The Big Problem With Change Programmes

People don’t resist change, they resist bullshit – Peter Vander Auwera

A friend of mine told me last week that their organisation was about to begin its third change management programme in just seven years.

Each of the two preceding programmes had a number of things in common:

  • People were unclear why a programme was needed in the first place.
  • They had – seemingly – never been evaluated. Neither demonstrated what had been achieved or learned.
  • They had all been accompanied by processes, tools and practices that had long since been abandoned.

“The only thing that really stuck,” he said ” were the buzzwords”.

In his book Business Bullshit, Andre Spicer looks at how organisations have become vast machines for manufacturing, distributing and consuming bullshit. He takes us back to the birth of the management change movement – the 1960s and 1970s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’ and ‘being their best self’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which was needed to pitch themselves to clients.

Quite coincidentally the book I read before this was Selfie by Will Storr, about our culture of personal narcissism and self-obsession.

Events in both books intersect at the Esalen Institute, in California, where people get in touch with their hidden selves through group therapy and sensitivity training. Esalen gave birth to the dubious Human Potential Movement (simply believe in yourself more and you too can be Beyonce, fail and you simply didn’t want it enough.)

I’d never before made this connection between the personal self-improvement movement and the world of corporate change.

Both philosophies propose that there’s always a better version of you out there in the future. And by following a series of best practices, toolkits and templates that version of you can be realised.

Arguably, our obsession with business change is as much a symptom of modern narcissism as is the fact we take 1 million selfies each day.

Your change vision, like that perfectly framed Instagram pose,  is bullshit – and everybody knows it.

Do You Really Need Another Change Programme?

Change is not about going from one point to another, reaching a mythical ‘to be’ state and stopping there. The most important thing is what takes place from point A to whatever happens next – and that will almost never be what you predicted or what it says on a Gantt chart. Nobody can possibly know what will happen when you change things.

That’s why large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met.

Spicer maintains that today bureaucracy comes cloaked in the language of change with our organisations full of people whose job is to create change for no real reason.

Change, both personal and corporate, simply isn’t always needed.

Knowing the problems you need to fix and the ones you don’t is a key advantage.

Crucially, the evidence base for change is often suspect. In his book Will Storr argues that the origins of the whole self-improvement industry were founded on very shaky evidence from the start – with scientists’ less than enthusiastic findings being airbrushed from a final report.

Far from pursuing some unrealistic dream, perhaps we’d be much happier if we learned to live with our imperfections, neuroses and human frailties.

How To Avoid Corporate Narcissism

Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed.  That our organisations are flawed. They always have been and always will be.

Perhaps we need:

  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing little and fast through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until we have evidence that it works.

And that’s led me to consider the failure rate of change programmes and the impossibly high goals that organisations set.

The weight loss industry is booming – and so is obesity.

The change industry is booming – and productivity is tanking.

  • Maybe your organisation is unique because of its flaws.
  • Maybe you don’t need to follow a consultant led template of what great looks like.

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of perfection.

It means recognising you’ll always be flawed – and there’s a beauty in that.

I’m never going to be Elon Musk. Your organisation is never going to be Apple.

Maybe you’re meant to be that way.


22 thoughts on “The Big Problem With Change Programmes

  1. Management schools, MBAs and consultancies having to constantly sell something have a role in this.
    I haven’t seen an updated version of Richard Pascale’s Management fads, but I reckon the graph will have gone exponential since the 2000’s.
    The comparisons between weight loss courses, obesity , organisational change initiatives and reducing productivity is perfect.
    Cheers Paul

  2. Change programmes are an industrialized construct and, as such, they are rarely culturally insightful because they often fail to get under the skin of the deep issues around how a group of people adapts and changes.

    I think one of the reasons change management has become so clunky is because many organisations have lost touch with their driving purpose. When profit becomes the primary motive, people have to be corralled and subscribed into continually devising new methods to deliver it.

    Of course, the digital economy reframes the rules of the game for many businesses, and that’s the real challenge a lot of change management activity attempts to address. Managing change becomes a displacement activity, it’s palatable because it’s seemingly lower risk than getting rid of legacy structures.

    1. Thanks Anne – isn’t it interesting that managing change is seen as more palatable than tackling legacy structures? I was speaking at an event recently and asked the audience how many were undergoing a change programme – nearly 100% of hands went up. When I asked the same question about who was removing legacy structures – not a single hand went up.

      And that’s I think why we end up with optimisation, not transformation. Digitising the status quo!

      1. Absolutely Paul. Because of the fixed capital involved, we stay where we are, when it’s leveraging more intangible assets such as brand equity that could arguably open up new ways of generating revenue.

        At the end of the day, it’s a debt game. And organisations stay stuck because they are indebted, all the time eroding the faith stakeholders might have in them in being able to chart a better course. Carillion and Capita are two examples of that and how it plays out.

  3. ‘… organisations have become vast machines for manufacturing, distributing and consuming bullshit.’ Love this piece 🙂

  4. Excellent insight Paul, will definitely share, thank you. I believe that the “truth” (of course there isn’t a single one) lies somewhere in the grey area among black or white extremes. That “be all you can be” mantra is indeed bullshit. You cannot be all you can be. But you can be better or something else, if you want to better or something else, and are willing to pay the price/effort (time, giving up on other things, down-grading your expectations..). You just need to have a realistic personal/organizational idea of what you want to be, and of course why and what for. And that, as you so rightly -and against all current sense- put it, must come as a result of reflection and contemplation, and through small-scale experimentation and testing, to build upon partial increasing successful experiences, not on the basis of falsely inspirational hopes and dreams generated by a world-wide movement that preaches that “you must be all you can be, or you will die, if you are not dead already, so hurry up and don’t waste time by resisting or questioning things”.

    1. Thanks Cesar – wonderful comment. There are positives in this as you say – it does mean resisting following the herd, ignoring the mass pressure to be your best self , and maybe questioning what your auditor, regulator or consultant are telling you!

  5. Terrific read. Thanks for sharing these very useful insights.

    A couple of sentences stick out for me.

    1. Knowing the problems you need to fix and the ones you don’t is a key advantage.
    2. Maybe we need to accept that not all problems are there to be fixed.

    Many organisations try to live far too long. And many aren’t problem solving. So instead of the change programmes failing – maybe it would be healthier if orgs were somehow encouraged to die quicker instead. Would save a whole lot of unnecessary time and energy 🙂

  6. I think the issue is that useful ideas aren’t that large in supply. Most people want to be known and promise things they can’t deliver. This pattern is seen in management a lot, and most employees have long-since adapted to it (“listening politely” and then going your own way anyway). However, real change is still needed, but nations don’t know how to make real leaders. (cf. “Snide Guide to Leadership”).

  7. he graph misses off: six sigma, lean, so called lean six sigma, agile, enterprise architectures, target operating models and so

Leave a Reply to Cesar Riaño Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s