Change for the worse?

“CHANGE” is one of the most consistent challenges today.  Organisational change is usually driven by:

  • Financial pressure – profit demands, new ownership, drive for efficiencies, restructuring etc.
  • IT system implementation or new processes
  • External events (including earthquakes, major weather events or pest damage)
  • Market shifts (including GFC, price of coal or loss of a major account)
  • Government/local government policy change (including Super City, legislation and/or policy changes)

Change is life. When anything living stops changing, it dies. Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) put it like this:

“We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it…..?
Is it possible for any useful thing to be achieved without change?
Do you not see then, that change in yourself is of the same order.”

Continuous, iterative, life-sustaining change is how we, and our organisations, stay alive. But unexpected, shocking, threatening, and (perceived) nonsensical change – that is something else. This is all too often experienced by the normal  (never mind abnormal) human brain as a threat to the very survival of the individual.

The primal brain reacts to perceived threat as if it is spine-tinglingly real, typically unleashing a range of rather disruptive, and potentially life-threatening, behaviours.

Relevant for organisational change is the fact that the adaptive human brain learns survival in another social setting – the nuclear family. The brain in formative years has to negotiate a daily series of power struggles. Freud called this the battle between superego and id. Berne called it the battle between internalized constructs of Parent and Child, with each state accompanied by a typical set of statements (‘scripts’) and emotions. People become programmed into these two modes, which explains bizarre and destructive behaviours during times of rapid change.

Centralised power, the traditional/military hierarchy with its chain of command, plays right into this illusion of Parent power in organisations. Illusion because the REAL power is with the masses. You as manager have limited  REAL power. There is only one of you. There are many others. What they  do as a collective has way more impact on:

  • How much is sold
  • How much is delivered at what quality
  • How customers perceive the organisation
  • How loyal customers are to your brand
  • How much money you lose in wastage and inefficiency
  • How much ends up on the bottom-line.

This impact may not be visible nor as immediate as you have come to expect from a president of a division or a ‘chief whatever’. But in a far more powerful collective effort, the sum total of the collective far outweighs any individual or elite group.

When you  divide and rule, starve this powerful force of information, treat them like children (“Kept in the dark and fed on $%*&”), then you have a disaster waiting to happen. For one, due to the phenomenon of lag, it takes a while for you to see the need for change. They see it on a daily basis. (But it is not their job to do anything about it,  due to job descriptions based on ‘divide and rule’.)

Is it any wonder that up to 70% of Change programmes fail? From McKinsey research, only 30% of executives see Change programmes producing a more healthy organisation and only 38% think the organisation performed better after the Change programme. Yet, 57% of Change programmes are to reduce costs and bring more efficiency. You can’t dictate this to people. When working against you, they have more ways to counter every move you make than you can ever imagine, let alone manage. Why not treat them as partners? That is actually what they are.

There are four typical approaches to Organisational Change, listed here in the order of success and in reverse order of prevalence (in my experience).

  1. Team-driven
  2. Campaign-driven
  3. Leader-driven
  4. Change Process-driven

Most prevalent is number 4: a project manager is appointed to manage  the change. Typically, they never leave their computer.

A Leader-driven approach is having a Pied Piper who is charismatic enough to lead people in a direction no matter how much sense the change makes to them. The issue with this is self-evident; one person cannot create organisation success.

The Campaign-driven approach is powerful, drawing on advertising techniques of neuromarketing. It is how the London Olympics team solved the issue of persuading volunteers to keep information about the opening ceremony to themselves. A clever byline and loads of feel-good paraphernalia made the volunteers feel part of an exclusive club (as they were.) The phrase “Save the Surprise” did much of the persuasion work for leaders.

This still doesn’t beat the Team-driven approach to Change that is simply a way of life for this type of organisation – an organisation:

  • that keeps everyone firmly grounded in trading and financial realities
  • where key expectations of those whose opinion and support counts drives daily focus and overall results
  • where everyone and every sub-team knows they are all on the same team and every thought and action ultimately affects everyone for the better or worse.

Telling it like it is, involving people fully in how things work and expecting everyone to continuously make things work better means that Change is engineered into the foundations of the enterprise.

In my experience, people are astute at creating systems they need to succeed, and usually deliver beyond expectations when it is humanly possible to do so.


  • Give them an impossible task
  • Keep them in the dark
  • Suppress their contribution and creativity
  • Make demands and disappear
  • Put yourself first ahead of them or anyone else
  • Lose their confidence and generally behave like a *^%#….……….and before you know it, you have created at best, a dead weight that resists any attempt to move in any direction other than the one they are heading in, and at worst, the most insidious enemy to success.

No other way works better with organisational change than when people are fully involved and committed to change as an every day success requirement – just part of staying alive. When unexpected events hit hard, remain honest. Employees are your best allies during troubled times if you keep it real. None of this works if you have an agenda other than the collective best interest.

When you have the right motives,  change becomes a way of life, driven by the whole team – the only way to truly excel.


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
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