Managing change and transformation successfully – a misunderstanding?

Guest contribution by | 16.12.2019

Change management has become so much on everyone’s lips that for some time now the term has become too small again. Now it must certainly be a transformation! And best of all with upgrading prefixes such as

  • digital transformation,
  • agile transformation,
  • effective transformation or
  • purpose driven transformation.

And also the guidebook literature is accordingly broadly based:

  • How to successfully change your company in eight steps
  • Change Management: fundamentals and success factors
  • Success factors in change management
  • Successfully shaping change processes

The suggestive titles build up the first argumentative front man right at the beginning: Changes and transformations are – along success factors – manageable!

Are there success factors for change and transformation?

Let’s pause for a moment. Do we really believe that there are success factors for change? So are there factors which, across the multitude of different change situations, actually influence the success of a change project causally or at least correlatively? Do we really believe in “adjusting screws” that can be turned in social systems, like the screws through the screwdriver? It seems to me that here we follow, at least implicitly, the assumption of a mechanistic image of social systems. And I suppose this is quite a misunderstanding.

For me, it turns out that we would like these “screws” to exist, that we would like that. This desire then gives us the feeling of controllability that we as “managers” like so much. And, of course, this feeling is now served rationally by many “studies”. Studies that ask the same questions mostly to a smaller and rather diffuse circle of “decision makers” (n are often a few hundred, unspecified respondents whose selection criteria are unknown) and then find out that, for example, “middle management is an obstacle to change” or “communication is not sufficient”. The studies are usually carried out by consultants or, in order to maintain the scientific semblance, in cooperation with some university. Scientific evidence criteria (e.g. peer review of the results) almost do not suffice for any of these so-called studies, but the statements are repeated so often mantra-like that we like to believe that we know what makes change successful or unsuccessful. However, these are at best “weak signals” or simply unproven hypotheses and the studies are nothing more than a “sales pitch” of the consultants.

The subjective perception of success

The statement “70 percent of change projects are not successful” also goes in this direction. It goes back to an article by John P. Kotter1 in which he referred to “samples of projects known to him” and explicitly spoke of “personal perception”. So a purely subjective perception in a few cases, nothing else.

But there can hardly be a presentation by those responsible for change in which this is not further asserted. And then of course the “success factors” and / or “adjusting screws” identified in the guidebooks and studies are compared to this, one wants to make sure that one belongs to the “successful” 30 percent! The sobering reality, however, is that we know almost nothing about the success rate of change projects and also not about their success factors.

Searching for evidence

I also do not know how we could come to reasonably reliable evidence in the foreseeable future. An organisation is a social system, a rather complex one, too, in which “the problem” or “the change challenge” can be described sufficiently precisely in the rather rare cases. But if the problem can hardly be grasped, how can the appropriate “adjusting screws” be identified and then “effectively” operated? Especially when we are not talking about changes on the “show side” of organisations (Prof. Stefan Kühl2), but about changes in thinking, behaviour and decision-making. I suspect that most change and transformation managers already know this, or at least they suspect it. But then the cognitive dissonance is cleared up: We would like it to be so mechanistic that we can feel controllability (that’s a basic human motive!) and finally self-efficacy (yes, we need that too).

And how can the path to change be embarked upon?

Personally, I believe in the context of change, whether we call it change or transformation or whatever, rather in the “garbage can decision model” of Cohen, March and Olson3,

who described early on that in organisations rather a coincidental – but by no means causal – coupling of situational challenges and already in the organisation buzzing around, different and half-finished solution approaches takes place. And this is rationalised ex post when there has been something like a describable change in the organisation – after all, we need success stories and change heroes!

What is necessary from my point of view is first of all an adequate – and the “complexity not raping” (Kirsch) – understanding of how changes can take place in social systems. Secondly, a good portion of humility before change processes, which we simply cannot assume we can really manage and control. If we succeed in a kind of “co-evolution”, then that’s something. And third, we should assume that the ideas and development potentials necessary for co-evolution already exist in every system. The task in the change process is then more likely to be to create an “organisational slack” (Weick4) in which sufficient time and resources are available for the coupling of situational challenges and solution approaches to succeed.


Notes (in German and English):

[1] John P. Kottler, A Sense of Urgency
[2] Prof. Stefan Kühl, Organisationen – Eine sehr kurze Einführung
[3] Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen, A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice
[4] Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, Karl E. Weick, Das Unerwartete managen

The change factory, for which Dr. Schüppel is active, was honoured in 2019 for the fourth time in a row as one of the best management consultancies in Germany.

Dr. Jürgen Schüppel has published another article in the t2informatik blog:

t2informatik Blog: Cultural Hacking. A contribution to culture change?

Cultural Hacking. A contribution to culture change?

Dr. Jürgen Schüppel
Dr. Jürgen Schüppel

Dr. Jürgen Schüppel studied business administration and organisational psychology in Munich and completed his doctoral studies in St. Gallen. After working as head of the management development department at the Institute of Business Administration at the University of St. Gallen and as a trainer and consultant for a management consultancy, he took over a professorship in business administration in 1997 and founded the change factory together with partners, a consulting and training company of which he is still managing partner today. His main areas of work include the support of change management projects as well as the conception and implementation of leadership development programs.