The change management practice is long due for a more evidence-based approach, says Paul Gibbons, a consultant, speaker and teacher on organizational change. One important part of the solution is a culture change.
Companies that go through big changes and want their staff to buy-in to those changes will typically hire change management consultants to design programs that will help achieve that business-critical alignment. Sadly enough, the change management practice is not a very scientific one and a great many change projects fail because they depart from wrong assumptions about how people work.
Paul Gibbons is a seasoned change management consultant. In 2019, he published two books. The first was a second edition of “The Science of Successful Organizational Change” (Phronesis Media), a book on how the profession can be made more evidence-based. The second book came out in September 2019 and is called “IMPACT – Using Science to Change Behaviors Hearts and Minds” – in this book, Paul examines digital transformation, the future of work, and behavioral science for tools that can be useful to change leaders.
In this conversation, I took a deep dive with him into where things went wrong in the past with change management and how things can be changed for the better.
A young profession
Jo: Let’s start with the big question of why. Why is there such a lack of science in the change management practice?
Paul: Because change management, just like any other form of management is very young, companies as we now know them have been around for 200 to 250 years and business adopted practices from the other two big template organizations of the 18th-century – the church and the military. Business schools are a thing of the twentieth century. Business on the scale and complexity we see today just did not exist. Consider that medicine is also very new. It was a craft that was practiced by many different doctors but there were no manuals, these doctors were craftsmen doing things the way they thought made the most sense to them.
However, doctors did not know how the body worked. For a fever, they prescribed a cold bath which is the worst thing you can do and for infections, leeches were prescribed, who produced toxins themselves. For mental health, holes in the skull. So medicine has had a century to build the scientifically grounded body of knowledge that it has today.
Most business school professors are more historians of business than anything else. They don’t drive innovation.
We are simply not there yet with management practice. Business thinkers don’t start off with a blank piece of paper, their teachings are descriptive, not normative. Most business school professors excel at codifying existing practices, trying to make sense of them, but they are not the drivers of innovation. You could call them historians of business.
We see now that in different areas of management there is a movement towards evidence-based management where the tide is turning and science comes in. We see this in leadership studies, communication and also in human resources. Does it really suffice to pay people more to have them become more motivated? The very important answer to that question is being answered now. And it is not what people thought it was.
Jo: I presume the answer is not “yes.” You do need to meet certain hygiene levels of course.
Paul: That is correct. But once you have hit that threshold, it does not matter too much anymore how much you pay people. So if you are unaware of the findings of scientific research into this matter, how could you possibly design systems that are meant to motivate people? You couldn’t and that is problematic since motivation is a core concern in change management. You are trying to motivate people to align with your vision, your plan for the company. It is all about working with human minds. But again, for that, you need to know first how human minds work. So how do you change behavior? The answers will come from an evidence-based approach.
An a-scientific profession
Jo: There is still a lot of work to be done to make the change management consultancy less pseudo-scientific, that is clear.
Paul: Yes, but let me push back a little bit on the term pseudo-scientific here. I consider consultancy to be a very a-scientific discipline, not so much a pseudo-scientific one. Pseudo-science pretends to be scientific. Take homeopathy and astrology, for example, those are truly pseudo-scientific disciplines. So change management is mostly a-scientific – the models are just made up. Nobody cares particularly whether 3 steps, or 4 boxes, or 7Ss are scientific.
There has been little research done and the research that has been done comes from outside fields, for example pertaining to cognitive biases and nudges. Most practitioners have a group psychology or group dynamics background however, they are trained with concepts that are not very scientific and have not yet been exposed to the new – evidence-based- thinking. So as long as these practitioners stick to what they know, the profession is not going to move forward.
Behavioral economics is offering answers, and so are the marketing sciences. Robert Cialdini , who wrote the seminal book on marketing isn’t a professor of leadership, he is a professor of marketing. Marketers have been thinking for decades now about ways to change the hearts and minds of people, we need to listen to what they came up with.
Jo: Are American change management consultants better at their job than their European counterparts? Or they more evidence-based?
Paul: No, I don’t think so. There is a higher level of professionalism in the United States, however, with business people in the United States being better qualified. In the HR world you have (certainly compared to the U.K.) many more PhDs and MBAs on the payroll. If you are a business professional in the U.K., you will probably not have a doctorate in business or HRM. I worked for PWC in the U.K. and we barely had any PhDs or MBAs on the team. But don’t interpret this as me saying that the American change management consultant necessarily performs better.
Jo: It seems that a lot of change management consultants apply a-scientific ideas because they seem so intuitive. Take Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her five stages of grief. The first time I heard about this – I was a still a very young consultant at the time – I was immediately enamored with the concept. It seemed to make so much sense because it dovetailed with my conceptions of what grief looks like, or should look like. As a result I was open to it, and it stuck.
Paul: Yes, that is indeed how it works. Daniel Dennett uses the term “deepity” for these misconceptions. Deepity refers to concepts that sound profound and inarguable, but sadly enough, they are nonsense or at best trivially true. Another one I can add to the list is the whole concept of “burnings platforms.” Is it really fear that will enable and motivate people to change? Is this how you want the company culture to be? Do fearful people function at high enough cognitive levels to be efficient at their job? Those are three questions and the answers to all three is “no.” “Burning platforms” as change enablers is utter nonsense.
And since you got me going me now, how about John Kotter’s “there is no I in team” from his “Leading Change” classic? Can there really be no room for the individual to be self-aware when he is part of a team? Is that how teams work, through complete negation of the individuals that comprise it? The science says that this is plain nonsense. Just like anybody else, I took a lot of these concepts for granted, that is, until I started the research for my book and became a student of change management. My book was meant to share the fruits of that debunking labor with everybody.
A change of culture
Jo: Clients will often not worry too much about the science behind the advice they receive. There is no culture of questioning anything really. So at the demand side there is no strong driver for evidence-based management. But that makes that on the offer side consultants have a good excuse to not read up too much and invest too heavily in upping their game. We need a change of culture, do we not?
We need to think about the problem we are trying to solve before we rush to trying to solve it.
Paul: We absolutely do. We need to have the presence of mind to the push the pause button. Rob Briner, who is one of the most prominent HR thinkers in the world, explained this well in an episode on evidence-based management of my podcast. We need to think about the problem we need to solve before we rush to trying to solve it.
What kind of evidence would be helpful in understanding the problem at hand? The personal experience of the consultant is a form of evidence in its own right, but it does not beat scientific evidence. Nonetheless, some personal experience with a problem is better than nothing at all. Then we need to look to see if there are other sources of information available. Are there any case studies on companies with similar problems that have been published? Is there academic research available? This brings us higher on the evidence-based knowledge pyramid.
The approach I am outlining here sounds like a tall order but doesn’t have to be in the world of Google. In HR for example, a lot for research has been done already on not only motivating people as we discussed earlier but also hiring people. Interviews are not the best way to hire people and academic research in HR has plenty of answers on what would work. And finally, there are the stakeholders, what are their values, concerns and expectations?
It is through the triangulation of own experiences, scientific research and stakeholder expectations that change management professionals will find their answers. And we can apply this approach in our personal lives and in everything we do. When my doctor prescribes me vitamins, I set out to do my homework. We need more of that, so yes, it is a cultural change.
Jo: How do accreditation and licensure schemes come into play here? Should and can they come to the rescue?
Paul: No, they can’t because it is too soon for that. The body of knowledge has not yet been codified sufficiently. Remember my earlier comparison with medicine. We are still in the stage of practitioners doing their own thing and a lack of consensus on what everybody should be doing. The medical world had to corral all the ways medicine was practiced and consolidate and test these practices to arrive at one body of knowledge. We are working on this with change management, but we are not there yet.
Jo: Are some accreditation systems to be preferred over others, because they are more evidence-based?
Paul: No, for the simple reason that they are all a-scientific. There is really little of scientific evidence to be found in them. It’s like cooking really. Well, maybe not…
Jo: I think cooking might be more evidence-based, Paul. There is data available on which temperatures you need to cook your meat at if you don’t want your guests to become sick. Cooking is actually a pretty hard science in some regards.
Paul: Yes, right. [laughs] But seriously now, no, the current accreditation systems will not do. Practitioners will need to read up themselves.
Jo: Which allows for a segway into the final question since you will be helping those practitioners with a consolidation of important findings in the new edition of your book. The leading thought of the book was that the practice could use more scientifically grounded knowledge and you handed readers insights into how that could become a reality. That main thrust has not changed, I presume, but do tell us a bit about the parts that will be updated.
Paul: I was just going to update the 300-page Science of Organizational Change. Yet, I’d done so much research, and met so many people, talked at Google, Microsoft, and Comcast, interviewed the CEO of Zappos. So the second edition began to look like 600 pages – who wants that?
So, I’ve split it into three volumes of a series called Leading Change in the Digital Age. The first one deals with change management, communication, influencing, behavioral science, digital transformation, and the future of work.
It is written for a mainstream audience, so I’ve used vernacular, pop culture references as well as classical ones. I might quote Inigo Montoya, Tyrion Lannister, Tupac, and Homer in the same chapter. But the ethos is still a critical one. How good a job do change tools do? How do they need to be updated for our times, with the volatility, and uncertainty?
Did you enjoy this interview with Paul Gibbons?
You might also like my interview with Ronald Voorn where he denounces a marketing approach that focuses too narrowly on inbound marketing because it is not evidence-based.