Change is responsible for more management angst than almost anything else on their agenda. With good reason: apart from leadership, it is the most discussed and least understood element in the discipline – witness a failure rate among large change initiatives that is commonly put at 70 per cent.
Why does change so often go wrong? One clue might be that in many big organisations the custodians of the change budget are... the IT department. There’s a plausible logic to this. IT is routinely presented as the ‘driver’ or less assertively the ‘enabler’ of change, the assumption being that going digital will automatically improve efficiencies and outcomes and thus should lead. Yet, as we all know to our cost, IT projects are even more prone to failure than change programmes.
The truth is that the logic is back to front. IT and change initiatives have a fatal flaw in common, which is that they start at the end, not the beginning. So managers debate strategic options, then draw up plans and schedules complete with quick wins, intermediate milestones, deliverables, and carefully orchestrated communications campaigns to keep people and programme marching towards the desired destination. Of course they do. Where else would you start than with a plan?
Unfortunately, however, there’s a snag. And it’s a fundamental one. While life – as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it – is understood backwards, it can only be lived forwards. This deceptively simple truth means that managing by preordained result is both epistemologically and practically a nonsense. Organisations are human entities consisting of too many variables, too many shifting pieces, and too many feedback loops, all interacting with each other all the time, for them to submit to a fixed plan. Evolution, as someone said, is cleverer than you are. In other words, change is an effect as much as a cause. It is emergent.
This changes everything. The result is not just a different ‘change model’ but a different way of thinking. Conventional change models come straight out of the command-and-control (aka central planning) playbook, decreed from above and driven down through the organisation. In the alternative, systems view, on the other hand, change is better thought of as a process of discovery, proceeding not by way of an abstract plan plotted to a fixed destination, but through open-ended investigation and iterative experiment leading to constantly improving outcomes.
In this version, change starts by establishing not the destination but, much more prosaically, the starting point – something that, extraordinarily, most managers fail to do. Root-and-branch analysis of the current state of play on the ground – that is, face to face with the customer, rather than regulators, shareholders and inspectors – invariably confronts managers with two unwelcome findings. The first is that their real problems aren’t the ones they thought they were (and they are never the lack of fancy IT – sometimes indeed the reverse, as is the case with the shambolic Universal Credit roll-out).
The second, closely related, is that your product or service is way less good than your (or your regulators’) figures led you to believe. Only when you have digested that news (having passed through shock and denial on the way) are you in a position to figure out where and what to improve; and it’s only when the hypothesis has been tested in action that it is possible to envisage what the final change will actually look like.
Such a modest, empirical approach to change has two enormous advantages. The first is that it prevents managers wasting large amounts of money and effort on top-down change programmes that are doomed to fail. The second is that, conversely, cumulative improvements can eventually lead to the kind of gains that no one would have dared to put in a plan. Which all goes to show that the hoary Irish joke had it right all along. If you start from here, you can’t be sure where you’ll end up. But it will be a lot better than imagining you know where you want to go – because in that case you’d have to start from somewhere quite else.
This article first appeared in Professional Manager, June 2019