How to know when it’s time for radical change rather than conservative change

“Change Management Needs to Change” – I couldn’t agree more.

“The content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped.” – I couldn’t agree less.

Mr. Ashkenas presents the issue succinctly:

“As a recognized discipline, change management has been in existence for over half a century. Yet despite the huge investment that companies have made in tools, training, and thousands of books (over 83,000 on Amazon), most studies still show a 60-70% failure rate for organizational change projects — a statistic that has stayed constant from the 1970′s to the present.“

The possible conclusion is equally succinct and logical:

“Given this evidence, is it possible that everything we know about change management is wrong and that we need to go back to the drawing board? Should we abandon Kotter’s eight success factors, Blanchard’s moving cheese, and everything else we know about engagement, communication, small wins, building the business case, and all of the other elements of the change management framework?“

Let us assume for a moment that the answer to this question is either yes or no rather than a may be or yes and no depending on how you look at it. If we accept this assumption we can then frame this issue in, what I would suggest is, a more profound way:

Is It A Matter Of Doing Things Right Or Doing The Right Things?

This is the classic reformation vs. conservation question.  In other words, how can we tell when it’s a matter of engaging in radical thinking rather than doing what we currently do, only better?

Where can we look for guidance on such a profound question? How about nature? More specifically, how about the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’.

Of course, we have to remember that ‘fittest’ doesn’t me strongest, biggest or even fastest – it means best adapted, or – to take it a stage further – best able to adapt. So, given this logic, it is the capacity to adapt to your environment or context that matters.  However, that’s only an argument for change it doesn’t help us with deciding between reformative or conservative change. For that we need to introduce the idea of complexity.

I’m not going to go into complexity here – it’s a huge topic with lots of controversy (try my website starting with the About page) – for the purposes of this post I’m just going to say that there is a correlation between complexity – not to be confused with complicatedness – and uncertainty.  With increasing complexity comes increasing uncertainty.

So, getting back to the issue at hand, the radical change vs. conservative change issue is determined by whether or not the complexity of your decision-making processes at least matches the level of complexity in the environment – or to be more specific, the complexity of the feedback information coming from your environment – which, for all of us, means the socio-political economy.

If the complexity of your decision-making processes does not match the complexity of the feedback from the socio-political economy – and this is scale invariant – then it’s time for radical change.  If not then it’s not.

Simples.This article was originally published at

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