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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book The Science of Organizational Change

Q&A on the Book The Science of Organizational Change

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Key Takeaways

  • Most of what is written about change management is not based in science; some is based in pseudoscience, some of it is just made up, some of it is based upon wishful thinking.
  • Change is the stuff of life, and constant (both in life and in business) - we need to consider building in that kind of robust adaptability, what Nassim Taleb calls “anti-fragility.”
  • Cognitive biases stalk the corridors of businesses costing billions in bad decisions.
  • The behavioral sciences help us change behaviors in ways traditional methods, influencing, persuading, involving, and teaching do not.  And what people DO matters much more than what they believe!!!
  • Managers need critical thinking skills to see through the BS peddled by consultants and gurus.

In The Science of Organizational ChangePaul Gibbons challenges existing theories and tools of change management and debunks management myths. He explores how we can go from a change management to a change-agility paradigm and provides 21st-century research on behavioral science, that affects topics such as project planning, change strategy, business-agility, and change leadership in a VUCA world.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of the book The Science of Organizational Change.

InfoQ interviewed Gibbons about dividing the change world into valid/not valid and useful/harmful and moving towards change practices that are both valid and useful, change-agility and what's needed to go from a change management paradigm to a change-agility paradigm, using use pre-mortems for managing uncertainty, what can be done to ensure that training results in behavior change, how leaders should deal with resistance to change and increase engagement, the benefits that mindfulness can bring, and leadership as a science-based craft.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Paul Gibbons: Early in my career as a consultant, I saw project after project fail. Hundreds of millions of dollars in waste. But why? 

  1. Change management education is non-existent in business schools and most of what managers juggle is change of some kind.
  2. The change management profession is full of pseudo-science.

With my background as a scientist AND a change guy - I thought this book had to be written.

The Science of Organizational Change is an annoying book, taking aim at management pseudo-science, gurus, and management consultants. It is the first book which tries to blend the latest behavioral science research with change management and leadership theory, 

I ruthlessly debunk much of what passes for orthodoxy on change - such as “burning platforms” or “change-curves,” or learning styles.  Not just a “tear down” kind of book, in later chapters the book shows why behaviors don’t always align with our vision and goals, and gives practical solutions, from 21st-century research on how to achieve behavioral change. In the book, I show why “facts don’t win arguments” and then show us what does win them.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Gibbons: It is somewhat written for specialists in change and project management, although it debunks a lot of what they practice, so has both raving enthusiasts calling it one of the best ever, AND has detractors who say, “Who the blazes is this guy to rubbish Harvard’s material?!”  It has been ranked #2 on decision making, #5 on leadership, #1 on organizational change, and # 2 on change management at various times.

There is material unfound in ANY other book on change, such as the psychology of risk - one of my favorite quotes is, “Leaders need to understand the psychology of risk much more than the mathematics of risk.”

InfoQ: In your book, you divided the change world into valid/not valid and useful/harmful. Why this division?

Gibbons: There are many many tools in the change and psychology worlds that are invalid when tested rigorously - Myers Briggs, Learning Styles, and Kubler Ross.  They are in incredibly widespread use despite this.

Why?  

They allow a conversation (say) about difference, about character, about diversity of thought, about thoughts/ values and more.  However, the CONVERSATION gets the work done, not the model.  The model is often baloney.

Similarly, psychological therapies (brief counseling, Gestalt, psychodynamic, humanistic, CBT all have their adherents… psychodynamic is pure pseudoscience, yet talking to someone works despite whatever mental model the therapist may have.

There is also junk (invalid, useless - or harmful) - that too should be exposed and discarded.  Then there is material from the sciences that practitioners cannot access because it resides only in journals.

The GOOD stuff is both valid and useful - based in science, validated by evidence, and useful. Let’s take an example from behavioral science. Behavioral science is highly empirical (you can measure behaviors) so ideas can be validated - it is a 21st century example of something that is valid AND useful.  One simple example is that changing the default setting on organ donation (when you get your license) from opt-in to opt-out roughly quadruples the number of donors!

That is typical in behavioral science - a little tweak produces outsized results.

InfoQ: How can we move towards change practices that are both valid and useful?

Gibbons: We need people “on the bridge” helping practitioners use content from academics - such as in the behavioral sciences.  We also need people prepared to debunk garbage - but some of the most hostile receptions I get at conferences is when I debunk stuff people have been using (and making money from).

Practitioners and business people need more critical thinking to see through bad science.

InfoQ: What is change-agility, and what's needed to go from a change management paradigm to a change-agility paradigm?

Gibbons: In the change management paradigm, a project is launched and change management tries to align people.  That is often too little, too late, and badly done.  We encounter change resistance and too much change done this way produces change fatigue.

In a change-agile organization, ONE of the features is constant engagement with strategy, another is structural and psychological resilience. Another is a culture that welcomes innovation and change.

InfoQ: How can we use pre-mortems for managing uncertainty?

Gibbons: Uncertainty, strictly speaking, cannot be managed. (Sort of the point.) However, by asking the question - if we look back upon this and it has gone terribly, what would have happened?  It is a way of thinking through risk, of piercing through the veil of optimism that surrounds new projects.

(In philosophy, we call this counter-factual, if anyone cares!)

InfoQ: What can be done to ensure that training results in behavior change?

Gibbons: There is a lot to say about this, but first let’s admit that it rarely does!! Heads full of concepts from a course, EVEN if practiced on the course, will be hard to SUSTAINABLY apply in the real world.  When I first read the research on this, it said TEN PERCENT of course material is transferred to the job.  The training industry is around 100 billion dollars, so is 90 percent really wasted? What can be done?

Again, “ensure” is too strong a word, but manager involvement, linking training results to performance (e.g. “you went on a project management course, show me how you are using it in your role now!”) can help.

It isn’t about the CONTENT, but about the pedagogical structure, to use some jargon.  When you learn math, you learn a little, practice a little, learn some more. (We don’t do that in business.)  When you learn golf, you spend hundreds of hours on the range practicing.  In business we assume that hearing something ONCE will allow you to apply it.

Take a typical MBA.  There is a lot of theory. Some of it is even good, although not much.

But business is not theoretical; managing people isn’t theoretical. You have to know how to (say) lead a team day in and day out.

The analogy I use is learning piano - an MBA teaches you how to read music, but you graduate never having touched a keyboard.

InfoQ: How should leaders deal with resistance to change?

Gibbons: First, if you have an agile organization, then you will find less of it. By the time people are resisting, you are far too late.  Second, VALUE resistance when it is overt - apathetic, passive-aggressive resistance is far worse and impossible to deal with.  Third, understand why - and meet “resistors” where they are. (St. Francis prayer - seek first to understand, then to be understood.)

InfoQ: What can leaders do to increase engagement?

Gibbons: General engagement (non specific), as sold wholesale by survey companies, is a BS concept. (Ask any organizational psychologist.)  Specific engagement with a project needs to begin long before “ground is broken.” Then discuss constantly, ideally using an ESN (Enterprise Social Network) or Slack.

InfoQ: What benefits can mindfulness bring?

Gibbons: Besides offering respite from some psychological difficulties such as depression and anxiety, the evidence shows that focus, decision-making, creativity, and stress-reduction ALL benefit from it.

InfoQ: The final chapter of your book is about leadership as a science-based craft. Why should we care about it, and how can we move towards it?

Gibbons: Of all the things that gurus write about, leadership contains the most BS. A lot of it is anecdotal, or just made up.

There is material from the human sciences, say on behavioral science, that leaders must understand. To take just one example from a book-length treatment - understanding the planning fallacy can save billions (literally) in poor decisions. Another example is that humans do not understand risk. One final suggestion, we should stop treating business gurus as prophets, instead we should question everything. 

About the Book Author

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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