Show Notes

Article critiqued in this episode:

Harvard Business Review – Break Down Change Management into Small Steps

By Jeff Kavanaugh and Rafee Tarafdar – May 03, 2021

From this episode:

If we consider a capability like structured self-reflection – leading to being able to see one’s thinking at work – this is a capability that serves us in all walks of life.

In this episode:

The authors of this article propose a “new” change management approach which breaks down change initiatives into smaller increments in order to ease adoption and increase job satisfaction. Our take is that this is actually just a rehashed application of behavioral theory and will lead to the same negative effects. Instead, we offer a regenerative framework based on three premises:

  1. Capability development as leading strategy is core
  2. Initiate relevant, specific approach and actions in each arising situation with principles and shared frameworks for working
  3. Give meaning to change and development by connecting people directly to stakeholders

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Carol: Hi Zac, how are you?

Zac: I’m ready to get started.

Carol: I’m glad. We have an excellent suggestion today for what we should speak about. It comes from one of our listeners, who asked not to be named. But thanks for the article and request for opinion. We are going to be comparing theories of change and change management. So Zac, tell everybody about this article. What did you think about it? Get us all up to speed.

Zac: So, this one is a doozy. The article is titled Break Down Change Management Intro Small Steps by Jeff Kavanaugh and Rafee Tarafdar. In it, the author propose a “new change management approach.” It’s been successful for not only clients in their company (called infosys) but also for themselves. So the basic premise of the article is that instead of doing larger change initiatives through a waterfall structure, it is more effective to break down the changes needed into smaller and smaller increments that are more consistently deployed. So over time adoption levels increase of the change. And that ultimately leads to greater job satisfaction as they got from a survey that they issued from their staff. And they actually called this mirco-change management.

And for people who don’t know, the waterfall method that they talk about is actually derived from software development. And it’s basically when you take a large project and roll it out sequentially and steadily toward a final end state. Now I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, this one is definitely more behavioral theory being deployed. But in this case it is actually more malicious than we have encountered previously.

Carol: So, I got your opinion. They even explicitly said that they were working from the behavioral theory, right? And I think that they called it the most up to date. And what always amazes me is that people think that is actually the most up to date. The other version of that waterfall effect is that you start at the top and roll it to the people who are at the bottom. And so both of them get really questioned here. They obviously have some beliefs about people, and about how change works when you’re working with people. Which of course, they don’t make explicit, they just use them as a foundation. Can you pull those to use them?

Zac: So as you said, and as the explicitly said in the article, they used the behavioral theory, which we have discussed in the podcast before. But I think what seems different here is that the stakes have been raised. Because the authors here are referencing things like COVID-19, which they are essentially saying that the pandemic has forced entire workforces to shift to a more drastic work from home policy. Where actually, if the work allows for someone to do that. So the crisis idea is, how do you have your employees deal with change rapidly, and it’s scale from significant disturbances. Is what I think they are trying to wrestle with here. Again though, this all about how do you get them to adopt the changes that you as a business leader see as necessary. So the big belief here I think is that people cannot be trusted to think for themselves.

Carol: Right, and in fact they won’t change unless something outside is introduced to them. They can’t figure out what to do, and they can’t manage themselves in it. Now that we have offered a little bit of the background on it, I think that Einstein gave us caution here, am I right?

Zac: Yea. And to be fair, in the original outline, you definitely said it was Einstein’s admonition about change management. So he didn’t quite say it about change management, but I think it totally still applies. So the famous quote that Carol is referring to is the quote that gets passed around and he says,” We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” And this quote is actually derived from Einstein’s fear about the development of the atomic bomb and humanity’s common struggle with global conflict and war. But with that said, it doesn’t make it any less true or applicable to the cost associated with ignoring these negative effects.

Carol: Right, and I think what he was speaking to also is that we see we have a problem, and we try new ideas that got us to our conflicts, our inability to work with each other. But if we are going to be able to bond, we have to change how we are working on it. And I think that people may not know, Einstein said some version of this caution. He said it 27 different times in writing, which makes me wonder how much he said it in his classroom. He means, I think, that the conditions we have, got here because of one way of thinking about it. And if we use that same process that we are thinking about, we are not going to get to a new state. We have a paradigm problem. Would you agree with that?

Zac: Yea, absolutely. And it’s absolutely true that if we use this same mind, that we are going to continually ignore the negative effects of behaviorism and it’s ongoing impact on humans. And to your point, behaviorism to a tee, totally nailed that. And I want to point to something additional as well. I think that the worst part of this whole thing is that the authors are citing books like Nudge. So digital nudging is essentially behavioral change management that authors like Tristan Harris and Jaron Lanier have essentially tried to sound the alarm about. So digital nudging, taken from this paper of the same name from 2015, they define it as “the use of user interface design elements to guide people’s choices or influence users inputs in online decision environments.”

So what does that mean to the layperson? Essentially, the architecture of apps and websites is designed in such a way that it is intended to subtly nudge you towards different kinds of behaviors over time. And so, social media platforms such as: Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla, YouTube, and SnapChat use these methods across the board to increase not only the amount of time that you engage with them, but also the behavioral and purchasing decisions that you make by engaging with these sites. The key point here is that actually these companies have recently come under a lot of fire, not only for the toxic environments that are perpetuating online, but also in large part to the behavioral methods that they deploys through the sites nudge based architecture which is all about trying to sell your data to companies so that you can buy things.

And if you want to find out more info about this, you can read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Reasons to Delete your Social Media Accounts. So, I think it is probably not a good idea to be using nudging as a reference in change management theory. It is clear that the authors see no issue. But they are looking at the employee adoption numbers that they are seeing in the articles, so what’s not to like?

Carol: So you’re reminding me of something that I would like to share with people and contrast that takes us back to Einstein. So Einstein said that the problem that we have is perfect for what you were just describing. Which is, he says that we have a Newtonian mind where we think like a billiard ball game. So just invision, if you play billiards or pool, what you’re doing is that you know which pocket you want to get into, you know which ball you want to get into which pocket, and you are handling the cue stick and moving things or people where you want them to go. Now if you get an image of that but you substitute the balls for people, and the behavior you want them to have is something else, and you are the authority (the cue stick), you can see how frightening that idea is.

So Einstein was saying that we have to get over the billiard ball process and us being a cue stick and moving people around. What we want to do is more of a quantum picture, where in quantum what you’re doing is that you understand that you can’t move anything directly. Hisenburg told us that if you touch one thing, it is going to move a bunch of other things. So what Einstein wanted to do was learn to build a capability of the balls on the table to pick their own pockets and choose how they get there, then get better and better at that. And also be their own cue stick. So the metaphor gets turned upside down and our work is not to be directing the pool game, but to be given increased capacity, able to set critical thinking skills, and the ability to be self managing our own billiards game. I love that story. Now Zac give us another inch or two about what the article is suggesting so that we can show people about the difference between the billyard version and the quantum version.

Zac: So the authors talk about three steps to take:
Deconstruct change into small steps.
Then you change behavior through small modifications through habits and routines. That they call routine plus one.
And then you continuously learn, measure, and evolve.
Let’s dive into our premises on this.

Carol: We have three premises that we are going to offer you, and then what we think might be a better way to face it. And we are going to take those three and offer a couple thoughts. Let’s start with premise number one.

If you’re in a quantum view, we believe that what you’re doing is capability building at your lead strategy. In the same way that Einstein said, make sure that what you’re doing is not pointing them to the pocket, but giving them the capability to pick their own pocket. Now that contrast to this whole idea of external intervention assumes that people can’t see those things for themselves. Cability is the lead strategy not the external intervention from higher ups.

Zac: So let me isolate one capability in particular and then try to flush that one out. So if we consider a capability like self reflection, leading to one actually being able to see one’s thinking at work, this is a capability that actually serves us in all walks of life. So for example in my time using structured self reflection, I have built the ability more and more often, who I am actually making choices for. And the state of being that I am engaged in while I am doing that, as well as the larger aim of those choices. Like in particular our client work, it has become necessary for me to see myself as Carol calls it, falling down hill, in certain situations, and to be able to stop me and notice where my thinking is going in these moments. Then hold me back from the edge so to speak. So this actually allows me to be more choiceful as I am leading the company with clients and staff with the choices that we make to take on projects, what projects to say no to, and things along those lines.

So the source of my choice making, tells me not from someone telling me to do something but instead what I am taking into account. And so my work is to continue to build that in my team as they are also seeking to do the same with their clients. And this has become invaluable, not only for our business but also in all of the other arenas of life. Such as being a dad, a good citizen and so on.

Carol: And the downside of not building an organization and life like you do is… what we are doing is telling people that you can’t trust your own living experience, your thinking and your choices, you have to have someone tell you what to do. Think about that in a democracy, where now instead of researching and thinking about policy, we go ask other people who we should vote for. And then we end up having people who don’t have very much locus of control. They wait for the authorities from outside. They think about how it is going to affect them. And all of their agency comes from someone else.

Zac: And I think that the key shift here that needs to happen is that it all revolves around understanding the source of agency. Which actually comes from development, rather than behavior change. Right? It’s the cue ball thing again. And this about growing people to think together. Ultimately about greater and greater orders of contribution rather than externally turning their behavior towards very specific narrow goals.

Carol: If you wonder why we have problems in democracy now it’s because we don’t build that capability to see our external effects including where are cascading downhill, we externalize it.

So our premise was to build and develop capability as your lead strategy, not as a cascading of someone else’s decisions. Our second premise is that we hold that each person or team of people will do much better if they initiate elements and specific approaches to actions that come in a specific situation. And using some corporate direction or principle shared frameworks. But otherwise what you’re going to get is standardized general stuff. So think about these broken down parts and pieces that are being handed out to people. Nobody is supposed to think about what is relevant to this situation, everyone is supposed to do the same task or the same standard and they spend a lot of time in this process. This causes people to be fooled in some way, to trust the judgement of other people, and continue to standardize.

Zac: There are two things that came to my mind is back to the original premise of the article. So COVID-19 was a massive disruption, and a core of this work is really about being able to root yourself in change and become infraturable. And you do that through this heterostatic way rather than constantly seeking homeostasis. The other aspect that you pointed out, is that this feels like tricking people. The whole concept of nudging is about tricking how people behave. So as a contrast to that, we propose instead is shared principles and framework for thinking. TOGETHER that open up different ways of perceiving a situation. And this kind of thinking allows for shared focus, while also taking into account the possibility for new ideas and solutions that come to life. It seems impossible to do that if you are forcing people to adopt the same behaviors towards an isolated internal goal.

Carol: And it is bad for business. If you have everyone thinking alike, which you can hear in these broken down steps, what you are doing is giving people a blind view of how it is that you build a great business. Now all customers look alike, all suppliers and distributors look alike, all of life looks alike. We are both touching why it is not good for society but there is no innovation in that. So our principle of being able to have each person and each team be able to initiate in a specific situation becomes really important. But it is hard to do that.

Zac: I think the key here is that it is connected to the previous one. So you should think of these premises as nested as a way of thinking about the relationship between the three. But it all starts with capability development. And the way that you do that is through initiating a principle based framework thinking process to come up with the process for how to approach a given situation.

Carol: You’re right. These are nested. And the whole idea of being able to build capability for people to be specific and relevant is all housed in our third premise which is that you need to have everyone connected to the meaning of what they are doing. Not the behavior that you want them to adopt. So here we are talking about being able to connect people to the value that they are producing, the lives that they are changing. Not for the business, that will flow to it. But instead you’re connecting others to the lives that they serve, the living systems of the planet that we live on, the working democracy, and this does awaken will. And it awakens the state of being that we want to be more externally considering, and to make a bigger difference. So I think the whole shift of “let’s have meaningful lives” gets undermined here.

Zac: And the other thing to think about here is that our stakeholder’s lives and existence is constantly in flux and it is a state of ongoing evolution. But our relationship with those stakeholders exists whether we want to acknowledge that or not. But being able to contribute capabilities of our internal teams and our stakeholders continues to be the most rewarding work. So to be able to engage in a project where we are both trying to learn simultaneously from one another and build one another’s capabilities that no one has done before, that is the most rewarding work that I have ever been involved in. To be able to have our team’s grow their capabilities with clients in conjunction, feels like to me the most meaningful and lasting chance for both sides.

Carol: And I have been speaking to the down side of each other. But I want to frame that a little differently on this one because we have been talking about the downside all along. We do see well intended companies who are still managing a lot behaviorally, and they try to substitute something for meaning. In a sense that they don’t ongoingly, everyday, build a developmental process into all of the work that they are doing. And they don’t connect people directly to the external world. Instead, they create something called missions and visions, and purpose driven organizations, and all of those are really obstrations that are not any different than behavioral ones. Say that we want to behave in a way and you get lists of actions and plans, and ways you want to measure. Which doesn’t really mean anything. The general idea is that we feel like we are in a good company, treating our suppliers better than the bad guys. But until we can really connect each individual with their own initiative, their own agency, and get rid of all those visions and missions, which are really obstrations about each individual connecting, we are not really making the best developmental and living use of a human’s capacity.

Zac: Totally agree. And I think that the piece that I have been picking up here is that the key to this premise is a parts and pieces fragmented approach tied to rewards. You open up and opportunity to adopt a way of working that actually makes more meaningful connections to the market, planet, and social institutions that you would not have been able to previously if everyone had been distracted by rewards.

Carol: In summary, all of the approaches there by these folks and by everyone who uses behavioral or even “do good” kinds of things they’re all based on a really direct, know where the ball (or people) are going with the cue stick and then break it down into steps. Then reward them to get them there. If we want to be able to this work, everything we have suggested to you is indirect. It is capability building, it is connecting to external stakeholders, and then bringing meaning into it.

I just submitted a book about this to a publisher, called Indirect Work. It is a regenerative theory of change and how it is that if you take Heisenberg’s principle… when you move one thing over here to where my right hand is, it will move everything from here to where my left hand is, where everything is beyond me. Until we can learn to think that way and overcome this pattern of following suggestions like in this article where we broke everything down and measuring and watching. What we are doing is creating our worst nightmare for democracy, even for our ability to create what we need to be shifted.

Zac: I would first like to take a moment to encourage you, the listener, to read the article and test our premises against what you find. Because this podcast isn’t about adopting what we say, it is about offering a way of thinking to test with your own thinking. We say this because we hope to encourage you to do this before adopting your own kinds of ideas.