Shaping – Change Management – Part 2

This is the continuation of this first post on change management and snake oil. There was a largely positive response to the first piece – with the exception of one commenter who said my negativity about HR nearly made them stop reading. I think that negativity is necessary to provide the provocation to the listener to reflect on how much they just take for granted now and hopefully to challenge more in the future. I accept people may not like the approach, I also accept I may be wrong, but it’s the one I’ve chosen. It gets people’s attention. I appreciate the feedback all the same – and invite more thoughts and suggestions on materials for the below.

Quick recap: change management is attempting to control the unpredictable. This is becoming increasingly silly as things become more unpredictable. We’ve covered Winnie the Pooh, Heraclitus and the British Embassy architecture so far…

So… I’ve promised you science and I’m going to deliver a few oversights on research that support the position that attempting to change people is counterproductive. Before I do that there is philosophy to throw into the mix- and whilst I can’t use that to prove anything I can use it to help provide some more questions.

Jean Paul Sartre described the concept of ‘Bad Faith’. That people cannot confront the infinity of choices that are actually open to them and consequently retreat into playing characters. The waiter in the restaurant adopts the behaviour of a waiter so as to give himself definition. He turns up on time, he speaks to his manager and customers as you would expect a waiter to, he adopts the mannerisms of a waiter. You see it with salespeople every day. They all look the same.

When I was writing this speech I invited other people to contribute, one person Ali Germain, a UK pro, suggested that whilst in the Superman films he enters a revolving door as Clark Kent and pops out of the other side as Superman – in our working lives we do the opposite. We become weaker when we enter the workplace. We let our senses and passions become dulled and switch off the richness of our brains. It’s safer than risking it all each day and being disappointed.

I would like you to reflect on whether we might just have change management initiatives in organisations simply so organisations do not have to face up to the enormity of external change. It isn’t to enable change at all, it is simply a front to create a comfort blanket of control and stability. And yet understanding change isn’t understanding control – change is the knowing that everything is in flux.

We are people with choices – we aren’t the business cards that you carry saying Head of Corporate Property, Group Property Director or Workplace Strategist..You could wake up tomorrow and not go into work. Or you could go into work and behave completely differently, be the person you are outside of work. Be Superman.

Change is scary – yet if I say the magic words ‘growth’, ‘progress’ or ‘innovation’ to you then you get excited… So let’s talk about how we can influence choices that can help create those things – and leave changing people to one side. Because we know something about choice. We know the following

  • People like to feel part of a group
  • People like to feel like they are making independent decisions
  • People like to feel like their work is valued
  • We can influence people and make people more comfortable by utilising these factors to nudge their behaviour
  • What I can’t tell you is whether that is ethical

How much do people like to feel part of a group? 

Well, we’ve known this for a while. It actually trumps so of our desire to speak the truth.

How much do we like to feel we are making independent decisions and solving problems on our own? 

Dan Ariely and the team at the Centre for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University created an experiment where individuals were asked to create solutions to a world problem using words that were mainly synonyms. They could only come up with one solution to the problem. Despite the fact that the ideas were, intrinsically, all the same idea – when individuals were brought together to discuss the their ideas people fought passionately that their wording and therefore their ideas were the best. We want to believe our thoughts are unique, even when they are demonstrably the same as other people’s we still fight to believe they aren’t.

How much do people like to feel their work is valued?

The Ikea effect is another Dan Ariely experiment, described in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’. It’s based on the observation that people are more attached to things that they have created themselves – and overrate how well others will rate that object. The wonky IKEA wardrobe that you took you all weekend to build and almost cost you your marriage – that is a source of pride for you. Everybody else sees a wonky wardrobe . The researchers found that the more complex the building was the harder it was to dissuade people that the finished result wasn’t brilliant. Think for the moment about the organisational parallels. It is almost like a company wide change project run by the CEO is destined to have the CEO sitting in the middle of it, marvelling at the complexity of what he has created and bewildered why other people don’t see its greatness. Marvel at this wonky wardrobe of a company I have created. As soon as things become hard and complex for us then we believe there must be value there. Which is why asking me (or any professional charged with helping organisations change) will never get a rational answer. We need to believe it to be true.

So we’ve established some of the key factors that we have at play. Next let’s talk about how we can play with some of these things to get people to act differently – and whether it is right to play with people’s choices. And then it is over to you to go and face your own choices – Do we free people up and and try and control change. Or do we try and ride the wave of change? Which feels more comfortable and which feels more sensible. Knowing that people will lie in groups, have a need to feel they have contributed that overrides logic and overvalue their own work – and that this probably won’t change – how do I help progress happen for my organisation.

Part 3 to follow.


Note: Thanks to those who have suggested elements or given feedback for the talk so far including Andy Jacobs, Doug Shaw, Simon Heath, Helen Tracey, David Goddin,Debbie and the fantastic folks at NZLEAD who are running a chat on change based on the first part of my speech this Thursday – for more details click here 

3 thoughts on “Shaping – Change Management – Part 2

  1. Ballsy move David. I like it!
    There are those who say that change leads to improvement knowing full well that it is not always the case. And there are those who know that improvement can only come about because of change; but is inherently dangerous due to the first statement. Here lies the fear.
    We need to change (Ha) the questions Managers ask. Asking, “do you want to change?” Will get at best a passive/aggressive “If it is necessary.” But asking, “Do you want to improve?” usually elicits a resounding “Yes.” The next question is, “What change do we need to make to improve.”
    I use this, with illustrations, quite effectively in organisations. Perhaps it can help.
    Good Luck.
    Paul Walsh


    1. I like the questioning. I think the language is key. People are resistant to change (we keep telling them they are). People always want to improve (we keep telling them that). So I’m guessing we should push at the open door…


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