People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes

I don’t buy into the idea that humans intrinsically hate change. I just think that by the time we’re in our 30s or 40s, lots of our experience of change – particularly in the workplace – has been more negative than positive. Instinctively rejecting it is a learned response – Tom Cheesewright

People , we hear, are tired of change. They have change fatigue.

We are sometimes told that people will resist our ‘change efforts’ or even need to be assessed for their ‘change readiness’. Change readiness, in case you’ve not had the pleasure, is the “ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Failing your change readiness assessment could be seriously career threatening. 

Despite this so-called change resistance all the evidence shows that people want change on a scale like never seen before , both in our wider society and the workplace.

What is to blame for this apparent ‘change paradox’?

My contention is that there are some similarities with how change – or rather the lack of meaningful change that make people’s lives better or easier – manifests itself in our communities and in our offices.

Simply put, people’s experience of the delivery of change is often far from what they have been promised.  This is put even more simply by Peter Vander Auwera – “people don’t resist change, they resist bullshit”.

The Big Problem With Change Programmes

The birth of the management change movement dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

The philosophy proposed 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 easily realised.

However change is not just 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. None of us can predict the future and nobody can possibly know the butterfly effect when you begin to 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. They simply cannot deliver on what was promised. So what’s the point of doing them?

We Need Trojan Mice, Not Trojan Horses

Image courtesy of @whatsthepont

Chris Bolton has written an excellent series of posts (links in here) on the concept of Trojan Mice. Trojan Mice is a phrase Euan Semple used in his blog about ten ways to create knowledge ecology .  Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.”

For Trojan Mice think of small safe to fail tests and learning exercises rather than big change. Trojan Mice are small, well focused changes that address a problem but are introduced in an inconspicuous way. without the fanfare of transformation. They are small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned.

This is grassroots change rather than top down. And because the change is being made by people close to the problem they don’t resist it – they lead it. 

Many organisations don’t like this approach though because it is , by definition, unpredictable.  Trojan Mice will eventually deliver rewards; but you may not get what you were expecting.

I’d argue that big change never gives you what you were expecting anyway – so you may as well embrace a bit of uncertainty and release the mice. It’ll cost you a lot less money – that’s for sure.

Towards A Community For Change

Change does not always happen where, when or how we want. Organisations are just collections of people but we often forget that and make it more complicated than it needs to be.

I don’t know how change happens where you live but where I am people just connect with each other over shared interests and they try things out. There aren’t any spreadsheets that I know of.

The problem with employing lots of Change and Transformation people is that they often start changing and transforming lots of things that never asked or needed to be changed or transformed in the first place.

Grass-roots change presents senior managers with a paradox because it means directing an approach to change without insisting on or even approving specific solutions.

However , if we are to bridge the gap between the appetite for change and the experience of change delivery, we need fundamentally new approaches.

People hate change?

No, they don’t. They hate to get changed by other people.

13 responses to “People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes”

  1. Great article about a fundamentally important topic that I wish I had real understanding of when I started!
    I like the quote that is; people dont resist change, they resist being changed.

    In an analysis of change, and in learning from the approaches that work, the one that gives about 80-90% successful change is when the actual people doing the work are the ones that are guided by the consultant to undertake the change. The managers also have to be involved, and possibly lead that work.

    Using an example right now, I have a team without a manager who are changing their service fundamentally. They love It and are creating a new team and way of behaving. Their manager is not directly engaged. I spend about a day a week helping them.

    In the same organisation, I have helped the manager to understand the change that is needed. She is working directly with her staff and I am supporting her about a day a month.

    The change is at the same level of change in both examples, and in both cases the staff are offering no resistance..

    Taiichi Ono from Toyota was a great pioneer in helping us understand how this can be done, outcomes possible with changes to mindset, behaviours and culture that occur as a by product of change.

    1. Great comment John and I love that example. I wonder how, when this is so obvious and evidenced, we still manage to get it so wrong. Thoughts on a postcard!

      1. Well, one reply is that Command & Control management is about managers knowling and telling. It is also about managers not trusing front line staff, so they need directing rather than engaging.
        Secondly, to do it the inclusive way is far more invovled than simply doing it. It brings up all sorts of underlying issues like culture that have to be resolved by engaging the staff that do it.
        Thirdly, it takes time, and more time away from the work for more staff, so it does not look attractive..

  2. Karsten Ahlbeck Avatar
    Karsten Ahlbeck

    Great text! I would both agree and disagree (but the latter is not really a big deal). I agree that ppl do not *hate* changes, but I do believe that ppl feel safe when things do not change, which might slow things down a bit. This is due to biological brain structures we’ve had for a long time…..why do we want to choose the same chair after lunch break? The same bus seat on the way back?
    So this biological tweak together with other ppl telling us what to do is a no-no. Logical changes under your own control with sufficient background information is a winner.

    1. I think you’re right and the qualification is wise. I’ll be referring to your comment in a follow up post! Thanks

  3. I agree. All of us resist being changed by someone else to a greater or lesser degree. I have led and been involved in change throughout my working life and learned early on, through my own mistakes, that people will oppose forced change either openly or covertly, unless you find ways to work together, to make ongoing “change” a part of the evolutionary culture and equip people with the tools to do it themselves individually and collectively as teams. We need to empower people effectively, not seek to control them. People have to commit to things themselves, believe in whatever it is, feel acknowledged and suitably recognised for their contributions. Most people have the means to effect the change themselves. Too much management/control out there and not enough leadership, (which I believe the latter to be taking people with you, around you, together, not behind you, following (reluctantly or blindly))

    1. Thanks Phil and the point about people spotting covert change management is spot on.
      Really the role of change managers is less to push through change projects, and rather to design the organisation in a way that enables continuous adaptation to an ever evolving world

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