transform ourselves, lives, teams or organisations only to see everything slowly drift back to the status quo. And this is the problem when trying to judge whether change has been a success, at what moment, if any, do you chose to declare there has been a successful transformation?

I was thinking this whilst reading some successful organizational change management case studies. The results had been frozen at a particular moment, where it was clearly possible to declare some form of success. However, the problem with change and life is that there is always a sequel, always a next day which unfreezes the frozen moment of success. This was a popular criticism of Peters and Watermans book, In Search of Excellence (1982). Fast forward a few years, and the companies researched for the book were no longer performing excellently.

This point does not mean that any change really works. Nor does it mean that if you wait long enough all change ends in failure. These are just straw man arguments. What it does mean is that some decisions do not, and should not, end with a moment, they are a continuous cycle of sequels which require constant management. In other words, we cannot just freeze a moment, declare success, and then take our eyes off the ball. If we do, the change might end like a Philip K Dick novel, a sleep-walk back to the status quo.


Peters, T. Waterman, R.H. In Search of Excellence-Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. Collins Business Essentials.


Our Future Selves and Decision Making

7 Jul

Below is a link to a TED Talk by the Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert. The talk is entitled, The Psychology of your Future Self, and illustrates how we, as human beings, have the capacity to get our expectations of the future so badly wrong. Gilbert addresses some key reasons why anticipations of future states can be so adrift, and within this article I’m going to reference these reasons to highlight how experience and imagination can significantly improve our ability to forecast, acquire expertise and make better decisions. But first, a small detour to ancient Greece.

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Why Instructions Rarely Get Followed

19 Apr

All situations involve change. Yet most instructions, plans and procedures are static, and bear little resemblance to how frontline workers actually perform and behave. This could be because most instructions, plans and procedures assume that frontline workers passively process data. Instead, frontline workers interact with data in dynamic ways which adapt plans and instructions to meet the challenges of specific situations. This can leave what actually works well in an organisation invisible.

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Lessons from an Oil Rig for Change and Leadership

11 Apr

A recent opinion article (full article here) on Oilpro.com highlights the need for safety culture to address human needs. Oilrigs are incredibly high risk environments where decision making, experience, expertise, procedures and leadership are essential to staying safe and completing tasks effectively. However, the Oilpro.com article identifies a trap people and organisations can easily fall into when confronted with high risk environments-the sensation that greater levels of procedures, micro management, and bureaucracy reduce mistakes, errors, and accidents. This trap contains the implicit assumption that narrowing the capacity for people to exercise judgement, improves performance. However, this approach has negative consequences for safety, leadership and managing change whilst building up potentially much bigger problems for the future (see Taleb, 2013, for a good overview of this concept).

The OIlpro.com article attends to how overuse of procedures and technology dulls the attentiveness of human operators. The author contrasts two types of oilrig work to make the point-

“Rig roughnecks and roustabouts repeat the same procedure over again for 12 hours straight without mistake, partly because then type of work has enough mix of eye, hand, foot and body movement to keep their mind occupied”

Compared to

“…systems operators no longer have a chance to patrol the plant; they must sit still in the same spot, staring into computer screens for hours at a time.”

The first description provides an opportunity for frontline workers to develop sense making of complex, non -routine situations, situational awareness and role expertise. These type of roles create tacit skills, as frontline workers develop fine-tuned heuristic methods of problem solving.

The second description represents distance between the human worker and their environment. This situation creates the opposite conditions for developing expertise. The human worker is cut off from the quality environmental feedback stemming from decisions. This separates the worker from the fine discriminations available from being directly on the frontline, leaving them with nothing to do but follow abstract procedure.

When an organisation introduces systems which potentially wash out expertise, it also dulls the organisation to small deviations in routines which could lead to large consequences; along with the methods to tackle these deviations in their infancy. It’s similar to beautifully redecorating a building whilst removing all fire detectors and fire extinguishers. Things look a lot better to the casual observer, but are in fact significantly more dangerous. The improvements are superficial and aesthetic.

The introduction of systems which separate workers from the opportunity to develop expertise, also reduces improvisation and innovation, and this has significant consequences for leadership. All procedures and routines will hit their limit. When procedures and routines hit their limit, they often require intuitive leadership- people who use experience and expertise to take control of a situation, and have the confidence and mandate to improvise when necessary. When procedures take precedence, problems are migrated up the hierarchy. This leaves frontline workers waiting for instructions from someone separated from a developing situation. This robs frontline workers of the opportunity to develop and practice leadership.

The article continues

“Leaders know that people want a sense of control of their work environment. Workers don’t want top down edicts telling them how they MUST conduct their work, to be announced by a memo stuck on a notice board. Work procedures must be constantly questioned, reviewed and modified”.

If leaders are looking to effectively manage change and build an adaptive (and resilient) organisation, then the experiences and expertise of frontline workers need to play a central role. Change works most effectively when it supports and enhances what people do well, not wash it out with top down, abstract systems and structures.

To achieve this, frontline workers need to operate in conditions which allows them to develop meaningful expertise (see above), and then this expertise needs to be collected, analysed and used to direct change, and constantly adapt, review and modify procedures. This places frontline experience at the heart of change. And this type of change provides people with clear meaning and significance, it’s their skills and experience which are driving the direction.

These arguments do not call for the abandonment of procedures, they have enormous value. Nor do these arguments call for constant disruptive change in which nothing can get done effectively. Instead they call for natural human strengths to be supported and enhanced by placing frontline workers in contact with the consequences of their decisions, allowing them to develop expertise, and the authority to lead and improvise.

If expertise is collected and analysed in a way which doesn’t increase workload (beyond the minimal), then it can be used to modify, support and enhance procedures, systems and structures. And this leads to greater levels of safety, innovation and motivation. This way, the organisation is shaped and changed by experience, not abstract theory masquerading as rigorous micro management.



Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.

Change and Resilience

15 Mar

How could an organisation improve its resilience? It’s safety record? Its ability to manage uncertainty and identify risks? The temptation is to head into a change programme, adopting an external model based on success elsewhere. Or by creating a plan largely defined by senior management expectations and top down in nature. Although these approaches can work, they also carry risks.

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Case Study-When Experts Assume too Much

11 Feb

Another one of our projects written up as a case study. The project illustrated how success, coupled with routine and familiarity, can sometimes increase a teams vulnerability to sudden change….

When a team performs well, communication frequently acts as the glue which binds the performance. Members of a top performing team understand how each other make sense of situations, what words and phrases mean within a context, and pass on instructions and intent clearly. When a team member tells a colleague that the risks in a certain procedure are “significant”, they both understand what degree of risk “significant” means in relation to the procedure. There is no mismatched assumptions and second guessing. But problems occur when a regular team member leaves or is sick, and is replaced with someone new to the team. Communication can no longer be taken for granted, but it frequently does in these situations. Assuming someone new will understand the intent behind communication in the same way as someone who has been a team member for two years can be costly at best and catastrophic at worst. Inside of two days we able to provide a solution which ensured that new and temporary staff working in the NHS were able to pick up the intent of a well-established team immediately.

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Transforming Expertise

28 Jan

Mickinsey and Company recently published an interesting article entitled “Transforming Expert Organizations”. The article identified an interesting “expertise paradox”. Expertise builds up within an organization, is highly effective and transformational, but then becomes increasingly more difficult for outsiders to understand and access. The authors of the article (Bollard et al, 2016) refer to this as an “expertise silo” and describe the concept below

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Frozen Decisions

7 Jan

When we read a report, analyse data, examine a survey, how long is it valid as a basis for decision making? Five months? Five weeks? Of course, there isn’t a right answer. Every data source requires a degree of vigilance as time and activity chip away at its relevance. I’ll share an example below where a report I wrote for the purposes of decision making was invalid the moment it was printed.

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