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Change Consultants Recommend You Do These 3 Things. Don’t.

2021 November 21
by Greg Satell

The practice of change management is a relatively young discipline. It got its start in 1983, when a McKinsey consultant Julien Phillips published a paper in the journal, Human Resource Management. His ideas became McKinsey’s first change management model that it sold to clients and set the stage for much that came afterward.

Phillips’ work kicked off a number of similar approaches such as Kotter’s 8-step model and the Prosci ADKAR model and an industry was born. Today, hordes of “change consultants” ply their craft working to communicate transformational ideas to inspire change. The results, unfortunately, have been rather dismal.

The simple truth is that change rarely fails because people don’t understand it, but that it is actively sabotaged by those who, for whatever reason, oppose it. That’s why any change strategy that depends on persuasion is bound to fail. The truth is that if you want to bring change about you need to identify those who believe in it and empower them to succeed.

1. Create A Sense Of Urgency Around Change

One of the basic tenets of change management that dates back to Phillips’ original paper is that you need to create a “sense of urgency” around change. So change leaders work to gain approval for a sizable budget as a sign of institutional commitment, recruit high-profile executives, arrange a big “kick-off” meeting and look to move fast and gain scale.

That may work for a conventional project, but for something that’s truly transformational, it’s a sure path to failure. The problem is that if a change is important and has real potential to impact what people believe and what they do, there will always be those who will hate it and they will work to undermine it in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.

Starting off with a “big bang” can often unwittingly aid these efforts. Large scale change of any kind, even if the net effect is overwhelmingly positive, always causes some disruption. So appearing to work to overpower, rather than to attract, others can feed into the atmosphere of fear and loathing that opponents of change want to create. It also gives the opponents of change a head start to kill change before it really even starts.

A much better approach is to work to empower small groups, loosely connected, united by a shared purpose. For example, when Wyeth Pharmaceuticals began its shift to lean manufacturing, it started with a single team at a single plant, but led to a 25% reduction of costs across 25 sites encompassing 17,000 employees.

2. Start With A Quick, Easy Win

Another thing that change consultants regularly recommend is going for a “quick and easy win” in order to build momentum and establish credibility. The problem is that if the “win” isn’t meaningful, it will do little to drive change forward. In fact, touting a meaningless and irrelevant pseudo-accomplishment can make change leaders look out-of-touch and impractical.

A much more effective strategy is to start with a keystone change that represents a concrete and tangible goal, involves multiple stakeholders and paves the way for future change. That’s how you can begin to build real traction. While the impact of that early keystone change might be limited, a small, but meaningful, success can show what’s possible.

Consider PxG, a process improvement initiative at Procter & Gamble. It started out when three young executives set out to improve a single process. It wasn’t quick or easy. In fact, it took months of hard work. Nevertheless, they were able to transform a bottleneck that held up projects for weeks into a streamlined procedure that is completed in mere hours.

In a similar vein, when the global data giant Experian sought to transform itself into a cloud-based enterprise, it started with internal API’s that were much less risky than those that allowed access to outsiders. These weren’t really that much simpler or easier than public API’s, but showed the potential of cloud technology.

The truth is that sometimes you need to go slow in order to go fast. Transformation is not a linear process, but accelerates as it gains momentum. It pays to build your change effort on solid ground, rather than trying to lurch forward. Nothing slows you down more than a setback.

3. Prepare A Stakeholder Map

In any change process, a variety of stakeholders will have concerns. So consultants often suggest mapping the various stakeholders in terms of their level of enthusiasm, engagement, power to influence and other parameters. The idea is that by categorizing and cataloguing, you can better understand the forces at play.

This type of approach makes for impressive looking PowerPoint decks and intellectually appealing reports, but does little to achieve real change. The truth is that what most influences stakeholders are other stakeholders. Slicing and dicing them eighteen different ways isn’t going to do much more than confuse the situation.

However, for decades social and political movements have used tools such as the Spectrum of Allies and the Pillars of Support to change entire societies and they are just as effective in organizational transformations. Essentially, the idea is to divide stakeholders into two categories: constituencies and institutions (or those who wield institutional power).

So to transform education, you might mobilize support from parents, teachers and students to influence school boards, administrators and teachers unions to make changes. In a corporate context, you might want to mobilize groups of employees, customers and other constituencies to influence internal and external institutions such as senior leaders, the media, professional associations, regulators, labor unions etc.

The point is that you are always mobilizing somebody to influence something. Pure mobilization is nothing more than rabble rousing. Working quietly behind closed doors leaves you vulnerable to an uprising among the rank and file. Building support among constituencies can not only influence those with institutional power to act, it builds change on solid ground.

Focusing On The 25% That Matters

There is an inherent flaw in human nature that has endowed us with a burning desire to convince skeptics. So it shouldn’t be surprising that change consultants focus on persuasion. Nothing validates a high fee like some clever wordsmithing designed to persuade those hostile to the ideas of those paying the bill.

Yet anybody who has ever been married or had children knows how difficult it can be to convince even a single person of something they don’t want to be convinced of. To set out to persuade hundreds—or even thousands—that they should adopt an idea that they are inherently hostile to is not only hubris, but incredibly foolish.

It is also unnecessary. Scientific research suggests that the tipping point for change is only a 25% minority. Once a quarter of the people involved become committed to change, the rest will largely go along. So there is no need to convince skeptics. Your time and effort will be much better spent helping those who are enthusiastic about change to make it succeed.

That’s what the change consultants get wrong. You don’t “manage” change. You empower it by enabling those who believe in it to show it can work and then bringing in others who can bring in others still. The truth is that you don’t need a clever slogan to bring change about, you need a network. That’s how you create a movement that drives transformation.

– Greg


Image: Unsplash


4 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin Solis permalink
    November 22, 2021

    Love this, Greg. Keep up the innovative work.

  2. November 24, 2021

    Thanks Robin! Happy Thanksgiving.

    – Greg

  3. Tracy Bourgoine permalink
    December 9, 2021

    hmmm, as a CM Practitioner – I have to say it depends on the project. I believe CM is equally art & science. A seasoned CM practitioner can intuitively apply just the right amount of theory at the right times to hit the tipping point. Much like a junior PM vs an experienced PM. Empowering people is the core of managing change – the two are not mutually exclusive. A sense of urgency can be critical to rallying efforts. Recognizing a quick easy win can be a game changer to stakeholder buy-in. A stakeholder map is simply an exercise to drive understanding of the players.

    My challenges with the ‘focus on the 25% that are committed’ include:

    1) effectively identifying them? …perhaps a stakeholder map:)

    2) do they have sufficient influence on the 75%?

    3) and most importantly, WHY NOT work on gaining buy-in from the remaining 75%? Don’t we owe it to them to openly share the why’s and how’s? And, to clearly define success with a value proposition that will resonate with each group.

    My biggest challenge with this post is that it seems to diminish the value of the CM profession. CM is simply adding focus to the people side of change. The PM is busy – if PMs & CMs partner on the right projects – statistically they are 6x more likely to succeed!

  4. December 9, 2021

    Hi Tracy,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I can’t speak to your personal experience as a change management professional, but I can point out that research indicates that the vast majority of organizational transformations do not succeed. I don’t mean to disparage the work of anybody, but certainly that can be improved upon!

    As for your questions about the 25% number, again, I’m pointing out what the research indicates. I wouldn’t put too much stock in that particular number, as other studies put it lower, but from my corporate work my experience is that the tipping point is a small minority much lower than 51%.

    As for your question about identifying and recruiting, I didn’t mean you actually identify and recruit 25% of an entire organization, which could be tens of thousands of people. You identify a small initial cadre of people who are enthusiastic about the initiative and help them to succeed and build from there. Often, it is a single team at a single location. In other cases it’s more disperse.

    There are various techniques that can be employed to identify and recruit. For example, in this article in Harvard Business Review I outline how workshops can be used creatively to identify and recruit early apostles. In other cases, resources are made available and people can opt in. There are other options as well, it really depends on the specific context.

    Finally, with regard your question about influence, once again there is literally decades of research that indicates that influence is a much more of a function of networks than it is of individual attributes.

    I hope that’s helpful. If you have more questions, I would refer you to other posts on this blog that you can find through the search bar, my writing about organizational change in Harvard Business Review, my book Cascades.

    – Greg

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