Change management and mistaking green for gold

A few years back, a well-known consultancy business decided to abandon its dress convention of dark suits and white shirts and said folks could dress casual. But quite soon, they decided to make it a bit clearer just what counted as casual and what was unacceptably scruffy. They thought they’d changed cos people were no longer wearing the boring suits. But just below the surface, they remained a company fixated on telling people how to dress.

So often in life, we confuse surface novelty with real change. We bore ourselves and friends with some version of “Yes, but this time I’ve cracked it”.

We celebrate our discovery of gold, when in fact we’ve only produced some green.

I was reminded of this when reading this McKinsey article: The irrational side of change management. (Thanks to Shawn Callahan for tweeting it.)

It kicks off with John Kotter’s finding that only 30% of change management programmes succeed and goes on to explore how human foibles, cognitive biases and so forth derail so many of them.

It takes shots at the tired idea of change being about creating a compelling story. It suggests managers often overlook that different people find different things compelling. And they sometimes make their stories too weighted on the negative (depressing) or postive (implausible).

It says that leaders think they are exemplars of Gandhi’s “be the change” mantra, but (like the rest of us) are delusional about their own merits.

And Mark will be pleased with McKinsey’s debunking of influentials:

Our experiences working with change programs suggest that success depends less on how persuasive a few selected leaders are and more on how receptive the “society” is to the idea. In practice it is often unexpected members of the rank and file who feel compelled to step up and make a difference in driving change.

And I loved this nugget of psychology, used to encourage managers to let people create their own change ideas and not just impose them:

In a famous behavioral experiment, half the participants are randomly assigned a lottery ticket number while the others are asked to write down any number they would like on a blank ticket. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offer to buy back the tickets from their holders. The result: no matter what geography or demographic environment the experiment has taken place in, researchers have always found that they have to pay at least five times more to those who came up with their own number.

All interesting stuff. Which makes me wonder..

Why do I feel so frustrated with this article?

It’s the tedious management consultant tropes in here that raise my hackles.

There’s the fetishisation of numbers:

This relatively simple shift in approach lifted employee motivation measures from 35.4 percent to 57.1 percent in a month, and the program went on to achieve 10 percent efficiency improvements in the first year

I loathe this kind of fake precision about intangible beliefs and feelings. It seems endemic to the likes of McKinsey and it invents a delusional parallel universe that has nothing to do with gritty reality. Any conversation in which this sort of thing is spouted and someone doesn’t at least grind their teeth is going to go somewhere daft.

And I also detect an implicit reverence for hierarchy, even amidst the suggestions about empowerment (my italics):

Look at Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer’s approach of asking each of his top 75, “What should I do differently?”

Consider the top team of a national insurance company who routinely employed what they called the circle of fire during their change program

This finding has profound implications for leaders

Then there’s the drab, schoolmarmish tone of passages like this:

We advocate a number of enhancements to traditional training approaches in order to hardwire day-to-day practice into capability-building processes. First, training should not be a one-off event. Instead, a “field and forum” approach should be taken, in which classroom training is spread over a series of learning forums and fieldwork is assigned in between. Second, we suggest creating fieldwork assignments that link directly to the day jobs of participants, requiring them to put into practice new mind-sets and skills in ways that are hardwired into their responsibilities. These assignments should have quantifiable, outcome-based measures that indicate levels of competence gained and certification that recognizes and rewards the skills attained.

Jeez, would you want to work for someone who can take the language of Shakespeare and produce this kind of numbing dreariness?

And then, in a piece that at times dares to point to the complexity of managing human beings, we conclude with a paragraph that sounds oddly panglossian:

In the same way that the field of economics has been transformed by an understanding of uniquely human social, cognitive, and emotional biases, so too is the practice of change management in need of a transformation through an improved understanding of how humans interpret their environment and choose to act.

Translation: If we really, really work hard, all the complexity of human experience can be reduced to something that clever people (namely, us) can finally tame. Purest green.

McKinsey appear to be all about change, but I fear they really want a lot of things to stay the same. And be in charge of them.

So what’s the alternative?

Glad you asked.

In the little world of advertising, where I used to work, everyone would get very excited about the occasional brilliant ad they’d seen. It seems like the narrative around advertising was skewed to a few good ones so that we seem to forget that the vast majority of what’s produced is patronising, devious, intrusive drivel. Clients keep trying to emulate Apple’s 1984 triumph and ignore the massive statistical probability that their advertising will be rubbish. Why not forget advertising and do something more interesting instead?

So if most change programmes fail, do we really want to go through another attempt to hire the high rent Baldricks and their latest even more cunning plan?

When I graduated, I could never quite relate to my contemporaries who trotted off to the consulting firms and enthused about that wretched book, “In Search of Excellence”. With the confidence of middle age, I suppose I can say that I find people who blather about excellence are mostly ego maniacs and control freaks. If you wanna be excellent that’s great. Why not get on with it and stop trying to make everyone else live up to some ideals you want to impose?

And the further I read articles like this, the more at sea I find myself. I think it relates to the stuff about the Knowing-Doing Gap. Somehow leadership and management keeps being claimed by people who can churn out the clever writing and statistics… but real life just doesn’t work like this.

When I read this article, I find some good ideas but basically I fear the deeper narrative r
emains the same… we must have leaders who hire thinkerly consultants so that we can succeed.

If a company addicted to spending money on bad advertising one days stops, it’s not going to be easy. They’re not going to know what to do. Maybe they have to keep their nerve and realise now they’re going to take some real risks, makes some new mistakes and hopefully figure out a better way of doing things for themselves.

And the business that dares to just give up on the lexicon of change management is likewise going to have sit with the huge discomfort that comes when we admit we don’t really have an easy answer.

Maybe most of the conversations around change management fail because management and leadership are over-rated? And beneath the hygienic statistics and competitive cleverness lurk much more interesting, much less comfortable questions about who has real power around here, and why?

8 thoughts on “Change management and mistaking green for gold

  1. Viv McWaters

    Reminds me of the client who asked how I could ‘ensure a controlled and managed roll out of a change process?’ I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough!

  2. Antony Mayfield

    Like some of where this is going especially the over-emphasis on numbers, the groundedness of being realistic and excessively elaborate and frankly bad use of language (beware some of the words you use are pretty indeciferable to the layman too)

    To me it does feel however like you are seeing this in a way that’s disconnected from what really drives powerful change. An almost irrational hatred of people telling people what to do…..

    The truth is that the strongest leaders , the ones who genuinely change things, impose their will disproportionately on people in their organisations, and won’t accept mediocrity or excessive democracy in the pursuit of making good things happen.


    Johnnie, you are brilliant.

    Thank you for this post – it is just perfect. I particularly enjoyed the “false precision” of stats and the cloying “implicit reverence for hierarchy” that you call out…

    I come away from reading this a little lighter of spirit and a little less tolerant of obfuscatory pseudo-management nonsense…

  3. Chris Mowles

    You’re right to be cross, Johnnie. Notice also the attempt to draw on scientific language for what the consultants are recommending – so we we have ‘hard wired’ twice, the suggestion being, presumably, that human beings are like computers with wiring that can just be wired differently. And we don’t have change unless we have quantifiable metrics apparently. To argue against this becomes hard because it appears as though one is being ‘unscientific’ in doing so. Actually it’s a form of social control dressed up in quasi-scientific language which needs to be resisted.

    I enjoyed your post.


  4. Subbu

    Change Managements fail because Management and Leadership are over-rated. Spot on. If leaders practiced before they preached, there is no need for preaching or changing. Very nice post.

  5. Geoff Brown

    I miss Dr Rant … of how much of this makes so much sense to me.

    I discovered that a local person in Aireys Inlet (who I have never really clicked with) is a Sigma Six consultant … need I say more.


  6. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Ok, Tim, I’ll bite. You suggest I have “an almost irrational hatred of people telling people what to do” I’m not quite sure what a rational hatred would look like, but yes I am very wary of power derived from hierarchy alone.

    I’m not sure but you seem to imply that “telling people what to do” is what “drives powerful change”. Do you really believe that is how change happens? Most of the literature on personal change – which might be considered small potatoes compared to organisational change – suggests that relationship is key, not order giving.

  7. Byron Reine

    I have often been frustrated when Psychology does one experiment and then projects it out onto humanity itself making broad conclusions from a bunch of college students in a lab. I do know a ton of it is valid and useful, but some of it is way out there. I agree that people have to be more careful when they use some of these studies to back up their management practices. I can find an experiment to back almost any kind of behavior up.

    Thanks for writing.


    subbu what do you mean by change management always fail’s?


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