The Danger of Driving Change

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter November 2012

Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas Main article takes under 4 minutes to read.

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When taking the lead of a business or department, making a strategic change, or managing a merger, it’s easy to be seduced by the temptation to run a Grand Change Initiative. But such schemes can end badly. It’s not just that they often don’t work (I will sketch out a few reasons why not below), but it’s also that the more bogged-down, half-completed initiatives you start, the more you damage your personal credibility, build cynicism, and ultimately risk rendering the organization unmanageable.

Some observations:

1) Driving change doesn’t get you far down the road. When I ask managers if they like to be ‘driven’ by their bosses, not one ever says they do. So why has it become standard to talk about driving change? It sounds dynamic, but it’s quite simply the wrong metaphor, and it sets a counterproductive tone. You can drive a truck, and you can drive cattle, but unless you regard your organization as comprising motorised machines or livestock, there are better ways forward.

2) Most so-called ‘resistance’ is created by the would-be change agent. The harder you push, the harder most people will push back. But that’s not to say people naturally resist change. You can observe people changing every day. They adapt (often gleefully) to new technology. They accommodate quite quickly to new administrative processes from their banks, local authorities and other institutions – maybe with a bit of grumbling – but they do it most of the time without much fuss. They seek balance and stability, for sure, but they will rebalance quite naturally if presented with the right triggers.

3) Emphasising urgency is counterproductive. Creating urgency – recommended by some prominent change gurus – sounds good, but actually it’s a means masquerading as an end. Of course a rapid tempo is important in business. But my observation is that pursuing urgency directly makes people stick their heads in the sand rather than leading them to face and adapt to an uncomfortable new reality.

4) Kick-off events can be Kill-Off events. Big initiatives ‘launched’ through ‘kick-off events’, again as recommended by many change experts, are actually great opportunities for the cynics and vested interests to marshal resistance against the change. Sit at the back of one of these events and see for yourself the eye-rolling, conspiratorial nudges and folded arms triggered each time the executive at the front comes out with another dynamic sounding management cliche.

So what do you do instead?

Firstly look and validate for yourself whether or not change initiatives in your organization are actually engendering self-created kick-back. If they are, do what you can do stop the counter-productive efforts. Then, you will need to find ways to work with the grain, and work with the way people and organizations naturally adapt – there are a number of such methods. The best method I know goes further still, and tracks down and makes elegant, judicious use of the very triggers that foster the natural rebalancing I mentioned earlier. Read more   here [], or get in touch to hear if you prefer a conversation.

Listen to the related podcast:  Organizational Change: Don’t Create Unnecessary Resistance.