The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management


Scott Keller and Carolyn Aiken

Conventional change management approaches have done little to change the fact that most change programs fail. The odds can be greatly improved by a number of counter intuitive insights that take into account the irrational but predictable nature of how employees interpret their environment and choose to act.

The Idea in Brief

In 1995, John Kotter published research that revealed only 30 percent of change programs are successful. Fast forward to 2008. A recent McKinsey & Company survey of business executives indicates that the percent of change programs that are a success today is... still 30%. The field of'change management', it would seem, hasn't changed a thing.

Digging deeper into why change programs fail reveals that the vast majority stumble on precisely the thing they are trying to transform: employee attitudes and management behavior. Conventional change management prescribes addressing these behavioral and attitudinal changes by putting in place four basic conditions: a) a compelling story, b) role modeling, c) reinforcement systems, and d) the skills required for change.

These prescriptions are well grounded in psychological research and make good common sense - which, we believe, is precisely where things fall apart. The inconvenient truth of human nature is that people are irrational in a number of predictable ways. The prescription is right, but rational managers who attempt to put the four conditions in place by applying their "common sense" intuition typically misdirect time and energy, create messages that miss the mark, and experience frustrating unintended consequence.

In the same way that the field of economics has been transformed by an understanding of uniquely human social, cognitive and emotional biases, so too the practice of change management is in need of a transformation through an improved understanding of the irrational (and often unconscious) nature of how humans interpret
their environment and choose to act.

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