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Bare Bones Change Management

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Organizational change is hard. The following syllogism, while popular, doesn’t explain why.

Major premise: Attempts at business change fail more often than they succeed.

Minor premise: When something goes wrong, it must be someone else’s fault (with “someone else” defined as “someone I can safely call them“).

Conclusion: Business change fails because employees (them to far too many business executives and managers) just naturally resist all change. Why? Because they’re too stupid to understand that all change is good.

As syllogisms go, it’s pretty bad. The major premise is on target. But as the minor premise is poisonous and the conclusion demonstrable nonsense, what’s surprising is the syllogism’s popularity among business change management practitioners.

The question of why business change is so difficult and what you can do about it has been on my mind since long before I started writing Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do (IS Survivor Publishing, 2010, and how’s that for a subtle hint that I’d like to sell you a copy?).

That employees don’t just naturally resist all change is certain. If they did, employers wouldn’t have to worry about whether they spend too much time on Facebook, which would have been an utter failure if everyone just naturally resists change. Speaking of utter failures, if everyone just naturally resists change, Steve Jobs would be a footnote instead of a CEO rock star, we’d all still be playing 33 rpm LPs instead of wondering if CDs are now officially obsolete, and there would be no controversy as to whether cell phones cause brain cancer because nobody would be using a cell phone, let alone abandoning their Blackberries for iPhones and Android phones because the Blackberry don’t have a decent App Store.

Nor, if everyone just naturally resists change, would the self-contradictory phrase “New and improved” (how can a product be both?) be a popular choice in advertising copy. “The same old stuff you’re used to!” would be the compelling sales argument.

Line employees do seem to resist many of the changes introduced by management. It isn’t that they’re too stupid to understand all change is good. It’s that they’re too smart … smart enough to understand most future business changes will be bad for them, just like what they’ve experienced over the past few decades of business change:

  • Layoffs.
  • Invalidation of hard-won skills.
  • More downward pressure on their compensation; very possibly outright pay cuts.
  • A less pleasant work environment.
  • More work and (very probably) more unpaid work hours.

Besides, line employees are far from the most important source of organizational resistance to change, however they respond. Resistance from the executive and management ranks is more likely and has far more impact. Why more impact is obvious. But more likely?

Yes, more likely. One reason among many is the too-common siloization that focuses executives’ competitive instincts on each other: If I propose a big and important change and you lead a rival silo, your reaction to my proposal is predetermined.

Executive resistance to change is more important than general-purpose employee change resistance. Still, it’s neither the most important source of organizational resistance to change nor the most interesting.

Award that prize to the structural factors that interact to “reinforce the status quo” … that stabilize the organization in its current configuration.

Structural factors include the overall organizational design, specific reporting relationships, facilities, governance processes, accounting system, and compensation philosophy. It’s evolution in action: These all morph over time until they reinforce each other to become The Way Things Are.

Then they stop morphing. From that point forward these structural factors will interconnect the company’s components like a bunch of rubber bands. Any attempt to change The Way Things Are will push on one or more of them, and like a bunch of rubber bands they’ll stretch to absorb the energy, then snap back to their resting state, taking the organization with them.

So if, for example, you’re trying to institute organized business processes to replace the operate-by-folklore approach that currently dominates your department, you’d better change the compensation philosophy that rewards effective crisis management while being blind to crisis prevention.

If you want employees to work in teams, you’d better factor in the increased reliance on telework that limits the amount of interpersonal interaction employees have with each other.

If you realign responsibilities, you’d better make sure you realign the budget too so those newly responsible can afford their responsibilities.

And so on.

Making sure organizational change happens as planned is a big complicated topic — too big and complicated to cover in a blog.

That’s why I wrote a book.

Comments (4)

  • I think you overestimate peoples ability to understand change. It has been my experience that most people can’t integrate change because they can’t integrate it into a bigger picture. Really, in everyday work life, I am amazed at most people’s inability to see a bigger picture or even value seeing a bigger picture. Without it change is just for change sake or something that is dictated to them. Having said that, solid leadership can overcome resistance to change by inspiring confidence. Management and line employees can accept change even if they don’t see the big picture if there is confidence in the leadership. People act in their on best interest that’s why they will follow a good leader but resist change they can’t evaluate.

    I’m not cynical; I’m respectful of what motivates us.

  • To have effective change you have to have a vision of where things should be and believe in the vision. Getting to moon in the 60’s was virtually impossible by any modern evaluation of the engineering systems in place in those heady days. It was simply the belief that we could do it, once a path to the goal was “seen”. If an organization fails to see the path to the goal and/or fails to believe in the goal, the change will fail. That’s why Jobs is King: We believe!

  • Good post. I think most people resist change because they have a desire to feel secure. Even changes that can be seen as better in the long run are painful because they interrupt this motivation. I think Kotter’s model does the best job of leading change while respecting this.

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