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 

In bed

In bed

A few weeks ago my mother (of all people) let me know about a game.

When you get a fortune cookie you have to read it out loud and add the words ‘in bed’


I got a fortune cookie. It read ‘You have style and panache’.

You see where this is going….

Anyway, a few days later it was picked up on Twitter and Kate Griffiths-Lambeth added some fortunes of her own from her Chinese meal..

Then the game was extended to tweets and we got a bit carried away and now I’m inviting you all to join in. If you’ve read this far… try it just once…

To play all you do is scan down someone’s timeline, pick a tweet that would benefit from the words ‘in bed’ being placed at the end and then quote/retweet it adding the words. If someone hits the RT or favourite button then move down their timeline and strike again..

I’m aware this is immature, I’m aware adds no actual value to the world, I’m aware some people will find it tiresome, I’m aware there is meltdown in the Ukraine but…

Sometimes things can just be fun


SKIVE – The Unsurprising Truth About What De-motivates Us

Loved this piece by @SimonHeath1. Brief and brilliant.


Ambition is a poor excuse for not having sense enough to be lazy.
Milan Kundera
I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.
Bill Gates

Leadership is not about rank or privilege, but a responsibility towards people. It is an understandable desire of the newly minted manager to want to erect an edifice in his own image but we should resist the temptation to lean in with process and structure, throwing up roadblocks for our people to contend with. The first action of leadership should be to step back and observe. Secondly, to form authentic, non-obvious and revealing insights and to then form ideas from those insights. In doing so, we also need to recognise that one of the most significant barriers to the execution of ideas is ourselves and therefore remember to stay out of…

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Help with the Shaping – Part 1

This is the first post for review in a series of me building a speech for an event in Berlin at the end of March. For more information see here. Someone suggested it was the first crowdsourced speech. I’m sure it isn’t but it’s nice to talk an approach that isn’t typical. Let’s replay the challenge…


“David will explore the diminishing relevance of attempts to influence behaviour through traditional change management techniques – and the risks that are inherent in managing change within an organisation with a script, whilst the world itself continues to surprise. David will link subjects as diverse as Winnie(-die-)Puuh (Winnie the Pooh), nudge theory and the architecture of the British Embassy to explore how, why and if organisations can change people as fast as the world itself does.”

This talk is about changes to the way we think about change. It’s about leaving people with more questions than answers. It is about leaving the people in the room slightly unsure as to whether I believe what I’m saying – and slightly concerned there may be a grain of truth in what I am saying. I was asked to do a speech 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.

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’m here to ask you if you are really sure that chunks of my profession aren’t peddling snake oil. 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 invite 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. Upon conducting some basic research into 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.

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. You’ll notice that essentially, the rules of the game have changed. The semblance of control we had over the result when we had when we were younger has gone. Our 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 that give control to the situation, that sanitise the experience, 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.

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

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 two to three years to support a 5 year plan we know isn’t going to happen.

Let me give you some science and statistics and make my position that we don’t know what we’re talking about seem grounded in science. That’s what we do…

(to be continued)