Change Management – Pooh Bear, Superman, Wardrobes and Beer Mats

I want to talk to you about changes to the way we think about change. I want to leave you unsure as to whether I believe what I’m saying – but sure that the questions are worth asking.

I was asked to speak on how to change people and working in organisational development and, having run HR and OD projects internationally for a large proportion of my career, that was a sensible request. I was also asked to speak because I like disagreeing with things. I mean to provoke, rather than offend.

So here is the first thing that I disagree with – I disagree with the notion that I can stand on stage for 25 minutes and leave you with a few slides that explain how things work. I think I can give you 25 minutes of questions and reflections that might make you query whether my profession adds as much value as you think – and whether the reliance placed upon it is prudent. I want to take you on a rollercoaster ride where you end up in the same place that you started, but with an unsettling feeling in your stomach. I will follow the same format as any speaker – I’ll share a personal story, I’ll share some research that supports my argument and I’ll leave you with a call to arms. Unlike most speakers I want you to relentlessly question everything I say – because that’s what we don’t do enough of. I will talk to you about Pooh Bear, Superman, wonky wardrobes and beer mats. Remember those things.

I’m here to ask you if you are really sure that the concept of change management isn’t really snake oil. To ask you if you are really sure that the experts have expertise. If you are really sure that you aren’t applying the handbrake at the very point you need to be accelerating. If you are really sure that we aren’t just getting this wrong each day.

But first of all I want to speak to you about Winnie the Pooh, because that is how these things work. I give you a nice story (often about something from my childhood but slightly removed from yours) then I give you some stats, then I give you some suggestions. I talk about them with conviction and animation. As a result you walk away feeling that you must have seen an expert and therefore I must have spoken the truth. I’m reminding you to question that assumption throughout. Here we go…

Berlin is a city that has seen more change than most and The British Embassy, where the conference takes place, only dates back to the year 2000. When researching the building I discovered it was designed by a chap called Michael Wilford. It could have been designed by anyone, anywhere,but it was designed by someone who – as luck would have it – was born 2 miles down the road from the small village where I grew up in East Sussex, in the heart of the 100 Acre Wood.

You may notice that I grew up in a children’s cartoon. I’m hoping that makes you smile and even laugh – as if it does you will relax a bit more into the presentation and find what I’m saying more plausible. We trust people more when we enjoy things with them.

Hartfield is a leafy little village that was home to A.A.Milne who wrote the Winnie the Pooh stories or Winnie(-die-)Puuh as he is known in Germany. The stories in the books are centred around real life places. One of these is Pooh Bridge which I used to visit when I was younger. Pooh Bridge was the centre of a game in the stories called Pooh Sticks, a game with very simple rules. You all throw a stick into the river on one side of the bridge and the winner is the person whose stick appears first on the other side. Since 1984 a World PoohSticks Championship has taken place on the Thames. It’s a big deal, I’m not making this up. There is a World Championship…

When I was younger Pooh Bridge was a ramshackle bridge, almost falling down. My brother and I used to play Pooh Sticks and the trick was basically to climb down into the water (or at the very least scrabble across the muddy banks) and look for where sticks got stuck, where the water flowed fastest and where the weeds were that could slow your stick down and cause you to lose. We had high visibility of the challenges so we had a reasonable way of predicting the result. In 1999 an appeal was made by East Sussex council to Disney (who own the rights to Winnie The Pooh) to help rebuild the bridge. As part of this process the old ramshackle bridge ended up looking like this.

You’ll notice those nice safety barriers have been added which prevent you clambering down the banks. The rules of the game have changed. The semblance of control we had over the result when we were very young has gone. The ability to understand and react to the environment has gone. We now just throw in a stick and hope – in fact the only thing we have control of is picking that stick for it’s weight, shape and length. We just hope it gets through the murk under the bridge successfully. The barriers imposed by a company to give safety and control to the situation are the barriers that reduce our ability to adapt and learn.

Yet still, whenever my brother and I play, we kid ourselves that we are somehow making decisions that lead to us winning. We pretend we make a difference because that is what people do.

Years before my brother and I became so disproportionately upset about Pooh Bridge – upset that future generations of Poohstick players would never get to understand the flow of the river – upset enough to base a conference speech in Germany about it – the PreSocratic Philosopher Heraclitus.was writing about change and rivers.

He nailed a couple of things that we appear to have forgotten in the last few thousand years in the rush to print management, leadership, change and OD books and to fit things on powerpoint slides for conferences that people can take back to the workplace and show as evidence the trip was worth it.

  • “Everything flows”
  • “No man ever steps in the same river twice”

Dubious statistics suggest that 70% of change management programmes fail. Finding evidence of the statistic is tricky, but finding people who think that statistics are entirely inaccurate is also tricky. Perhaps because Heraclitus (born in 535 BC) had nailed it first time round. Managing change never works because it is always different. No amount of hours on MS Project will stop that river from flowing.

The most common factor in change programmes is our ability to overestimate our ability to change people and influence the result.

philosopher (1)

It is your belief that people like me ‘get this’ – and the reality may be that we are just people who believe we ‘get this’.

We believe we change people. We probably don’t – we probably just influence in a hamfisted way and explain away poor results as unanticipatable.

We believe we can use the same model we used last year to apply to a an environment that is changing beyond recognition. Changing in leaps and bounds not seen for hundreds of years. Global, social, connected, disconnected, immediate, unpredictable, rich and bankrupt. The first iPad was released on April 3, 2010. Now that looks like old technology.

“We both step and do not step in the same rivers” said Heraclitus. It’s always a river, it’s always flowing, it changes so fast that we can’t define it.

“McKinsey consultant Julien Phillips first published a change management model in 1982 in the journal Human Resource Management, though it took a decade for his change management peers to catch up with him “- this is according to Wikipedia (which is where we go for information now, but didn’t even exist until 2000). The first HR model illustrating how to get buy in to change took a decade to get buy in.

And you trust us with your organisations, you bring us in to your organisations to provide advice. You ask us to help effect change in people and prospects. You ask us to work out how the org chart should look in 2 to 3 years to support a 5 year plan we know isn’t going to happen in a world we can’t anticipate.

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 brilliant UK pro, suggested that whilst in the films Superman enters a revolving door as Clark Kent and dramatically 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. It’s the crime of the modern organisation – we make people smaller

clark kent

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. It’s going back to the river and poor old Heraclitus with his project plan.

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. It’s scary but it means you could be Superman if you wanted to.

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 our desire to speak the truth. You’ll watch this video and convince yourself you wouldn’t do the same – chances are you probably would.

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. wonky wardrobe

The wonky IKEA wardrobe that you took you all weekend to build and almost cost you your marriage – that is a source of pride and evidence of endeavour for you. Everybody else sees a wonky wardrobe, but there I am standing proud of my creation. The researchers found that the more complex the construction was the harder it was to dissuade people that their finished result wasn’t brilliant. Think for the moment about the organisational parallels.

A company wide change project run by the CEO is likely to end with 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 about the value of what we have created. We need to believe it to be great.

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? 

We can rely on the these things that feel true

  • 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 know that increasingly the ability of organisations to compete in the way they have traditionally (create a product, produce that product, market the product well and improve productivity to reduce costs) is being compromised by the ability of China to rapidly reverse engineer product and systemise its production, at volume, at low cost.

So what does a world look like where you can’t change people and everything you do can be copied? It looks like a world where you change your bias from efficiency to constant, relentless progress. You play to your strengths by reducing the emphasis on duplication of product and increasing the emphasis on cycles of creation. From command and control to enabling. You help people work in groups, to make independent decisions and then you place value on that decision making.

  • Make people feel part of a group – enable communication, flexibility, cultural flags, strong sense of identity. Encourage people to create and play together.
  • People like to feel like they are making independent decisions – do one of two things – let them make independent decisions or let them think they are
  • Make people think their work is valued – celebrate failure, celebrate success, constantly learn, show visibility and credit throughout a project. We focus so much on progress we forget that the platform for it is the work already done. The people who build the platform like to be acknowledged.

That’s the takeaway based on science. Don’t listen to the people telling you how to change people – create an environment that opens doors for people instead of forcing them into dead ends.

Here’s the cute bit – you can still influence decision making significantly through ‘nudges’, small changes to the environment that force or influence choices. For instance

Placing healthy foods in your office canteen at eye level and making unhealthier foods less accessible would be a simple nudge

Or asking people to opt out of organ donation (rather than opt in) which increases the percentage willing to give organs by up to 80%

Or asking someone to sign to confirm they are telling the truth before they fill in an insurance claim (rather than to sign it at the end)  to drive down claims

Or increasing the percentage of people paying government fines by up to six fold by sending them a personalised text message

Or reducing the amount of people incurring charges from their bank for borrowing too much money by asking them to take several surveys about whether they borrow too much money. That one nudge changes behaviour for up to two years.

I can’t tell you if doing this is ethical, that is a complex question, but I can tell you that it is possible to change people’s behaviour without having to change people. We control environment and messaging and, sinister as that may sound, that is enough to change decisions and behaviours. We need to use that control positively.

We have the technology both here and emerging that enables us to control an environment more effectively from ever before. We have the technology that could enable the autonomy to create like never before. We have a choice as to whether we use this technology to monitor and police or to provide insight to release. I vote for the latter, I completely appreciate the temptation of the former – but when did you ever know someone who created more effectively with someone looking over their shoulder?

Helping people feel they are making an independent decision to improve will always be more effective and sustainable than attempting to impose that change. It is how we are wired.

We can spend time being concerned about defending our historic industries or we can steal a march on creating new ones. It isn’t just social media and tech – it is whatever is still to be done in a new or different way. You only have to steal a look at Kickstarter to see that people are constantly creating – over $1 billion has been pledged to projects on just that platform, 5.8 million people have backed over 100000 Kickstarter projects. That is the future of product design and value.  That is the future of radical business – you trust the people making and servicing product to act as a group to make more of your decisions. Crowdfund your internal projects by deciding on resource allocation. We can do this now, we have the technology. Let’s use that technology to automate things that support  people, not try and take us closer to being robots. Western economies simply can’t win and can’t compete in a future driven by efficiency.

I’d like to leave you with something very low tech. Let’s talk beermats.

I visited Berlin just before Christmas and we visited the Zoo. My wife lived here for an number of years when she was younger and remembered the zoo as a highlight of her childhood, much like I remember Pooh Bridge. We took our 4 year old daughter and we were sure that she would enjoy it.

She didn’t. For her a Zoo didn’t make just didn’t make sense.

As we toured the bird enclosure, my daughter explained, unprompted, that she didn’t like the birds being kept in cages as they couldn’t fly properly. It made her sad.

I don’t have an educated position on animal rights and I’m not an expert on zoo design. I did say to my daughter that when she grows up I don’t think they will have zoos like this anymore, because they won’t want to take animals from their homes unless they will be happier in the zoo. If you built Berlin or any modern city now, starting from scratch, you would struggle to make a case for 84 acres of land to be dedicated to collection of animals from across the globe. Zoos are marvels of a past age, but they are to be appreciated in the present and not built for the future.

The Zoo is a hangover from a past age, where we collected wonders of the world in one place so people could be amazed at their existence. Whilst The Discovery Channel and wildlife programmes aren’t a straight substitute for the real thing, they are close enough for children growing up today not to have a requirement for zoos..

The Zoo fails the beermat test. If it wasn’t invented and I sketched the idea on a beermat whilst we were chatting in a pub you wouldn’t think it made sense. You might create conservation areas and animal sanctuaries and all sorts of things like that – but not the old fashioned zoo. The same is true of many organisations. We put people in cages and hope they’ll be docile.pooh zoo

Much of the modern world fails the beermat test. If it wasn’t in place already there is no way that you would design it that way.

I’m not an anarchist in the workplace and I don’t think I qualify as an idealist. I’m pretty pragmatic but I do principles. I told you I was going to leave you with questions and challenges but first a call to arms – when we convene for drinks or you go back to your hotel go grab a beermat and identify what elements of your company structure, customer experience and ways of working would fail the beermat test.

If you designed it from scratch is that what you’d do? If it gets you excited then do you really need a change management programme to share that excitement– or do you just need to appeal to people to help you build it?

And finally some questions to reflect on whilst you do that.

1. How do you ensure we use technology and workplace environments to free people to create – rather than to control people to produce?

2. How can you make sure that personally, each day you come out of the revolving door as Superman (and not Clark Kent)?

3. How do you avoid being the proud owner of a wonky wardrobe?

As Herclitus said ‘everything flows’, so please don’t put safety barriers on Pooh Bridge – and please don’t imprison my bear. Please do go create a future on a beermat.

Thank you.

(feedback welcome folks! Thanks to the brilliant Simon Heath for the illustration, it’s the skeleton of my talk at this – thanks for all the views so far)

11 thoughts on “Change Management – Pooh Bear, Superman, Wardrobes and Beer Mats

  1. Love this article (thought I had commented on it already but maybe not). Particularly this:

    “One person Ali Germain, a brilliant UK pro, suggested that whilst in the films Superman enters a revolving door as Clark Kent and dramatically 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. It’s the crime of the modern organisation – we make people smaller.”

    I think the place I work is doing a lot to free the Supermen and women – but this inspires me to do more.


  2. Great stuff. I feel the zoos of the future will look like the Hancock Museum in Newcastle… I love the beer mat test and playing characters in the face of incomprehensible complexity in the environment…definitely food for thought..


  3. Been a bit MIA on here recently but this has been great to return to! You’re gonna knock their socks off over in bonny Berlin! Don’t know if you’d want to reference Steve Peters Chimp Paradox content in the bit about wanting to feel part of a group?


  4. Sorry I’ve taken so long to respond David… Love the flow, story & reflection. Challenge everything I say is a great & refreshing place to start 🙂

    Throughout, I have a question of who is “we”? Is it the audience? HR? People? Maybe that uncertainty is the approach!

    Regarding our ability to overestimate our ability to change people and influence the result. Parking the language of “change people” – we can only influence, even with nudges – I think we should hold a high ambition about our ability but balanced in reality. The high ambition could be the drive to make change happen, well. I’m not sure I want to be lead by someone who underestimates their ability to lead/manage change? So for me the “issue” I think you’re describing is one of oversimplification and perhaps a false belief that we can “change people”. If I tell the organisation to do this and head this way, then they’ll do it. Is that how you see it?

    Ali’s Superman story is great. The issue here for me is do we allow people to turn up as their true self. If we want to lead change, well, then we need to create a safe & honest environment with the connection & trust that allows people to walk in as themselves & be themselves. This is where the mechanistic piece of Change Management fails… Where do you see Change Leadership in here?

    BTW, have you read David Rocks SCARF model? Could potentially be useful reflection/resource/reference?

    I really like go create a future on a beermat 🙂

    Break a leg!


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