Change Management: the Broken Profession?

It’s Saturday morning. It’s a sunny day in Melbourne. I’ve just had a pleasant breakfast, using that time to contemplate the whys and wherefores to something that has been eating at me for years: the assertion that change management, as a profession, is broken.

I’ve been poring over the Change Management literature in the last few months, in preparation for writing this article. It is littered more with examples of failure than it is with examples of success. In fact, it almost seems you’re only likely to see an article touting the success of change management when it either supports the approach of a consulting firm, or the launch of a book.

From my analysis, I’ve reached the conclusion that we are a really poor profession. In fact, when I consider what actually gets applied in the real world, rather than just the theories which exist, I come to the conclusion that we are not a profession, but more a collection of pseudoscience and models masquerading as a profession.

With that in mind, it’s little wonder to me that change management gets little attention from many CEOs. When it does, and it’s incorporated into an ongoing project, it is administered in an unoriginal, cookie-cutter style; one that concentrates on content copied from some other published successful change management programme, or from an unverified commercialised model, rather than on the context of the actual change people have in front of them.

Not only that, it appears to me that the models, even the good ones, are used in the most superficial of ways. Ways in which negative unintended consequences outweigh intended positive consequences.

As ever, in the management of change, there is no black and white, just many shades of grey. It is the same when I try to analyse why change management is broken.

Simplistic analysis and simplistic models

One of the key factors that, for me, keeps the field of applied change management jammed in a steady state of incompetence is the simplicity of analysis in the profession. This simplistic analysis goes on to spawn simplistic content that is read and taken up by others, but all it contains are self-evident conclusions that provide no insight and don’t allow for context.

For example, an article ( Sirkin, Keenan, & Jackson, 2005) published in a normally reliable publication, the Harvard Business Review, argues that four factors, which neatly fit the acronym DICE, influence the success of a change management initiative:

  1. D. The duration of time until the change program is completed if it has a short life span; if not short, the amount of time between reviews of milestones.
  2. I. The project team’s performance integrity; that is, its ability to complete the initiative on time. That depends on members’ skills and traits relative to the project’s requirements.
  3. C. The commitment to change possessed by top management and affected employees.
  4. E. The effort over and above the usual work that the change initiative demands.

The authors go on to say, “If you think about it, the different ways in which organizations combine the four factors create a continuum—from projects that are set up to succeed to those that are set up to fail. At one extreme, a short project led by a skilled, motivated, and cohesive team, championed by top management and implemented in a department that is receptive to the change and has to put in very little additional effort, is bound to succeed. At the other extreme, a long, drawn-out project executed by an inexpert, unenthusiastic, and disjointed team, without any top-level sponsors and targeted at a function that dislikes the change and has to do a lot of extra work, will fail.”

Well blow me down and call me shorty, as Popeye might have said. What is the point of the observation other than the obvious? Did we really need a study of over 250 change management programmes to tell us that?

Forbes is also usually a source of good information. However, one of their efforts related to a study by Towers Watson that found that only 25% of change management initiatives are successful over the long term. The article (Lipman, 2013) goes on to argue that in order for change to be successful, the following factors improve the odds of success:

  1. The change goals must be realistic
  2. Rolled-up-sleeves CEO involvement
  3. Senior management has to walk the talk, not talk the walk
  4. Middle managers and supervisors need to know in their bones the reasons for the change
  5. The organization must be in it for the long haul

The last point seems to be at odds with the research I have already referenced, published in HBR. However, in common with that article, is the fact that the factors quoted seem to be bleedingly self-evident. Are we truly expecting that a change will be successful with unrealistic goals, no CEO involvement, senior managers who are a mass of incongruent words and actions and for which only short term wins will suffice?

In addition to simplistic models often being used, there are hundreds of thousands of tools. Many of those are reduced to acronyms like DICE, too.

Reducing models and tools to acronyms gives rise to misunderstandings of the context in which the model or tool was originally formed, and what the content of the tool actually means. For example, setting goals which are easily understood, hard to confuse, are set with time boundaries, are perceived to be achievable, and make sense with regard to what we want to achieve is reduced to the acronym SMART. I would like a dollar for each time that people have got the A and the R wrong. People remember the first and last things they hear very well but not the middle bits. Teaching SMART as a tool in its own right rather than teaching the principles has meant that what is a very useful set of principles is misunderstood and misapplied by an unfortunately large minority of people.

The change management industry does a disservice to itself and its clients – whether they are internal or external – through the use of these simplistic models, tools and acronyms.

I have seen so many change managers confused by a model and its intent when they are completing their analysis – or even worse, completely bemused during implementation. And they are the ones who are dedicated enough to question themselves and ask for third party feedback as to whether what they are doing is right. The really scary ones plough on regardless without really understanding the intent, the principles of the model, and the context in which it is used to generate success.

In one memorable example, we looked at the implementation programme for shifting an entire privately-owned medium-sized organisation to Management by Objectives. There was only one problem: the senior management of the organisation was unwilling to tell their staff what the organisation’s goal was, how much the organisation earned, what their margins were, what factors had an impact on organisational success, or what their plans were for the organisation.

Change managers who are unable to comprehend the poor likelihood of success inherent in plans such as this are blissfully unconsciously incompetent.


Another area in which change management as an industry trips itself up is in the use of overly complex models of human behaviour or leadership, and to an even greater extent, pseudoscience.

Models abound which have no empirical data to support them and have taken on the characteristics of a cult rather than guiding principles for managing change or providing leadership during change.

For example, when I was in Shell, Neuro-linguistic Programming had some following as a tool for changing people’s behaviour to embed change. Research over the last 35 years, however, debunks it as pap science (Neuro-linguistic programming, 2014).

Followers of even well-researched thinking often fall into this category. They often repeat the words of the approach without truly understanding their meaning.

A good example is a famous one: Kotter’s eight-step process. Even though I dislike anything reduced to an <insert number of steps here> step process, Kotter’s assertions and the principles they are built on have a lot of merit. However, of those of you who have seen the Kotter eight-step process in action, how many of you have seen the change manager find a way to force uncomfortable discussions to be held about leadership styles, personal blockers and motivators to change and capability when putting together the “coalition of the willing”?

That is what is meant to happen, not just putting together the steering committee that oversees the “Kotter Transformational Programme” (cue fanfare). What does happen is that even a good model like Kotter’s is totally emasculated by the inability or unwillingness of the change manager to apply the model in the context in which it was intended.

Context is king

In good news, however, there is research which – I think – points the way to thinking successfully about change.

The best example I have found is by two McKinsey authors. In their article (Keller & Aiken, 2008) they drew on previous work by Colin Price and Emily Lawson in a 2003 article entitled The Psychology of Change Management. Price and Lawson postulated that four conditions needed to be fulfilled before employees would willingly change their behaviour:

  1. A compelling story: Employees must see the point of the change and agree with it, at least enough to give it a try
  2. Role modelling: They must also see colleagues they admire modelling the desired behaviour
  3. Reinforcement systems: Surrounding structures, systems, processes and incentives must be in tune with the new behaviour
  4. The skills required for change: Employees need to have the skills to do what is required of them.

What they found was that in all cases, most change management programmes failed to meet the criteria because it was difficult to really do so and that individuals and organisations are truly unprepared for what is required of them to manage the change beyond some slogans, a model, and an acronym or two.

For example, with regard to creating a compelling story, “what the leader cares about (and typically bases at least 80 percent of his or her message to others on) does not tap into roughly 80 percent of the workforce’s primary motivators for putting extra energy into the change program.”

They also find that rather than trying tell people why the change is good for them it is better to create an environment where people can observe the benefit for themselves: “when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome (almost by a factor of five to one)”.

With regard to role modelling they find that “…most executives don’t see themselves as ‘part of the problem’, and therefore deep down do not believe that it is they who need to change, even though in principle they agree that leaders must role model the desired changes.”

They also found that reinforcing systems based on money and flimsy on perceptions of fairness were bound to fail.

With regard to building capability they found that most change programmes failed to formalise and create the space for practice back in the workplace, dooming most training programmes to deliver returns that are at best 65 percent of their potential.

In order to comply with the four principles in reality and not just in a business case, irrespective of which model you may be using, requires in-depth thinking about context.

For instance:

What are the goals of our change? What are the desired behaviours of each group of stakeholders in order to achieve those goals? What do we want them to feel, think, and as a result of that, do, when we communicate with them?

What are the external pressures on your organisation? What potential risk events could occur that have a likelihood and consequence which is unacceptable? What positive risk events can you make more likely to improve the environment in which your organisation operates?

What leadership behaviours are required? What behaviours do we currently exhibit? What changes to attitude and skill do we need to be successful leaders of the change? Who will not make it as a leader of the change? Can they be effectively bypassed or educated to change, or will they need to go? How do we measure whether leaders are displaying the necessary behaviours?

What is the existing mindset of groups of stakeholders and individuals? Who can be used to support the change? Who needs to be provided an environment which they find motivating to accept and support the change? What elements are needed to create that environment?

What capabilities do our people need? What is the best way of ensuring they learn the new skills required and have the opportunity to transfer that back to the workplace?

What supporting structures do they need in terms of processes and procedures? What will be adequate as reward and or recognition to make their attitude a positive one?

If you provide honest, specific, actionable answers to these questions, you will likely generate more information than many formula-driven change managers analyse and act upon during an entire programme. Unfortunately, the application of simplistic models, or perfectly good models with a simplistic approach – or the application of no change management approach at all – curtails the results of most change management programmes.

There are no silver bullets to managing change. Simplistic models and pseudoscience are not the answer. Even well-researched models are not enough when they are applied without thinking about the context of the change. Without in-depth thinking, it’s my firmly-held belief that change management, as a profession, will remain broken.



Sirkin, L. H., Keenan, P., & Jackson, A. (2005, October). The Hard Side of Change Management. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review:

Keller , S., & Aiken, C. (2008, May). The Inconvenient Truth About Change Management. Retrieved from McKinsey & Co:

Lipman, V. (2013, April). New Study Explores Why Change Management Fails – And How To (Perhaps) Succeed. Retrieved from Forbes:

Neuro-linguistic programming. (2014, August 30). Retrieved from Wikipedia:

8 responses to “Change Management: the Broken Profession?”

  1. mik.becker says:

    Glad to hear you enjoy our website Olin. The latest articles are available from our Winds of Change newsletter. You can subscribe here
    Check out our previous articles for some more great reading.

  2. mik.becker says:

    Thank you Willie. Glad you like it.

  3. Smithc193 says:

    Yeah bookmaking this wasn’t a risky conclusion outstanding post! kkegcdkebecfbcdd

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I had difficulty finding the words to describe my observations of the Australian Change Landscape, but you clearly did not and seemed to be of exactly the same mind. It’s strangely comforting to know that I am not the only one that has this deviant opinion. Have a great day. Gilbert

  5. Dewey says:

    This is a topic that’s close to my heart… Best wishes! Exactly
    where are your contact details though?

  6. Ryan Jones says:

    Well, the answer will vary from one business profession to another. It is mainly because the result of a change is always not the same. Sometimes it is in favor and in some other cases it is disapproval. But I know one thing and that is change inventiveness is extremely victorious when headship and management have the same objective and both work as a partner, instead of delivering effort individually. I personally believe that leadership is a kind of art, which is all about inspiration and motivation, based on a single motto i.e “nothing is more and nothing is less”. Moreover, an influential leader and a dynamic management will never make the process of alternation a broken profession.

  7. zebra says:

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    <Loved it!

  8. Kevin Dwyer says:

    Thanks Gilbert. I’ve become a little more disenchanted since writing this article and having worked with some Change Management Departments in the private and public sectors. There is so much a tick the box attitude.