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.

Jason Little
Author, Lean Change Management at Leanintuit
I began my career as a web developer when Cold Fusion roamed the earth. Over the following years, I moved into management, Agile Coaching and consulting. The bumps and bruises I collected along the way helped me realize that helping organizations adopt Agile practices was less about the practices, and all about change.
In 2008 I attended an experiential learning conference (AYE) about how people experience change and since then, I’ve been writing, and speaking, all over the world about helping organizations discover more effective practices for managing organizational change.