Do Organisational Change Mandates Work?


It has been my contention for a long time that one of the reasons change mandates experience a 60%-80% failure rate (depending on definition, metrics etc) is not because there is anything wrong with the new system or working practice an organisation is implementing, nor because of poor communication or persuasion skills of the executives or consultants charged with the intervention, but rather very simply because the employees affected are often not asked nor consulted in the matter. They are simply informed of the changes as a fait accompli, they are not invited to co-create the future of the organisation. This in turns leads to disengagement, disenchantment or even cynicism, which can create a block in the change being implemented.

Resistance to Change?

This block is often expressed as “resistance” to change, and most change management programs are often about “managing” this alleged “resistance”.  Actually, however, in most cases it is not change itself people are resisting, but rather the imposition of a system or practice in which they had no involvement in creating, and is thus alien. Margaret Wheatley put it this way:

[People don’t] … accept imposed solutions, pre-determined designs, or well-articulated plans that have been generated somewhere else.  Too often, we interpret their refusal as resistance.  We say that people innately resist change.  But the resistance we experience from others is not to change itself. It is to the particular process of change that believes in imposition rather than creation.  It is the resistance of a living system to being treated as a non-living thing.

Or as Peter Senge says: “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.”

In other words the problem with change and the alleged resistance to change is not change itself, but rather the imposition or mandation of change from above. Japanese organisations have no problem with change, it is part of their culture. This is outwardly reflected in the agility of their buildings to adapt to changing environmental circumstances (typhoons, earthquakes), in traditional shrines being ‘rebuilt’ periodically, and in the fluidity between inner and outer space. In my experience Japanese organisations are continuously re-organising themselves according to changing circumstances, and this is done by all employees, down to the shop-floor, who are taught how to solve problems and how to adapt nimbly. Management consultancies hardly exist in Japan (yes, the McKinseys have plush show offices in Tokyo, but their clients are largely expatriate companies) – you do not need expensive change consultants when you can self-organise and change yourself.  Change in Japan is not something thought out at the top, but rather everyone in the organisation is engaged in co-creating the changes.

The problem with Western organisational change, as I see it, is having too rigid organisational structures in the first place (inflexibility by design), imposing change from above without asking those doing the work first, and not giving the workforce the tools and authority to solve their own problems, and hence to co-create change when and as it is required.

The Zappos Case

Recently Zappos, the unique online shoe retailer based in Nevada, has been in the news about a memo from its CEO, Tony Hsieh, to its employees in which he offers all of them severance pay if they wish to leave the company because they are not comfortable in its new management environment. In the last 18 months the 1,500 strong company has been embarking on a massive change program, converting from a ‘command and control’ management structure, to one without formal managers, giving all employees equivalent decision-making powers to elect people to specific needs-based tasks or roles in a self-managed manner. The approach is known as ‘holacracy’, a derivative of the Dutch Quaker creation ‘sociocracy’ (find out more here). This full scale adoption of holacracy is the largest of its kind to date, hence many are following the story with keen interest.

The implementation requires a “roll-out” of a substantial amount of training (running meetings, consent decision-making, circle formations), and the program is now running to a first completion stage. It is clear that it has faced certain difficulties, both successes as well departures by disenchanted staff. Here are a few links to recent reports:

The Zappos story is actually a more interesting case, in my view, than most change programs: in a manner of speaking management here is mandating to abolish itself.  The self-organising aspect of holacracy is, in my view, somewhat similar to Japanese management styles. True Japanese firms have managers in a hierarchy, but managers are more like mentors who attribute authority to solutions their staff have come up with and consented to.  Moreover the fundamental information flow is horizontal working towards satisfying customers, rather than vertically serving shareholders.  Prof Kichiro Hayashi (Tokyo Aoyama University) has referred to Japanese (and Oriental in general) management as organic.  This organic style is very flexible and agile at adapting to changing circumstances, yet rather inefficient and seemingly disorganised in a static world; whereas Western ‘mechanical’ management is super-efficient in a stable world, but lacks the capacity to self-organise and self-change.

Ordering no more Orders

The Zappos story is thus to me an interesting Western attempt to address this, and in light of the perceived need to transform our capitalism it is being observed by many with keen interest.  You might expect employees to embrace the opportunity to take on more responsibility, without having to be accountable to the eccentricities of a boss. Many do. But as Erich Fromm has shown, many also fear freedom. For some, in a world where they have been used to receiving orders, operating without them is scary and may create in them profound disorientation.

Nevertheless with support and coaching most people could easily get used to the new approach, though the bigger the organisation the more difficult it is to do. At the same time, however, there is a felt contradiction in the CEO being required to order that there would be no orders from hence on. To be fair to holacracy, its website says this about this apparent paradox of the CEO needing power to adopt holacracy: “Holacracy is a fundamental shift of authority: it changes the seat of power from the CEO to the Holacracy Constitution, which then distributes that power through specific processes. You cannot shift the seat of power without the CEO’s approval (and shouldn’t be able to). …, you need a formal agreement from that CEO to vest her/his power into something else — in this case the Holacracy Constitution. Without this formal agreement, you would just be “pretending” to work differently

So what is it, then, that is causing the CEO to posit such an ultimatum “self-organize or leave the company”? Why is this change program evoking such drastic measures? True, the severance package is very generous, yet the dictum feels a little like a dictator forcing subjects to participate, initiate (with their own views) and be engaged. I cannot speak for holacracy, but that would defeat the purpose of its parent methodology, sociocracy, which envisions “people working together as different, unique persons on the basis of mutual equivalence in decision-making” – yet seemingly no differences are allowed at Zappos.  This contravenes the desirability for diversity in order to create richness in decision-making. Unintentionally I suspect, it does look like Zappos want clones of each other. Yet can you really offer severance packages to family members?

So why resistance?

So why is there resistance, what is it some staff are riling against? The issue I believe is that holacracy was mandated or imposed. Staff were never asked or consulted whether they wanted holacracy, nor were they invited to co-develop the holacracy transformation. It was simply imposed on them. Somewhat paradoxically, but imposed nevertheless. What people are really rejecting is not holacracy itself, but being forced to change without consultation. This comes back to what I said initially, it is not the system or new behaviour that people are resisting, but the way it is being mandated and imposed. Holacracy may be a great idea, but mandating it doesn’t work. In the case of Zappos, this was already predicted a year ago in March 2014 in the blog “The Mandate of Holacracy at Zappos” by Daniel Mezick, author of Culture Games and agile coach, who was investigating why it was that 80% of agile adoptions were considered unsuccessful.

In short it is mandation which is the problem, not holacracy nor resistance to change in general. This is what we at Caterfly are trying to address with the Open Smart Transformation model, involving a special framework of two Open Space Technology events, where all affected personnel are invited to hold deep dialogues about the change. The two events also demark a period of 3 – 6 months, a cocoon of iterations, in which all employees are trained and coached in the new approach, are asked to suspend judgement and instead apply the new way on a trial and error basis, learning and prototyping, enabling all affected to be involved and engaged in the transformation process. This open ended playful period ends with a second Open Space event where everyone can work on sorting out what worked, what needs adapting and what to reject. In other words the new approach thereby becomes customised to the particular organisation, rather than being something off the shelf, and this work is all done collaboratively by the staff.  Consequently they own the change, it is no longer an alien system, they all co-created the transformation together.

This process was initially developed and applied with great success fo agile adoptions where typically 70 – 80% failed. We realised that the fundamental principles of the new approach are true beyond just agile. They apply to adopting lean, responsive, management 3.0, conscious capitalism, environmental management, and holacracy/sociocracy too, and indeed of any new systems implementation or organisational transformation / change management. While what Tony Hsieh is trying to do is not only extremely noble and brave, and is being done with a great deal of generosity and candidness, it is a great pity it had been mandated initially. I am sure he could have avoided this “accept holacracy or get out” dilemma, if Zappos had invited the staff to co-create the change rather than imposing it on them. However generous the severance package offer may be, it now puts Tony Hsieh in a difficult position – some staff may see him, in trepidation, as the ultimate arbiter of who is to stay and who is to go.

Change Platform

In short, mandation or imposition does not work well! This is also summarised in Gary Hammel’s McKinsey article late 2014 “Build a Change Platform, not a Change Program”. Caterfly’s iterative cocoon-forming double open-space framework and follow up is such a platform, we believe, or at the very least helps establish one. Fundamentally we need to change change itself from a mandation mind-set to one of invitation: inviting all affected persons to co-create the new order of things, and thereby co-own it.  Open Space Technology, doubled to form an iterative cocoon platform, is the only offline synchronous platform I am aware of that enables this to scale with large numbers of people, effectively, rapidly and sustainably.

Come join us at Shift: Why Aren’t Organisations Shifting? 21 July 2015, London

Further reading:
Why telling people what to do doesn’t work – click
The problem with change management – click