Bias and assumptions that organisations have about change and how they affect the approaches taken in change

Recently, someone asked me how many change approaches there are in the field of OD. Instead of answering the question, I found myself, saying – “It is not so much about approaches, but about the bias and assumptions that the organisation has about changes”. In working in the complex change arena for over two decades, I have found it to be a fact that most organisations, based on their own national and/or organisational cultural lenses (whether conscious or not), have a set of change assumptions and bias that powerfully inform the approach they take in conducting a change programme — regardless of what the change topics are.

From my observation and experiences, there are at least eight areas that organisations may choose to focus on when conducting their change initiatives. These eight areas are divided into two clusters: one is task and project based focus and the other is about ownership and people focus. The eight areas are not an exhaustive list; nor are they by themselves necessarily damaging to the change outcome. The main concern is about whether some of the areas were over emphasised at the expense of other areas, and/or the sequencing of which areas are given top priority.

The eight areas are:

How do the bias and assumptions work? As an example, many of you will have come across those organisations which, if in doubt, would propel straight into restructuring and redoing roles and job profiles, regardless of the type of change they are dealing with. Though there are many reasons that have led to this approach, at the core is the deeply held belief that problems in the organisation, e.g. ineffective performance, low customer rating, conflict between departments, etc., are often due to ill-designed structures. Therefore, many genuinely believe that by shifting the organisation design and redrawing the job roles and reconfiguring the organisation chart, the problems will be solved.

These organisations with bias toward restructuring tend also to focus on resetting their governance and accountability structures as well as pouring a lot of energy in realigning the organisation processes and procedures. In fact, they will focus on the top four areas as listed in the grid, and they become the main change arena they will play in. I wonder how many organisations you have supported in the past fall into this first cluster of beliefs.

In practice, the change approaches that emerge from such beliefs can often be identified by the following features:

  • Limited emphasis on the diagnostic stage – often the change team is commissioned to go straight to solutions without being inquisitive about the reasons behind the cause for change.
  • Over reliance on the project management approach – if in doubt, form a number of project management teams which are charged to carry out simultaneous silo work each tackling individual issues, with limited co-ordination. They believe that it is the expert solutions identified by expert project team will help to solve the change issues.
  • The language and focus of this type of organisation is much more focused on tasks, deliverables, metrics, linear pathways, etc., rather than on ownership, people motivation, personalising the change case, enrolling people to activate their own passion to support the change, etc.
  • There is a firm conviction that no matter how complex the change, as long as the project work streams can come up with the solution within the shortest time scale, the sooner the organisation can be on the way to successful change, with the sentiment that “the sooner we decided how to change and announce it, the sooner we can get on with the delivery of the change – after all the business case is so robust.”
  • Belief that, in conjunction with the short time scale, talents that are allocated to work on the change project should not be pulled out from their main job, as the change project work will not take long. Hence, they are also expected to keep their day job going.
  • If there are any obstacles along the way, the senior leaders would have no hesitation in putting more resources into hiring external consultancy firms as well as upping the organisation capability training programme.
  • Finally, while some of these organisations think the human dimension of change may be important, their chosen approach is a segregated one, with the change team considering conducting engagement and ownership work with key people only after the change goals have been achieved, e.g. the new structure.

In 1996, Kotter’s research reported that only 30% of change programme succeed. In 2008, that result remained unchanged when a McKinsey survey of 3,199 executives around the world also found that only one transformation in three succeeds. I believe that this poor result has remained unchanged largely because of the imbalanced focus of the eight areas – namely the top four areas on the grid have been consistently over-emphasized. In my two decades of practice, I have only witnessed two organisations taking all eight areas seriously from day one, and I have never seen any organisation began their change journey discussing “what can we learn from the insight of human psychology to guide our change approaches?”

I have, however, come across a few leaders who do pay attention to the bottom four areas on the grid. They often instinctively realise that when they move the organisation, they are in fact moving the people – hence, assessing the people’s current mindset and their current behavioural patterns will be critical if they want to achieve more sustainable change. However, instead of being listened to, often their advocacy of this approach seems to render them as alien or “misfit” in the organisation culture and they will be criticised as not practical or efficient enough in their change approaches. The standard comment is, “what they suggested is too slow and we do not have time to do this.” So there is a price tag, requiring huge courage for them to remain as organisation critics of the change approach. Those who find it too hard to stand against the organisation culture over time will choose to blend back into the dominant culture.

In reality, it must be said that both clusters (top four and bottom four areas) are equally important. Without the back room mapping of structure, processes, governance and capability issues, where will be the rudder in helping the organisation navigate through the turbulent changes? However, the issue OD practitioners are concerned with is when the back room work takes over the front room work or when there is no front room work being done up front, the chances of achieving the change objectives are seriously compromised.
How does the imbalanced emphasis of the eight areas impact on what we OD practitioners or other change agents do when supporting the change?

There are six areas where we will need to be more thoughtful and intentional:

  1. Be diligent in learning how to conduct conversation in all eight areas and be familiar with both the content and the approaches in each area of focus when supporting any change programme. For example, the project management colleagues need us to show that we do understand the criticalness of their work; and we will need to be able to advise senior leaders about the organisation design issues.
  2. Take every opportunity to educate the senior leaders and other key stakeholders about the bias and assumptions the organisation may have which impact on their change approaches. Help them to identify the consequences of an imbalanced treatment of these eight areas. Better still, design a process for them to identify the bias of the current organisation and involve them to identify what impact such approaches have had on the past change results.
  3. Become more fluent in articulating and showing the leaders how to build in behaviour, culture, mindset and “will power” shifts in the change methodology even when the senior leaders want to focus on the organisation design.
  4. Build up our methodological expertise under each of the eight areas, or methods that will combine some of the eight areas – hence grow ability to show the clients how to be more balanced in their change approach.
  5. Discover whether you and I have a biased set of assumptions. Label it and describe its impact on our work with clients.
  6. Most important is for us to continue sharpen our own instrumentality so that the impact we will have on leaders will be felt and heard. We will need to work on how to earn our credibility to be a challenger and a critic.

My next blog will focus on what can we learn about human nature that will help us to support clients to focus on the bottom four areas on the grid.