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

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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.

Redesigning Organisations For Positive Deviance

What if the traditional way that we think change happens is all wrong? What if our focus on the spread and scale of innovative business solutions isn’t the answer – but is part of the fundamental problem?

In 1990, an American couple named Jerry and Monique Sternin were sent by Save the Children to fight severe malnutrition in the rural communities of Vietnam.

Tired of ‘do gooder’ approaches that had cost lots and delivered little the Vietnamese Foreign Minister gave them just 6 months to make an impact.

When you’ve got weeks rather than years to solve a problem, and children are literally dying before you, you don’t have time for the theatre of change management. Equally you can’t lose yourself in the complex systemic causes of poverty.

Instead the Sternins decided to build upon what was already there –  rather than parachute in new solutions. So they travelled to various villages and sought out the real experts: the mothers.  They asked these mothers to help identify the villagers whose babies were bigger and healthier than the others.

In every community, organisation, or social group, there are certain individuals or groups whose behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to exactly the same resources.

Sternin later termed these people “positive deviants” – those who have – without realising it – discovered the path to success for the entire group.

  • Positive – in that they are doing something that achieves a fundamentally good outcome.
  • Deviant – in that their methods are not normal or universally understood or accepted.  They may even be frowned upon or distrusted.

In Vietnam the Sternins found that the mothers of the healthiest children were indeed doing things differently.

  • They were were feeding their children smaller portions of food rather than larger portions – but they were feeding them more frequently.
  • They were taking ‘low class’ food – like brine shrimp from the paddy fields – that was stigmatized by others and adding these to their daily soups or rice dishes.
  • They were ignoring the socially acceptable norm to feed family elders first – and serving their kids from the bottom of the pot, making sure the kids got the most nutritious food that had settled during cooking.

Alleviating the problem didn’t require huge resources or some transformation programme – it simply required connecting other community members with these ‘positive deviants’ and encouraging them to start emulating their behaviour.

Sternin went on to define Positive Deviance as a strength-based approach based around five core principles:

  1. Communities possess the solutions and expertise to best address their own problems
  2. These communities are self-organising with sufficient human resources and assets to derive solutions to communal problems
  3. Communities possess a ‘collective intelligence’, equally distributed through the community, which the approach seeks to foster and draw out
  4. The foundation of the approach rests on sustainability and the act of enabling a community to discover solutions to their own problems through the study of local “positive deviants”
  5. Behaviour change is best achieved through practice and the act of “doing”

The problem with much of our social innovation is that many solutions are programmes, projects or models run by well-meaning professionals, rather than building on what’s already strong.

In organisations , it’s even worse. We have standardised conformist models to ‘manage change’ top down, rather than identify positive deviance from the norm and nurture it.

Can Positive Deviance Work In A Corporate Environment?

Many of you will know the story of of the NASA ‘pirates’ but it’s worth reflecting on. This innovative team formed in the 1980’s and created an award-winning mission control system for the space shuttle program in record time, on a shoestring budget, and in the face of huge political resistance. Their values and methods challenged the established hierarchical culture.

The pirates were formed from a group of ‘troublemakers’, the kind of people who are most cynical about your latest change programme. Rather than booting these people out of NASA they created a safe environment that could amplify positive deviance rather than suppress it and offer the best chance for other renegade groups to appear and make a difference.

The seven pirate rules were:

  • Don’t wait to be told to do something; figure it out for yourself.
  • Challenge everything, and steel yourself for the inevitable cynicism, opposition, rumors, false reporting, innuendos, and slander.
  • Break the rules, not the law.
  • Take risks as a rule, not as the exception.
  • Cut out unnecessary timelines, schedules, processes, reviews, and bureaucracy.
  • Just get started; fix problems as you go along.
  • Build a product, not an organization; outsource as much as possible.

Realistically, you can’t run a whole organisation with rules like that. But you can create a safe environment in which those conditions can flourish. I’m presently doing some work on redesigning change at Bromford – and reading the story of Sternin and the Pirates again has made me challenge my instincts to try to make everything fit together nicely.

Not everything is meant to fit together nicely.

As Sternin later said – conventional change management just doesn’t work in practice. Rather than importing practices in from elsewhere you are often better at finding small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in the organisation and amplifying them.

If we want to be truly world changing rather than just sustaining the current system we need very different behaviours. That means leaning a little closer towards chaos, taking greater risks, and rewarding positive deviance.