The Change Equation is Wrong

Is there a change equation that, when followed, ensures successful change? I don't believe so, but read on and let me know what you think?
March 25, 2015
Jason is the author of Lean Change Management and founder of the Lean Change Management Association and Spark the Change Toronto

I’ve seen this image on Linked In a number of times over the last year or so and every time I see it, it irks me.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 2.36.37 PM

It’s finally irked me enough that I feel compelled to tell the world, that the equation for change is wrong for 1 simple reason:

1) Thinking there is an equation for ‘ensuring successful change’ is backwards, industrial-aged thinking created by people who have a strong desire to place outcomes into black and white, and success or failure buckets. Given 50% of the S&P 500 companies that existed 20 years ago are non-existent today, I’d say organizations suck at adapting to change. Assuming you can follow a formula that makes change work is simple ridiculous.

The notion of ‘the change equation’ isn’t new either. Beckhard and Harris wrote about it in the 1970’s, and before that David Gleicher created a formula for change in the 1960’s.

While there is something to the notion of a list of good practices that will help change happen, there is no formula, method or framework that is going to ensure successful change.

Here is what’s wrong with this change equation:

Vision: The diagram shows that the outcome will be confusion if there is no vision. Untrue. This is chaos, and it’s a natural part of how change happens. Vision is a matter of perspective. Alignment to a vision happens throughout the change, it’s not something you build up front and force on people, they must attach their own meaning to it.

Skill: Without skill, the outcome is anxiety. Anxiety is going to happen whether you have the skills to execute a change or not.  Skill is the easiest part of the change, it can be developed over time.  Citing lack of skill, to me, is a blaming mechanism. Those other people don’t have the skill therefore, the change didn’t work…but me? I’m highly skilled, it’s not my problem.

Incentive: Without incentives, the outcome is gradual change. Actually, that is probably the closest this change equation comes to being correct. Gradual change is going to happen with, or without, incentives. If anything, incentives will make the problem worse by pitting people against each other. Didn’t we learn this in 1993?

Resource: Without ‘resource’, the outcome is frustration. By resource, I’m wondering if they are referring to people or desks, pens and SharePoint sites. They could be referring to not having a change team I suppose, but that could be a good thing. The people who ultimately have to live with the consequences of the change will be responsible for implementing it. Oh wait, they don’t have the skill though! That’ll lead to anxiety!

Action Plan: No Gantt Chart = False Start. Wrong. The change has started when the rumours about the change have started. That’s not a ‘false start’, that’s a ‘start’.

The line at the top of diagram shows that when all of these elements are in place, change happens. Like I mentioned earlier, change will happen no matter which of these elements are in place.

What if the vision is wrong? Unclear? Full of buzzwords?

What if the highly skilled change agents don’t use their choice of change method properly?

What if people have different, and opposed, incentives?

What if there are no pens to write down the plan? Oh wait, I think they mean people. What if there isn’t a Sharepoint site with a diagram of the 5 strategic pillars? Oh rats, that isn’t people.

What if we blindly followed that action plan to the wrong outcome?

Oh…I get it, the vision has to be perfect! We must have highly skilled people! We must have properly defined and effective incentives! We must have…uh…pens! We must have the perfect plan!

Sounds like typical change management mumbo jumbo to me. That is, create the illusion of certain, and then blame:

  • The executives for not creating a good vision
  • The change team for not having the execution skills (or the people affected by the change by not having the right skills to be part of the change)
  • HR for not putting in proper incentives
  • The admins for not buying pens (or finance for not budgeting for pens on the change project)
  • Microsoft because the plan was created in MS Project and the one change person who had a copy had their laptop stolen.

Yes, I’m being flippant here. Purposefully.

This equation is fundamentally what is wrong with the change community. It’s designed to do nothing more than make change practitioners shout YES!! THAT’S THE FORMULA!! which does nothing more than make them feel good.

Given the pace of change, the rise of the creative economy and the nature of disruptive technology, the only good practice for making change work is to rely on experimentation and feedback.

Even that isn’t a guarantee, but it is much better equipped to deal with the world, the way it is today.

16 Comments

  1. James Lawther

    Both astute and amusing Jason. I couldn’t agree more.

    Plus perhaps you have the formula for Lean Standup in there somewhere

    Reply
    • Jason Little

      Thanks for the comment James! Lean Standup…better trademark that one quick!

      Reply
  2. Prashant

    Fail fast should be the road map towards Change

    Reply
  3. David Robinson

    Spot on Jason!
    I guess it’s human nature to wish for a simpler approach to everything, but it seems incredibly naive to me to believe that the optimal approach can be known up front. That notion is contrary to all my experience and that of everyone I have ever asked. So why do we cling to the safety of a “plan” that dooms us to fail if followed?

    My own theory is that we are willing to tell ourselves and others a little white lie in order to break through the paralysis that is caused by fear of failure. We know intuitively it won’t work, but it lets us take the first step. I’m not advocating this approach by any means, but interestingly, it does get things started and allow the experiments and learning to begin. In my experience, no one really follows those plans.

    I’m personally more and more resistant to this approach, but I find the paralysis is a significant challenge to overcome. So I agree with you whole-heartedly that the only logical approach is experimentation and feedback, but as we both know, humans don’t always behave logically.

    Reply
    • Jason Little

      Thanks David. Sometimes the certainty of ‘a good plan’ can be helpful but beyond that, moving towards a feedback-driven approach makes much more sense!

      Reply
  4. Claude Emond

    Here is my own «equation for change», Jason (attached image). You can see that I added a couple more ingredients to Lippitt’s «equation» and I included «shared» , «mutual», «participative», and other adjectives to the ingredients, which should take care of some of your concerns with this incomplete equation. I also do not promulgate that these are «THE 8 ingredients», but rather «8 ingredients», since, of course, there might be others that are unknown to me because I did not encountered contexts that asked for another «equation», contexts that surely exist. And since context might very well dictate behaviors, it will surely dictate the emergent change journey that is required in a given occasion…and thus influence the equation and its ingredients 🙂 . Cheers from Montreal. ClaudeEmond.com

    Reply
    • Jason Little

      Thanks for sharing Claude. I’m always nervous to see any formula as it tends to get interpreted as being a rule and linear by the change management world. That said, your diagram makes more sense than the other one!

      Reply
  5. Alexandra Salamis

    Formulas, frameworks, approaches, methodologies are all attempts at an approximation of what is going on or what “should be done when it comes to change. Various popular fads come and go. Human behaviour is exceedingly complex.

    Reply
    • Jason Little

      I’ll have to reserve a day to read that post! It’s pretty long!

      Reply
    • Jason Little

      I don’t believe I referred to it as new. Plus the info you posted is right on the diagram.

      Reply
      • Sam Young

        Hi Jason, sorry – I can’t see any info on your diagram as it is cut off… and the impression you gave was recent, ie “in the last year or so”… 🙂

        Reply
  6. Mark Cichonski

    I don’t think anyone who practices change leadership, at least well, believes these are algebraic equations to be followed or calculated. They serve as models or guidelines to consider when leading change, as things to think about. So other than saying that this is bad, what alternative do you offer? To your quote “there is no formula, method or framework that is going to ensure successful change.” what is it that you are proposing. If there is no thing, what do you start with?

    Reply
    • Jason Little

      Thanks Mark, I posted what I propose here: https://leanchange.org/2014/06/why-changes-should-be-called-experiments/ Given the popularity of this equation, I’d argue many DO believe it’s correct.

      Reply

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