Change Management Isn’t

Warren Church

It’s time to change your change paradigm.

Change Management is an artifact of a world that doesn’t exist, invented by management consultants to rob organizations of their money, time, morale and energy. If you’re tired of hearing the same repetitive answers to the very interesting question of how to help your organization respond to seismic change, stop drop-clicking on bullshit memes like 10 Principles of Change Management.

Thanks to 400,000+ years of human evolution, your employees already possess the ability to adapt to changes in their environment. It happens automatically. That said, human behavior is emergent, and individuals will react to a changing environment (and each other) in non-predictable ways.

While natural selection tends to bring about efficient survival strategies, it has no foresight. It often results in outcomes that are not favorable for the evolving species. This means employees may not adapt in the way that your organization needs, or as quickly as necessary.

Which brings us around to asking the better question: in a *VUCA environment, how can you manage an organization’s collective response to change?

First, recognize that you’re not ‘managing change.’ Let that go. Not even the Dalai Lama claims he can do that. What you are managing is what we call ‘rapid co-evolution under VUCA conditions.’ You’re harnessing 160,000 years of adaptive ingenuity here, so you’ll need to know how the evolutionary brain works to do it right.

Our evolutionary brain is full of apparent irrationalities, cognitive biases, and decision heuristics. It uses instinct, past experiences, and simple rules of thumb. For example, if you see that everyone is eating the black berries instead of the red ones, eating the black ones is likely the best way to go. No charts or graphs required.

Second, making people change their behaviors isn’t the goal. Let that go as well. For two good reasons. One is that humans can change their behaviors all by themselves in response to perceived changes in their environment. That’s why our species is still walking the earth. The other is that most human behaviors are things that people don’t have to think about at all. Many are simply repeated actions which have become habitual, and as anyone who has quit smoking will tell you, they are bloody difficult to shift. What percentage of open-heart surgery patients that survive this miraculous procedure respond by adapting their prior eating and exercise habits? Under 10 percent.

The real goal is to frame the change in your firm’s environment in a way that allows people to come, of their own accord, to a shared coherence of the ‘true’ situation that will motivate compatible adaptive actions. This requires knowing how the current situation occurs to them, i.e., the story they are telling themselves about what’s going on.

There is an anecdote about the famous CEO of a Texas airline talking to his employees about a new competitor coming into their region. He walked into the hangar, jumped up on a freight container, and addressed them directly. “These people are coming here to take your jobs—are we going to let them?” The answer was clearly “No,” but this framing created a shared coherence that motivated a wider range of adaptive actions (many of which could not have been foreseen), which worked to eliminate the threat. The story spread on its own; no ‘cascading’ was required.

If your organization needs people to adapt quickly to seismic change, stop trying to manage change, and focus instead on leveraging 160,00 years of adaptive ingenuity by managing your firm’s co-evolution instead.


*VUCA = volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous

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