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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Impact: 21st Century Change Management, Behavioral Science, and the Future of Work

Q&A on the Book Impact: 21st Century Change Management, Behavioral Science, and the Future of Work

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Key Takeaways

  • Look hard at the change models you use as a leader or expert. Do they produce results?  Why, or why not?
  • Behavioral science interventions can sometimes produce big shifts in behavior very efficiently without the hard work and heavy lifting required with persuasion
  • Most organizations do not take sufficient advantage of new digital technologies in engaging workforces with change
  • Preparing for the future of work requires effort on many levels - manage your career with an eye to the future (and be nimble), manage dislocations and job shifts humanely, make sure politicians you elect have the interests of the (potentially) 10s of millions of displaced workers at heart - "as workplaces become more technologically-enabled, we paradoxically are morally required to make them also more human"
  • Upgrade your models of leadership and organizational learning - get rid of myths, and work on models fit for this century

The book Impact by Paul Gibbons explores how to lead and manage change in the 21st century to support digital transformations while taking the needs of millennials and Gen Z into account. It describes how we can humanize change and use pull models and dialogs to support behavior change.   

InfoQ readers can download an extract of the book Impact.

InfoQ interviewed Gibbons about the need for new kinds of leadership, why 20th-century leadership approaches don’t work anymore, and how to manage change in order to create an impact.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Paul Gibbons: My big project is to bring organizational change into the 21st century - most of what leaders and experts use was created in the 20th century without taking into account changed millennial expectations, without understanding technology and comms, and without understanding behavioral science.

I've tried to write a book that is topical; sadly, as soon as a sentence is finished, it is dated. I have managed to pick up on some themes I hope readers find interesting.

InfoQ: For whom is it intended?

Gibbons: Change is not just for specialists!  I’ve written Impact to appeal to both change experts and the general executive leadership population. Change specialists might bridle at the debunking of Kotter and Prosci models - they were excellent in their day, but are simply dated. General executives will get a solid grounding in NEW change principles and change leadership.

Change is constant (not just when projects happen) and change is 80 percent of the manager’s job, or at least 80 percent of her headaches. But where does the leader go to learn that? For sure, not in business schools’ degree programs, and rarely in the very best executive education programs: Duke, Oxford, and Columbia.

While I don’t think nonexperts will become experts in the dark arts of facilitation, Large Group Interventions, coaching, communications planning, training, and organization development, I do think they need to understand contemporary behavioral science enough to ask hard questions. They do need to understand the difference between agile and waterfall planning processes (and what that means for leading change). They do need to master how to think systemically about change, and they do need to understand how much communication and influence have changed in the 21st-century due to technology and millennial culture.

They also need to know a half-dozen or so models, and not those debunked by research; not the change models cooked up in the 1990s and before because they are simply no longer relevant. Some offer downright misleading advice for digital age leaders. Kotter, Collins, Hiatt, and Conner were prescient thinkers and groundbreakers in change – but need Government Health Warnings on their covers today.

InfoQ: Where is the need for new kinds of leadership coming from?

Gibbons: There are new models of power. Since the Enlightenment, we’ve been SLOWLY moving away from top-down authoritarian power (think Kings and Clergy) ... power today is vested in corporate hierarchies, and while such hierarchies of knowledge, expertise, and authority will always exist, HOW power is used is changing.

Simply, the culture is again slowly moving away from the notion that people can be told what to do - "lump it or like it.'' They expect purpose-driven work, employers to care about their well-being, and to be involved (meaningfully) in decisions, as just a few examples. The drivers of this "millennial culture" lead to changed expectations on communication, behavioral science, and pace of change/ AI/ robotics.

InfoQ: What's wrong with 20th-century leadership approaches? Why don't they work anymore?

Gibbons: Many are based on psychological myths - for example, learning styles. Leadership focuses less now on TASK leadership (telling people what to do), but on creating a context and culture where people can self-organize.

I’ve tried to summarize a densely-packed book into what some of the practical takeaways might be.  What those might be will vary - but as I see it now, a few of the things I hope people might use are:

  • How to steer change practices by taking advantage of 21st-century science and tech - change faster, shift culture, create dynamic agile orgs
  • What to throw out - MYTHS that are causing pain and ineffectiveness and pissing off staff
  • Understand opportunity in Behavioral Science - examples of companies in the Fortune 100, including Google
  • Upgrade our social technologies; leading, inspiring, collaborating, deciding, learning, and sharing to keep pace with your digital transformation
  • Get the latest thinking on how to prepare your culture and mindset for digital transformation and the future of work
  • Find out how leading organizations influence today, from "set pieces" to constant engagement and involvement
  • Learn how to use insights from the behavioral sciences to change behaviors and lead change
  • Discover the latest in debiasing – for people, teams, and your business
  • Discern which 20th-century change models should be discarded and why, and which 21st-century change principles should replace them

InfoQ: There are many change models and a lot of good practices on change management. Still, many change initiatives fail. What's keeping organizations from applying what's available?

Gibbons: Well, if practices were good, change would not fail as much.  Sure, from a risk management perspective, returns will be probabilistic (a bell curve-ish), but the mean result is still around 40% failure. Change practices are a) still in the 20th century, and b) still greeted with suspicion by execs. To cover the latter first, most execs consider themselves good with people - they attribute, sometimes falsely, their success to their people skills. But the Dunning Kruger effect suggests that sometimes the less competent people are, the more confident they are.  Essentially, no business school teaches people change in their degree curricula - yet much of what they are asked to do is lead change.  Further, as I cover in the book, execs believe some stupid things about how change works and how people change.

Secondly, most of the Kotter-type models advanced change thinking in the 20th century but are out-of-date - failing to have kept up with the latest thinking and changes in culture and organization structures.  I should add that models such as Kotter take little account of the insights from agile.

InfoQ: What are your suggestions for managers who are involved in small-scale change?

Gibbons: Get people involved early. And if they are few, say under 100, involve them all. Start a discussion group. Set boundaries around the discussion - "We are discussing this; for now that is off the table."  Listen openly to their comments. Co-create a vision with them - "What do YOU think it will look like if we get this right?"

InfoQ: One of the topics explored in your book is humanizing change. Can you elaborate on how that can be done?

Gibbons: There are so many dimensions that it merits another book (and will likely get one!).  It is nested inside humanizing business, which means:

  • Considering humanistic values (dignity, inclusion, self-actualization)
  • Focus on human flourishing
  • Changing incentives to triple-bottom-line becomes more than an aspiration
  • Reorienting business toward human flourishing

To take just incentives - we need triple-p businesses: people, planet, profit.  The incentives skew business behavior toward the latter. So, how do we, as a society, change the incentives?

InfoQ: What's your take on changing behavior?

Gibbons: Coercion doesn't work; incentives are unpredictable. In other words, carrots and sticks are of questionable value.

For example, it is established that punishment does not alter behavior in the long-term. Fear of punishment has neuropsychological effects that damage morale and creativity.  Even holding negative consequences in reserve can provoke anxiety; executives need to be very mindful about creating a culture where fear is used to drive change. (Perversely, this was considered standard in the 1990s and 2000s - you may have heard - "create a burning platform."

What DOES work is thinking about behavior change in terms of habits.  Indeed, one of the insights from an earlier book is that culture is a collection of habits, and culture change boils down to habit change.

Think not just about changing minds first and actions later, but think FIRST about behaviors, and mindset will follow. Using behavioral science allows you to short-cut motivation. Habits are a good example - someone with a running habit does not engage in debates about whether they feel like running or not.

InfoQ: How can digitalization- using for instance pull models and dialogs- support behavior change?

Gibbons: Pull models use human curiosity; get them curious - they will PULL, then they share on social media and do the pushing for you.  Corporate comms are dry as dust. Leaders expect people to read their stuff because they are leaders - sorry dude. People are swamped with inputs today - don’t take their attention for granted.

For example, humans don’t need incentives to share cat pictures - so if you post a good cat picture, it can get a trillion shares (I’m kidding).  In journalism, we know that many of our readers will not be, say, Guardian subscribers, but FRIENDS of Guardian subscribers who have shared something they value. That is why in media studies we call the audience "the people formerly known as the audience" - the jargon word for that is "prosumers."

So, create content and messaging that people want to share, and have the right platform (Enterprise Social Networks, Slack) so they can do it.

InfoQ: Now that the book is out, what are your reflections? What kind of feedback are you getting?

Gibbons: There are a few things …

  1. I’m getting a lot of push back from the status quo.  Friends call me a debunker in chief, others with vested interests are far less complimentary. I feel a little like Eleven in Stranger Things taking on the Harvard Monster. The ideas from Harvard on change in the 1990s were very helpful - now they are completely outdated, and FAR behind best practice. In general, the change canon is full of baloney and myth. Whether a guy in a small town in Colorado can take down the big gurus remains to be seen - certainly there is a cost in popularity as people have invested in learning about these ideas. Generally, business is caught in the Triassic (forgive the hyperbole; maybe rather Cretaceous) Age -  dysfunctional ways of engaging and influencing, failing to take advantage of behavioral science, believing a lot of baloney.
  2. Most of my requests for speaking gigs are less on change and leadership, and more on the human effects of AI, the ethics of AI, and how the 4th Industrial Revolution is affecting people - I added all of that as context to the writing on change; it is interesting to me that readers seem to focus on it. In the future of work - when knowledge workers job share with machines - workers need to know how NOT to become personally redundant, and need to have the skills to manage careers and the capability to design.
  3. Just as I was writing those last words, the Business Roundtable (nearly 200 company CEOs headed by Jamie Dimon from JP Morgan) issued a proclamation - that we need to stop mindlessly focusing on just profit. As a professor of business ethics, I had mixed feelings (like, "WTF, you guys are just waking up to the importance of different stakeholders, people, communities and the environment - welcome to the party dudes - it’s about time!"). My "take" on the Roundtable is that humanizing business is key and I cover my UK experience working with Shell and other companies on Sustainability (including Unilever under Polman) a decade ago - it is fair to say that when it comes to these ideas, American business is a little (or quite a bit) behind.
  4. I’m amazed when talking to millennials and Gen Z to hear that their workplaces insist upon using "analog" methods that were never that productive (workshops, training, communications) - and the companies’ failure to take advantage of ACT (advanced comms tech) - Slack/ Teams - and their FAILURE to think like marketers (PewDiePie, Gangnam Style). Here the message is worth repeating: get THEM to be your sharers and communicators by producing content they love sharing - use videos, humor, irreverence, CEO vlogs, etc.
  5. Even though I live in the US, I've tried to be global in perspective - and I’ve probably failed. Most of my career has been in Europe - Paris, London, Budapest, Dusseldorf, and Madrid.

About the Book Author

My brother has his sword; King Robert has his Warhammer, and I have my mind … and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge. - Tyrion Lannister

Paul Gibbons has a 40-year career straddling international business and academia. His research and writing explore how philosophy and science can be used to enlighten contemporary business thinking, debunk myths and pseudoscience, and solve practical business problems, including changing culture, developing leaders, and using analytics and evidence to make strategic decisions. Gibbons’ academic background - having started in math, then in economics, neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy - allows him to bring perspectives to business not typically found in traditional business books.

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