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Your Change Management Plan Is Junk

Geoff Schaadt

I am frequently invited to speak on the subject of change management. While I’m there, I always try to speak with a few people about their experiences as they try to make change happen within their own teams. And, honestly, I think the biggest problem that organizational leaders have with change initiatives is that their focus is in completely the wrong place.

Forget the Plan

When faced with a change initiative, the first thing the executive group wants to talk about is ‘The Plan’. There is this fantasy that persists within the C-suite that without a grand Change Management Plan, no new initiative that causes people to do things a bit differently can possibly succeed.

(Though when the suits want to hire a management consultant to create a change management plan, what they are actually asking for is a communications plan – but that’s a story for another day.)

Here is the truth. The bigger The Plan is, the more complex The Plan is, the more well-defined The Plan is… the more likely it is to fail.

Remember the People

This makes no sense does it? How can we possibly have a successful initiative without The Plan? Don’t you know that failing to plan is planning to fail? I’m sure I read that on a poster in a corporate lunch room – it must be true.

First: yes, of course we should have a plan.

Second: if our plan doesn’t acknowledge that we are dealing with real-life, flesh and blood human beings, it has no chance of success.

See, the problem with humans is that we tend to be wildly irrational and unpredictable. Nothing will ruin your spreadsheet predictions more quickly than a group of adult humans.

“We see the world, not as it is, but as we are – as we are conditioned to see it.”
     – Stephen Covey

You Are Rational

There is the rub.

Each one of us, every one of us, we all see a different world.

Even you, sitting in your big office with your big responsibilities, and your big paycheque – you see a different world than your boss, your peers, and your employees. You are just a big collection of formative experiences, emotional memories, and cognitive biases.

But you don’t believe that do you? You didn’t get to where you are today by being emotional and reactive. You are a thinker and a planner. If the world could just learn to see things as you do, many of our biggest problems would be solved. You are rational.

The Elephant and The Rider

We all like to believe that we are rational, that our emotions do not control us.

Fact is, most of us are rational most of the time. Except when we aren’t.

In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath tell us the story of The Elephant and The Rider. (They nicked it from psychologist Jonathan Haidt who used the metaphor in his book The Happiness Hypothesis)

Imagine your mind as an Elephant – representing you emotional/irrational side – and a Rider on top of the elephant – representing your rational/planning side. When Rider and Elephant are in sync and working together, they can accomplish amazing things. But, when things become confused and upset, the Elephant is in control. The Rider is so small and ineffectual that he has little chance of influencing what the Elephant is going to do. Even though the Rider can see the path that is best, if the Elephant doesn’t want to go down that path, what legitimate chance does the Rider have for making it happen?

Ultimately, the Elephant is in control for each of us. This is not to say that the Rider cannot learn to control the Elephant. It is entirely possible, but requires much practice and patience.

As a leader, you must always remember that, even though your Rider has a good amount of control over your Elephant, this is not necessarily true for everyone you will be dealing with as you implement new programs and processes.

There’s Always a But

So, you are now an enlightened leader. You recognize the emotional context of changing the way your people do things. You understand the emotional vs. rational dichotomy. You take steps to help people work through these issues at their own pace, and you support them as best you can. You even recognize that The Plan is more of a guiding framework, and that many small experiments will be needed. You will try things, some will succeed, some will fail, and you will adapt. You give your people the time they will inevitably need to adapt to their new realities.

But… (There’s always a but)

Geoff, you say, you said we were focussing on the wrong things, and now we are recognizing the emotional context of the change.

And that’s great. You’ll get so much farther than you did before.

But here’s where your focus is more often wrong. The focus of the senior team is always on ‘them’. Those people. They don’t get it. They are resistant. Why aren’t they getting it?

It’s time to spend a lot more time looking at yourself and your strategies.

Are you asking them to solve an insolvable problem? Are there still processes in place that will guarantee they fail no matter how much they improve their mental state? Maybe they are resistant because they know that your plan can’t possibly succeed.

Managers are responsible for the system. Don’t ever forget that.

A typical exchange…

Manager: Where are the unicorns?
Employee: Unicorns don’t exist.
Manager: Why are you so resistant to change? You aren’t trying hard enough. Go find the unicorns.

Employee success is almost entirely a function of the system in which they work.

Your Homework

To better understand this, go learn about the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. And, specifically, about the Red Bead Experiment. Here are a couple of great starting points for you…

The Red Bead Experiment:

Letter from the willing worker:



Change photo shared by Sean MacEntee under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

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