Everyone agrees that most transformation programs fail to meet their goals. They are not meeting their deadlines. They don’t go far enough. Large organizations spend a lot of energy but stagnate. And during that time the barbarians, hear the startups, are moving forward. Is it a question of resistance to change? Is this, moreover, the right question?
It makes sense, but it doesn’t work
These programs, designed by the largest consulting firms and theorized by researchers from the largest business schools, are very logical, perfectly dividing the problem into a series of coherent tasks. They apply Henry Ford’s saying: nothing is particularly difficult if you break it down into small tasks.
As one example among many, the prestigious consulting firm McKinsey offers a five-step approach to transformation: first establish the trajectory of change, then plan actions for senior leaders; then move on to the organization-wide implementation phase, act to change the mindset and then finally put in place the people, processes and tools to enable flawless execution. These plans are perfectly logical: they recommend clearly defining the objective to be achieved before starting, then planning the actions before implementing them. They make sense, but they don’t work. They are logical but nothing happens.
The change specialists, and more generally the “processing industry” who for years have been designing these programs that don’t work are naturally worried. According to them, the main reason why change fails is resistance to change. In other words: it is the fault of the people, that is to say of the collaborators of these organizations. Oh the bad guys!
In a previous article, I showed that talking about an execution problem for a strategic plan was a misconception of what such a plan is: a plan that did not anticipate an execution problem is a bad plan. because it is designed without taking into account the specificities of the organization that implements it. More generally, the distinction between design and implementation reflects a Cartesian vision of the world and of management in which there are thinkers, who have all the information and know where to go, and those who do what they need to do. that we tell them.
Likewise, a plan that did not anticipate “resistance to change” is a bad plan because it is designed without taking into account, and therefore often without understanding or even without being interested in what the collaborators think. This “resistance to change”, if it exists, is often the expression of a deeper problem.
Naming things wrong …
As often, the terms we use to qualify a problem reflect our way of seeing the world and constrain the solutions we bring to said problem. They can even create problems that don’t exist. For example, a police officer will see cannabis use as a crime, a doctor as a public health problem while a libertarian will see it as a non-problem. All three will have a different definition of the question and will therefore offer different solutions.
The very term “resistance to change” thus translates a mental model according to which there would be a group, the general management, which would have understood everything to be done, and the rest of the organization which, for reasons unexplained, or unavowable (sabotage!), would oppose what common sense seems to demand. We separate the world in two, the intelligent and the fools, us and the others, the executives and the agents, the pro and the anti, as we separate it between rich and poor forgetting that 80% of the population is in a 3rd group intermediary who is no longer poor but not yet rich. Often the way the transformation is presented is itself a blockage: In this model, management usually explains that the current situation is unsatisfactory, but that the future can be bright if you suffer a lot for a while. . This model therefore conceives of the transformation as traumatic, an episode well identified in time, and starting from an unsatisfactory present of which one should be ashamed (be like Google!) To move towards a desirable future.
Here the general management: transform yourself to become more entrepreneurial, it’s an order! (Source: Wikipedia)
But perhaps the employees have a different model: the management imposes on them yet another plan conceived in secret with prominent consultants on the Place de Paris. This plan is generic, we have seen the same in all CAC 40 companies. We know what we will lose with the transformation but not what we will gain. The transformation agenda disrupts our work on which we are evaluated at the end of the year. Whatever happens, great leaders will pocket their bonus, while failures will be blamed on us. We were not asked for our opinion (or worse: we pretended by sending us junior consultants whose arrogance was matched only by ignorance of our profession). The general management does not understand how the organization works, because anyway they are mercenaries who have just arrived and will leave soon. And so on.
This does not mean that there are not collaborators hostile to change, of course (including at the highest level it is common). Change is disturbing, it forces us to come out of the cozy comfort of decline. He questions acquired situations. It requires effort. But framing the problem in terms of resistance to change sets a pattern of making one group feel guilty by another, even though the commitment of the guilty group is necessary for change. It is counterproductive.
What is called “resistance to change” can in fact be reformulated with another mental model in which the absence of progress reflects a lack of confidence of employees in general management, the lack of internal legitimacy of managers who are supposed to relay the strategy (another mental model) or perhaps the inapplicable nature of the plan because it was designed without taking into account the daily reality of employees.
Changing mental models, the key to unlocking
The question is obviously not who is right with his model: each a little, of course, is that if each one remains stuck in his model, nothing will change. We will continue to work harder in a blocked system.
It will therefore be in our interest to pose these mental models explicitly in order to confront them and try to tune them. The transformation is certainly essential, but the way of conceiving it must be the subject of broad agreement. Sharing a common diagnosis is essential. It is surprising that in many companies, when I ask the real reasons why a transformation plan was initiated, not everyone is able to answer me, including at the highest level, and the answers , when there is, vary enormously. Often, I get the “Ah well because of digital. “But if I press and ask” How does digital impact you “, I rarely get an answer.
Success will not necessarily depend on perfect agreement on all aspects of the mental model, it is impossible; just making assumptions explicit and discussing them will already be a huge step forward. Everyone will understand that management, during this exercise, must decide in the event of disagreement. Research on the concept of fair process (fair process) have shown that people are often more sensitive to fairness in the process (the way they are treated, the fact that they are actually consulted, that their opinion is taken into account and even that they are co-creators of the decision) than the decision itself, including if it is against them.
The major transformation programs come up against a contradiction: on the one hand, transformation is made necessary by the advent of a more entrepreneurial society in which future success and performance will be based on creativity and autonomy. But on the other hand, they remain trapped in old mental models: a goal set by general management, an execution plan, a method, performers … notions far removed from the entrepreneurial world …
A change of model will allow us to see things differently, to better identify the problems and to open up unimaginable possibilities. It can only happen by completely rethinking the very way of proceeding. If our times are radically changing, we must not just change what we do, but the way we do it and, above all, the way we see what we do. It is therefore the very way of transforming oneself that must be changed.
To go further on mental models, read my article How the mental model opposes change: the tragedy of the Greenland settlers. About executing a plan, read Processing: No, you don’t have an execution problem.
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.