Cross-questioning change: An appraisal of what makes a difference

Change is omnipresent[1]. Not only in the general sense – seasons and moods change, what is “in” today is “out” tomorrow, we learn and we age, and we give up on yesterday’s sandcastles and get excited about tomorrow’s handbags or sports cars – but also in the narrower sense: It has become a trademark of ambitious organisational leaders to initiate change programs[2]. Broadly speaking, when leaders embark on change, they acknowledge that in order for their organisations to achieve their (institutional) goals, everybody inside these organisations (including themselves) not only needs to do something – technically[3] – different but also needs to talk[4], feel[5], think[6], or be[7] different in certain ways. Change, then, is used as a shorthand for (a) the desired shifts, and (b) the approach used to bring them about.

Now, there are certainly much more than 84,000 different change methods “out there”, and the likelihood of a leader picking a method that actually contributes to their goals is most probably at least as low as the proverbial likelihood of the blind turtle raising its head through the hole of a single yoke drifting on the ocean when it surfaces after 100 years of living at the bottom of the seas[8]. As a consequence, articles on how many change programs fail (and why[9]), are legion[10]. Instead of adding to this herd, I want to suggest six questions that can help any leader to better understand whether the change they’re looking at is going to make a difference[11]. The first two questions relate to the desired shifts; the next four questions relate to the approach to achieve these shifts.

1. Is it relevant? Although it might seem obvious that this would be the first question to ask when wondering what change to aspire to (and why), it is often not asked – or not answered with rigour[12]. The results of missing out on this question can be harmless (a whole company going on a cinnamon[13] diet just because the CEO does so – or because some change consultant says so), costly (money, time, and energy spent on building cinnamon hangouts in all locations around the world), or outright counterproductive (wars breaking out between cinnamon believers and cinnamon skeptics within the organisation[14]). If it is not relevant, don’t bother your organisation with it.

2. Does it serve the (organisation’s) purpose? This question is important to ask because there’s a lot of change being offered that serves all kinds of (often very noble) purposes. In many cases, for example, the change that presents itself may claim that it produces  different (e.g. as in: happier, more engaged, more relaxed, more creative people[15]). However: Unless you know exactly how (and why) the particular brand of “different” that is offered contributes to your organisation’s goals, there’s no reason for you to embrace it[16] – at least not as part of developing your organisation.

3. Is it fearless? Once you have established that the change you’re after is relevant and does serve your (organisation’s) purpose, it is critical to make sure that the change approach you’re using is absolutely fearless when it comes to scope. Traditional business lingo has called this “no sacred cows”[17]. The true extent of what this means becomes clear when you realise that even the most bullish change consultant usually does not question that it is desirable to keep you in place as a leader to extend their mandate and pay their bills. On a less personal note: Don’t trust a change approach that timidly restricts itself by limiting upfront what it wants to question[18].

4. Is it cautious, conscious, and circumspect with regard to cause and effect? Unlimited courage with regard to scope does not equal recklessness with regard to means. All too often, change approaches remain without impact because they underestimate the power of existing conditions (e.g. trying to work with colour therapy in a business environment where even shades of grey[19] are considered garish), overestimate the power of concepts (as if labelling people as ENFP or “Type 2” or “Cautious” would produce any change in and of itself[20]), or confuse correlation with causality[21]. Be careful when you meet change approaches that claim confidence with regard to what causes what.

5. Is it impartial? We’ve already touched on the risk of change that creates cinnamon believers and cinnamon skeptics. By nature, all change approaches that rally an in-group which indulges in their access to some higher (or deeper) truth – and, by consequence, pities, excludes and/or tries to convert those who are not “in touch” with those truths – are totalitarian[22]. They foster cultures of shame and blame, and bring forth habits of secrecy and of faking it. Such a change approach might be effective in the short run, but – fortunately – is never sustainable[23]. Don’t listen to the siren songs of change promising (outer or inner) heaven on earth to the initiated.

6. Is it sane? Finally, change is never inexplicable. Sometimes, a change approach (and its results) might resemble some highly intriguing magical trick, but even the most mind-dazzling instances of sawing women in halves, bending spoons, or milking painted cows have an explanation on some level of understanding[24]. Unfortunately, sometimes change  appears in disguise of miracle healers and spellbinders, painting a future of fantastic results beyond any reason and sanity. Beware of change that comes with the promise of wonder – wonders might be many[25], but they have no place in making change happen.

Change that answers well to these questions is likely to make a difference with regard to what you want to achieve. Still, it would be yet another version of wonder to expect that just by blowing its covers, the change you choose is going to preternaturally produce the shifts you want to see. You (and everybody in your organisation) still need to learn, think, and practice before you can see the sky[26].


[1] For a comprehensive treatment of the topic, see The Byrds’ interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX6SuX0Z6AQ [retrieved Feb 24, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Instead of “change”, some prefer to talk about “transformation” to emphasise the future oriented nature of what they’re up to and/or to underline the depth and sustainability of what is being modified. Also, some prefer to talk about a change “journey” (rather than a “program”) to illustrate the ongoing and exploratory quality of what is happening. If you’re interested in these distinctions, an internet search on the terms will yield interesting results that can keep you busy for a while. While fully respecting the relevance of some of these variations, I’m using “change” throughout this article as the underlying theme beyond semantics and etymologies. BACK TO TEXT

[3] The distinction between “technical” and “adaptive” problems as masterfully described by Ron Heifetz (in “Leadership Without Easy Answers”, 1994) is at the root of this emphasis: Change, as usually understood in an organisational context, is adaptive in a sense that both the problem definition as well as the solution and its implementation require learning. BACK TO TEXT

[4] By far the best reading on how the way we talk can change the way we work is the homonymous book by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001).BACK TO TEXT

[5] For an excellent study on how our emotional setup restricts what we can do (and how to change that through psychotherapeutic methods using memory reconsolidation) see Bruce Ecker, Robin Ticic & Laurel Hulley, “Unlocking the Emotional Brain” (2012).BACK TO TEXT

[6] This point is closely related to the arguments about the relevance of philosophical frameworks and scientific context made in my post on truth and sustainability under 1. and 2.BACK TO TEXT

[7] A very nice (and short!) teaching on the complicated relationship between doing and being can be found in W. Timothy Gallwey’s book “The Inner Game of Tennis” (1975) – don’t get fooled into thinking that this is a book about tennis.BACK TO TEXT

[8] Told in the Samyutta Nikaya, for example translated here: http://www.buddhismtoday.com/english/texts/samyutta/sn56-48.html [retrieved Feb 24, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[9] …almost inevitably followed by suggesting a change approach that will work, usually offered by the authors themselves.BACK TO TEXT

[10] No need for a footnote – just search “Why change fails”.BACK TO TEXT

[11] The following is based on experience and practice, not on analytics or theory.BACK TO TEXT

[12] As a caveat: Don’t confuse asking for relevance with disregard for details. Details are important – however, when looking at details, you have to understand whether the straw is the one that breaks the camels back, the splinter in your brother’s eye, or just another needle in the haystack.BACK TO TEXT

[13] This is a random fictional example. Any resemblance to actual situations or real people, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Also, I want to emphasise that I know nothing about cinnamon and its (positive or negative) effects on anything other than rice pudding.BACK TO TEXT

[14] On this, see also below question 5.BACK TO TEXT

[15] For a perfect example, watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoc8_aJLpes [retrieved Feb 24, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[16] The ongoing debate about the merits of mindfulness in an organisational environment is a good illustration for this challenge. You can just search for the relevant terms. Or read an interesting perspective from one of the undisputed gurus of genuine mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh, here: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/thich-nhat-hanh-mindfulness-google-tech [retrieved Feb 24, 2015]. The quote at the end makes explicit why aspiring to mindfulness might ultimately not be serving any organisation’s purpose: “If they begin to practise mindfulness, they’ll experience joy, happiness, transformation, and they can fix for themselves another kind of aspiration. Fame and power and money cannot really bring true happiness compared to when you have a way of life that can take care of your body and your feelings.” BACK TO TEXT

[17] It most probably appeals to the Indian sense of logic, humour, and spirituality that this slogan (and its crueller cousin “killing sacred cows”), while targeting one of the richest symbols of primordial origin, life, wealth and prosperity in Hinduism (and other religions), has become a universally understood translation for “everything is possible”. BACK TO TEXT

[18] Of course, this does not imply that an effective change method has to change everything – in fact, keeping the right things in place is just important as changing what needs to be changed. It just means that change has to be open and willing to challenge everything in the status quo. If you want to train in this art of questioning, the best material to use are philosophical treatises from the Buddhist Mahayana tradition, e.g. the writings of Nagarjuna or Chandrakirti. BACK TO TEXT

[19] If shades of grey mean nothing to you, read the novel of the same name by Jasper Fforde. BACK TO TEXT

[20] Don’t get me wrong: Psychometric testing – the art of putting people into sophisticated boxes – has its undisputed merits, especially if and when it is used to help people understand and constructively work with differences in styles, preferences, or attitudes. However, without proper instructions, psychometric “types” are just as helpful (or dangerous) as any labels that subsume individuals under generic categories. BACK TO TEXT

[21] Any footnote that proves this point is wrong. BACK TO TEXT

[22] This should not lead to the misguided conclusion that change has to be a “one size fits all” approach. Quite the contrary: An impartial change approach will deliberately assume that different individuals need different methods to achieve the desired shifts – while never denying that, in principle, everybody can make these shifts (albeit at different speeds) .BACK TO TEXT

[23] For a classic on this,  see Hannah Arendt’s “The Origin’s of Totalitarianism” (1955).BACK TO TEXT

[24] Of course, this does not imply that everybody can understand every trick: Just like it takes a certain amount of experience to conclude that people don’t actually shrink when we move away from them (or do they?!), it takes a certain amount of insight and training to get the gist of many change approaches. Still, any change approach that makes a difference can sooner or later be penetrated by our minds.BACK TO TEXT

[25] For inspiration, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EvEMObKUsE [retrieved Feb 24, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[26] When you loose motivation or inspiration, listen to Bob Dylan a few times in a row, e.g. here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWwgrjjIMXA [retrieved Feb 24, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

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