Skip to content

These 3 Myths Kill Transformation And Change

2023 April 30
by Greg Satell

In 1975, more than 80% of US corporate assets were tangible assets, things like factories, equipment and real estate. When leaders in an organization made decisions about change, they tended to involve tangible, strategic assets, such as building a new factory, entering a new market or launching a new line of products.

So when the modern practice of change management arose in the 1980s, that’s what it was designed to address. Managers began to recognize the need to communicate changes to the rank and file, so that they could better understand it and contribute to its success. An entire cottage industry of consultants arose to fill that need.

But now that situation has flipped and more than 80% of corporate assets are intangible. When we talk about change today we are usually talking about changes in people themselves, in how they think and how they act. Clearly, that’s a very different type of thing and we need to approach change differently. Unfortunately, too many people are mired in the past.

Myth #1: If People Understand Change, They Will Embrace It

Leaders like to be seen at the cutting edge and, to be effective, they need to believe in themselves. That’s what makes transformational initiatives so attractive. They’re much more fun than the more mundane aspects of managing an enterprise, like improving operations or cutting costs. Change gives leaders a chance to dream.

That’s what the practice of change management was designed to support. Someone high up in an organization would get an idea to, say, launch a new product line for a new market and the consultants would be brought in to help communicate the idea so that everyone could understand just how brilliant the idea was.

Of course, even if employees thought the idea was stupid there wasn’t much they could do about it. If a CEO wants to launch a new product line, invest in new factories and equipment and hire new people, there’s nothing the rank and file can do about it. Leadership has full control over tangible, strategic assets.

But today, when the vast majority of corporate assets are intangible, transformation initiatives involve changes in how people think and what they do, which leadership does not control. People have the power to resist and you can be sure they will. That’s why change fails, not because people don’t understand it, but because they don’t like it and actively sabotage it.

The truth is that humans form attachments to other people, ideas and things. When they feel those attachments are threatened, they will often lash out. That’s why when you ask people to change how they think or what they do, you will invariably offend some people’s identity, dignity and sense of self and they will act out in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive.  That doesn’t make them bad people—we all do it—it just makes them human.

Myth #2: You Have To Convince The Skeptics

There is something baffling about human nature. Whenever we have an idea we are passionately about we feel intense desire to convince skeptics. Our inner marketers want to identify specific objections and then devise airtight arguments to counter them. We envision ourselves being dazzlingly persuasive and making our case.

Change management consultants encourage this type of thinking. They advise us to “provide simple, clear choices and consequences” and “show the benefits in a real and tangible way.” They also suggest that we have “open and honest conversations” and “even make a personal appeal” in order to “convert the strongest dissenters.”

This may make sense if the objections are rational, but often they are not. In fact, the most visceral dissent almost invariably has more to do with how people see themselves. That’s why change so often offends people’s dignity, because their identity is so often wrapped up in what they think and what they do. You can’t ask people to stop being who they think they are.

The good news is that you don’t have to. Consider the scientific evidence:

– Sociologist Everett Rogers‘ “S-curve” research estimated that it takes only 10%-20% of a system to adopt an innovation for rapid acceptance by the majority to follow.

– Professor Erica Chenoweth’s analysis of over 300 political revolutions in the past century finds that it only took 3.5% of active participation in a society to succeed, and many campaigns prevailed with less.

– Recent research by sociologist Damon Centola at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the tipping point for change is getting 25% of people in an organization on board.

There’s no need to waste time trying to convince people who hate your idea and want to undermine it in any way they can. Any engagement is very unlikely to be successful and very likely to frustrate and exhaust you. You are much better off focusing your energies on empowering those who are enthusiastic about change to succeed, so that they can bring in others who can bring in others still. That’s how you build traction.

Myth #3: Things Will Get Easier After A “Quick & Easy” Win

Change management pioneer John Kotter, who first started writing books about organizational transformation in the 1970s, has long advised to establish short-term wins. He stressed that these must be unambiguously successful, visible throughout the organization and clearly related to the change effort.

The concept is problematic for a number of reasons. First, and this isn’t really Kotter’s fault, but the idea of a “short-term win” is often understood to be a “quick and easy win,” which can backfire. If a change isn’t meaningful and relevant, then touting it can make a leader seem out of touch, discrediting the transformation effort.

More problematic is the idea that we should be shooting for projects that are unambiguously successful. That level of success is exceedingly rare. If we are going to wait for perfect projects, we may be waiting a long time. What we want to do is start with a Keystone Change and then learn from whatever successes and failures we encounter on the way.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the notion that early projects should be visible to large numbers of people. Remember, if a change is significant and has the potential for impact, there will always be people who want to undermine it in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. Why would we want to broadcast early efforts so they can knock them down?

The truth is that things don’t get easier after initial successes. They often get harder because those who oppose change now see it is really possible. That’s why you need to build a plan to anticipate resistance and Survive Victory from the start.

Change For The World We Live In

In the early 20th century, the great sociologist Max Weber noted that the sweeping industrialization taking place would lead to a change in organization. As cottage industries were replaced by large enterprises, leadership would have to become less traditional and charismatic and more organized and rational.

He also foresaw that jobs would need to be broken down into small, specific tasks and be governed by a system of hierarchy, authority and responsibility. This would require a more formal mode of organization—a bureaucracy—in which roles and responsibilities were clearly defined. Weber’s model reigned for a full century.

Over the past few decades we’ve undergone a similar shift from bureaucratic hierarchies to connected ecosystems and that affects how we need to approach transformation. The changes we need to implement today have less to do with decisions made about strategic, tangible assets and more to do with how people think and act. That presents a very different set of challenges and we need to adapt.

What we can’t do is pretend that the world is the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago and continue with practices that are so obviously failing. Just as Weber dispelled myths about infallible leaders a century ago, we need to break free of outdated concepts that have led to unacceptably poor results.

It’s time to leave myths behind and take a more clear-eyed approach to leading change.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Like this article? Sign up to receive weekly insights from Greg!


Photo by Farhan Visuals on Unsplash


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS