Is it time to bin the idea of “Change Management”?

Moving from the fallacy of planned, predictable change to embracing feedback driven change and the reality of unpredictability and no control.

The term “Change Management” itself has significant limitations and assumptions attached to it. Manage change sounds much like time management. No one can teach you to manage time any more than you can manage change. With time management, you can only control the actions you take and prioritise them to make the best use of the time available, and we all the get the same amount each day.

As with time, you cannot manage change per se, you can only control your actions in relation to change. Your actions will undoubtedly solicit a response and your actions will be interpreted in ways that you cannot with certainty predict in advance.

Many change management tools and frameworks seem to come from a view that all change is a top-down imposed thing that has to be “sold” to employees or it needs “buy-in” from key stakeholders.  Furthering the notion that the parties concerned have little input into the change itself and need convincing or manipulation to get into agreement. Also, there are models that reinforce the notion that this imposed change will trigger an intense feeling of loss akin to that we go through when we’ve lost a loved one. Given the levels of engagement in most workplaces, I doubt that people care that much about changes in the workplace. We’ve been fed this stuff so often and so repeatedly it has become the truth in the domain of change management.

The conventional view of Change Management is based on the assumption that you are already in a steady state and introducing change brings about a level of uncertainty, something that challenges the status quo. In most organisations this is hardly the reality. Initiatives hit business units from every direction all the time. If not internally generated restructures or process improvements then it is initiatives from HR, Safety, or Finance that are imposing changes as supporting functions often do, forgetting that they are there to in fact “support” the primary activities of the business in achieving their purpose. If we’re not dealing with internal change, then we’re dealing with changes in the marketplace or from regulatory bodies. So the steady state that many change management models talk about is more of a myth than anything else.

Many organisations, in line with their command and control mantra, dictate what tools must be used for Change Management, and in what order. Change Management is treated in the same fashion as traditional Project Management and run through various stage gates of approval. This further creates the illusion that we are in control and that projects and change in complex systems can be managed as if you were building a machine. We can design it, build the parts, and put it all together. If we get one part wrong, we can always build another and replace it with a new shiny one.

This view represents a plan-based approach to change; a view that is not very helpful when dealing with human systems, which not conform to a Newtonian-Cartesian view of the world. Change in human systems belongs in the complex domain. Niels Pflaeging suggested in a recent article that change in these systems is like pouring milk into coffee, once it’s done it changes the coffee forever, you cannot take it back and the pattern in unpredictable. This highlights the need for feedback driven change as a more appropriate approach to work with the complexity, rather than plan-driven change that assumes predictable cause and effect.


I believe that we can significantly lift the performance of our organisations changing our approach to Change Management. In fact, I believe that real success means that the term is self, disappears into the history books of management fads as “change” becomes so embedded in our way of working that we don’t need reforms or transformation programs.

In organisations that always change how they do things, they test the value of the change against their purpose as an organisation. In those organisations there is no such thing as “change management”. People are so connected to the purpose that initiatives that are seen to further the organisations purpose emerge and get support without elaborate plans, milestones or blueprints. Which is not to say that selected models from the traditional Change Management library cannot be used, but if they are, they are pulled in as needed and not by top-down decree. My recent post referenced the book “Reinventing Organizations”, which has plenty of examples of organisations that operate this way.

We have a tremendous opportunity to shift our organisations for the better if we only are willing to challenge and critically reassess how we see the world of organisations. To achieve this, we need to shift our focus away from individuals and lift our gaze towards the systems of organisation, the systems that drive the behaviours we experience today. Once there, look further inwards to identify the underlying thinking and beliefs about people and how that has influenced the design of these systems. This is change with an undefined end point as you continuously poke the broader system to see how it responds, you make sense of the ripples you create and take further action, either dampening something or boosting something, and again sense the response.

When we start taking steps to rethink and redesign our organisation let’s engage people in co-creating their environments to set up the conditions for positive change from the start. It is an excellent way to get ownership and people tend to be more ok with things when they have been included in the decision-making process. The process outlined in Sociocracy, for example, is a great start.

Granted, we must take a Theory Y view of people and their capabilities so I guess that is going out on a limb for some. I dare you to take that step and hold the tension – you will be surprised to see what people are capable of when given the chance if you choose to see the world through a different lens. There is a real leadership challenge here for the daring one. Holding the tension when shifting your organisation or business unit from the claws of the Theory X mindset to one designed from a Theory Y perspective will certainly test your leadership capability.

understanding the work part 1

Understanding the Work 

 “We humans are first of all beings in a situation, we cannot be distinguished from our situations, for they form us and decide our possibilities”

My interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s (paraphrased) statement is that the environment shapes the situation and our possible choices are governed by the situation. Kurt Lewin the famous psychologist outlined the following equation to describe this.

Behaviour = ƒ(environment, personality)

When we think about organisation and how they operate the default position for most organisations is to focus solely on the person as if the person needs to be fixed.  Very few organisations understand that working on the people is working on the 5%. There is so much more leverage in working on the system.

Systems Leadership succinctly says, “Systems drive behaviour”.

I often refer to a fish tank analogy to make this point. You can keep polishing the fish when they appear “sick” or perhaps unmotivated, send them on a training course etc,  but unless you fix the water (i.e. environment) that is making the fish sick in the first place, you will at some point end up with fish floating around belly up, or they might make a break for it and jump into another fish tank.


To do a good job as a manager you must understand the system of work that you are accountable for. How else could you improve or transform it? Understanding and knowing how a system operates and why it behaves in the way it does is fundamental for good management. So there is no surprise that the first part of Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) is: appreciation of a system.

With all these assertions that understanding systems is important you might ask why this is and where is the evidence for these outrageous claims?  Why can’t we just keep going as we have been? Surely it is all about getting good people in place?  And what do you actually mean when you say system, another IT “solution”?

One would be foolish enough to think we could start with defining what a system is. This task, however, is bigger than Ben Hur. The fantastic LinkedIn group Systems Thinking World, has a great number of remarkably bright thinkers in the field of systems thinking. Yet they cannot agree on a definition of what constitutes a system. Unfortunately the discourse about this often ends up being a competition of who’s smarter than whom and the language often becomes violent (from a nonviolent communications perspective).

I am of the school of thought that considers systems to be mental constructs; we choose what we define as a system by the boundaries we set and what we choose to include and they can change depending of what we are trying to achieve by doing so.

Having said all that, we still need to understand what it is that we are supposed to appreciate if we are to get a handle of Deming’s first point.  Since we are dealing with organisations we need a definition that is pragmatic for this field.

The definition of a system in Systems Leadership Theory is:

“A specific methodology for organising activities in order to achieve a purpose”

This involves directing flows of work, information, money, people, materials and equipment. The system provides the framework within which these flows take place.  An addition to make here is that we are discussing Organisational Systems not natural systems, so there will be a defined purpose for the system, be it the organisation as a whole, the recruitment system, or an operational system (if the defined purpose it is achieved or not is a different question).

A more general definition of a system:

1. A set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole, in particular.

2. A set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.

(a quick point to make about the second definition is that there is a huge difference working on a mechanistic system and a networked system)

For a definition of what systems thinking is about, the host of STW Gene Bellinger makes a very succinct statement and explains it with one word – AND!

There are many reasons why a shift in thinking is required. For one, we now understand that the mechanistic view of organisations, where analysis (without synthesis) and improvement of the parts in isolation, is not a good fit with the reality of organisational life.

Deming demonstrated the importance through the Red Bead experiment. The Red Bead experiment shows that performance (in this case quality of output) is a function of the system rather than the skills or capability of the individual. Deming even went as far as claiming that the variation in performance was to 95% down to the system, hence the 95-5 rule. Even if those numbers should not be taken literally for every single system, they certainly provide some insight to where the greatest leverage for improvement is.


Image Courtesy of Gaping Void

This is obviously a very simple system but it ought to make the point pretty clear and more complex systems have even more complex behaviour. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework (pronounced kuh-nev-in) is very helpful for framing your thinking on how to best proceed based on the type of system you are operating in.  We will come back to this later but before we do let’s get some sage advice on what constitutes a system and systems thinking in this video of Russell Ackoff.

Ackoff is an authority on the topic of systems, and systems thinking in particular. He focused mainly on systems thinking in an organisational context so his thinking is very relevant.

To further elaborate on Ackoff’s point about shifting our thinking and the value of this shift. I cannot remember where I came across this equations but I think it is a great way of highlighting the importance of how our mental models influence what we see in organisations and how we think about performance and productivity.

Organisational Performance = ƒ(organisational mindset)

What I hope becomes clear with the function above is the validity of the old (paraphrased) Einstein statement:

“the problems of today cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them”

John Seddon from Vanguard Consulting makes the point in the simple model below.


In most of the organisations I work with there is a pretty poor understanding of the work. I don’t mean that people have no idea what customers want or that they lack technical competency in what they are doing. It is more in the sense of why things are happening the way they are.  In my next post we will dig into this a bit deeper as understanding the work is fundamental for all good Managers.

I’m ok, you’re ok – let’s fix the system (borrowed from Michelle Malay Carter)