Thirty Six different Motifs - M.C. Escher – 1951

Modern change approaches integrate the human side, but success rate remains low

i65

Almost all change and/or transformation programs are based on the findings that collective effectiveness has become too low, usually against evolutions in the environment, and that a major cause is a combination of cooperation and collective agility.

And we all know that the traditional answer to this change imperative lead often to a vicious circle of stress, demotivation and disengagement:

i65

  • top-down imposed changes and reorganizations lead to low acceptance and motivation of the change actors
  • which leads to the perception of strong work pressures and then to collective stress
  • which leads to stress related absenteeism - rising rapidly in Europe1 -, withdrawal, disengagement and low collective creativity
  • which lead then back to our initial issues of cooperation and collective agility and effectiveness.

To break this vicious circle, methodologies and tools for change management, and transformation, have evolved over the last 20 years to integrate the human side of change. A few examples, based on my own 20 years experience in accompanying the human side of change (this is NOT an exhaustive list), are:

i65

  • Managing Transitions2 focuses on the transitions and the psychological changes behind organizational change
  • Learning Organization3 tools and methods are based on collective and individual learning and development
  • Whole-scale change4 creates organizational change based on the active involvement, energy, ideas and commitment of multiple stakeholders
  • the ADKAR5 change management model (ADKAR: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement)

But despite these useful approaches, the success rate of large change and transformations remains low over the last 25 years. In its 2015 survey of almost 2000 executives, McKinsey reports a 26% success rate6: “few executives say their companies’ transformations succeed”.

We underestimate work tensions and stress, so we do not address their causes

When a whole consulting industry - change management consulting - reports almost no progress in global success rates over more than 20 years, “more of the same” human side of change is not going to make a significant difference.

i65

What interferes against modern “human side of change” approaches breaking our vicious circle?

Perceptions of pressure and physiological stress (as measured by levels of adrenaline and cortisol in human blood7) are on the rise everywhere, with or without large change or transformation. Our circle is permanently fueled in 2 places:

  • gaps in individual and collective performance and incoherence between performance systems (objective setting, evaluation, promotion, “comp & ben” …) create increasing perceptions of pressure and stress. Other external factors, summarized by “the VUCA world”8, are also present, but our analysis focuses on management span of control: internal factors.

i65

  • there is a constant flux of small (and less small) tensions in almost every part of almost every organization. Some of these tensions are recurrent, escalate into mistrust and attack cooperation and collective agility. We can limit these consequences with conflict management techniques, but the effectiveness is low as we treat symptoms, not root causes!

What are the sources of these tensions?

There are 2 root causes:

  1. individual “rumination state of mind” and

  2. subsequent collective unconscious play of power-based scripts

i65

First, the root cause of stress is not perceived pressure, as different people under the same pressures do react with very different patterns of physiological stress (blood levels of adrenaline and cortisol over time). The root cause is staying too long in a mental state of rumination9: thinking over and over about events in the past or future and attaching a negative emotion (like fear or anxiety). This mental state of rumination is between sleep dreaming and being awake. We are not fully present to the current reality around us and we are not fully conscious of our behaviors and their impact around us.

i65

Second, because of this reduced level of consciousness, we are playing too often the pre-scripted scenarios of top / middle / bottom / customer contexts in power hierarchies. The origin, content and impacts of these scenarios are detailed here. They lead to a permanent stream of perceived inconsistencies between intentions, actions and behaviors at every level:

  • top managers who praise delegation and are perceived to continue to impose TOP/DOWN changes
  • middle managers who are perceived to be confused and thus generate tensions around them
  • employee/workers who want to take initiatives and are perceived to be demotivated and withdrawn

These are the two major systemic sources of work tensions and stress, present in almost every power based hierarchy.

We need tensions and stress coping strategies at 3 levels

To break the circle above and secure the success of “human side of change” based methodologies, we should also intervene simultaneously at 3 levels:

  1. at the individual level to reduce ruminations and improve present consciousness and agility
  2. at the collective level to reduce perceived inconsciences and improve learning agility
  3. at the systemic level to develop alternative alignment practices and get access to new levels of systemic agility

1. Individual agility: reduce ruminations to increase present awareness and agility

i65

The description of the approach we use to help managers reduce ruminations and increase their agility is here. We focus here on the first and most important two steps to reduce the time we spend in ruminations:

2. Collective agility: install a “feedback loops” culture to improve collective learning

i65

The description of the approach we use to help managers evolve their culture towards a feedback based culture is here. We focus here on a few practices useful to obtain regular feedback on our behaviors and/or difficult challenges:

  • Feedforward is a very effective process to improve cooperation behaviors in a team of people working together (intact team).

  • Peer support leverages the collective intelligence of a group to provide simultaneously deep feedback on how we have tackled a difficult current challenge and creative ideas for trying different approches.

  • Leadership behavior change is a very effective feedback based process to identify one important individual leadership behavior to improve, commit to the change and realize it within a few months.

3. Systemic agility: develop more adaptive alignment practices

i65

Self-organizing governance models, like sociocracy, are attracting a lot of attention since a few years: real examples show that, well implemented, these models lead to superior employee participation, collective learning and also economic results10. But the number of classical medium/large size companies firmly based on self-organizing governance remains low. Indeed as almost all managers do benefit - economically and as a power position - from the current hierarchy of power governance, powerful forces - conscious and unconscious - are also in place to preserve the current paradigm. It seems that we are not yet at a tipping point.

But we believe that the (heated) debates around questions like “Is ‘it’ (sociocracy or another form of self-governance) good for us?” or “Why should we not move to ‘it’ now fast?” or “Is company X a ‘real’ example of ‘it’?” are not very useful in traditional companies. Instead of discussing about a revolution - a change in paradigm -, it is much more useful to practice evolution:

  • test if specific practices, common in self-organizing companies, are useful
  • if yes, adapt this practice to best benefit from it in a specific company reality

We have helped companies to evolve on the following practices, inspired by self-organizing companies and principles:


  1. https://osha.europa.eu/en/tools-and-publications/publications/literature_reviews/calculating-the-cost-of-work-related-stress-and-psychosocial-risks [return]
  2. William Bridges (1991). Managing transitions: making the most of change. Addison-Wesley [return]
  3. Peter Senge & al. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Nicolas Brealey pub. [return]
  4. http://www.wholescalechange.com/about [return]
  5. https://www.prosci.com/adkar/adkar-model [return]
  6. McKinsey (2015). How to beat the transformation odds. http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/how-to-beat-the-transformation-odds [return]
  7. Robert Sapolsky (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Holt Paperbacks [return]
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volatility,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity [return]
  9. Derek Roger and Nick Petrie (2016). Work without Stress. McGraw-Hill [return]
  10. Laloux F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations. Nelson Parker [return]