“The most important message in this book is very simple,” reads the first line To John Cotter valuable The heart of change. “People change what they do less because it’s given to them analysis it displaces theirs thinking than because they are shown a truth that affects them feelings.
Really? Is this the important message? That emotional arguments are more powerful than factual ones? What about other reasons why people change their behavior, such as social proofcompliance, incentives or coercion? By creating a binary and artificial choice between two communication alternatives, it eliminates important strategic and tactical options.
It’s not just Kotter who is a distinguished professor at Harvard Business School. The truth is that much management thinking is surprisingly shoddy, with arbitrary notions and cognitive biases dressed up as scientific work. We should be more skeptical of the “research” that comes from business schools and consulting firms. Here are three things to look for:
1. WYSIATI and Confirmation Deviation
Kotter’s point about emotional versus analytical arguments is, of course, entirely valid. The fundamental mistake it makes is that it focuses on this particular aspect to the exclusion of everything else. Daniel Kahneman calls this WYSIATI, or “what you see is all there is.” Once you get tunnel vision about a certain fact or idea, it’s hard to see anything else.
Consider this thought experiment: You go to a conference that includes a strong, emotional presentation about the need to fight climate change. You see glaciers melting, polar bears losing their habitat and young children starving from drought. Then you come back to the office fired up and ready to do something about it, but everyone else has a strong case against action on climate change.
What is likely to happen next? Are you convincing your colleagues, including your bosses, of the urgency of the crisis? Or, surrounded by naysayers, is your conviction beginning to wane? When all we see are the poor polar bears and the echo chamber starvation of like-minded people, we forget about other considerations, but that doesn’t mean that’s all.
A problem related to WYSIATI is confirmation bias. Kotter proudly points out that he worked with Deloitte to conduct extensive research for his book. Surprisingly, after analyzing over 200 interviews, he arrived at the same 8-step process he cited in his previous work. So what was the purpose of the research, to gain actual insights or to confirm what he thought he already knew?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, after decades of organizations applying Kotter’s ideas for change, McKinsey has yet to find that more than two-thirds of transformation efforts fail. Perhaps there is actually more to change than the communication strategy.
2. Halo effects and confounding variables
One of the most popular ways of analysis that business thinkers use is to study successful companies and see what they do differently. A number of management bestsellers such as In search of perfection, have used this method. Unfortunately, when they do, they often fall prey to a cognitive bias known as halo effect.
For example, in 2000, before the dotcom crash, Cisco was flying high. Profile in Condition reported to have an unmatched culture with highly motivated employees. But just one year later, when the market crashed, the same publication I described it such as ‘self-confident’ and ‘naive’. Has the “culture” under the same leadership really changed that much in a year? Or have perceptions of his performance changed?
Cisco had a highly motivated and, some would say, aggressive sales force. When the company was doing well, analysts assumed that their aggressiveness led to good results, and when its fortunes changed, that same aggressive behavior was blamed for its failures. This is known as a confusing errorthe fact that aggressive trading power correlates with particular results does not mean that aggressive trading power caused the results.
Every organization has things it does differently that are idiosyncratic to its management and culture. In some market contexts these characteristics will be advantageous, in other environments they may not be. It takes work—and some humility—to discern what is truly a success factor, what is merely fit for purpose, and what is not truly relevant.
3. Survival addictions
Business school professors and consultants earn fame—not to mention big fees—when they are able to define a new concept or success factor. If you are able to isolate one thing that organizations need to do differently, you have a powerful product to sell. A single powerful insight can create an entire career, which is probably why so many people quit.
For example, in their study of 108 companies, INSEAD Distinguished Professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne found that “blue ocean” products, those in new categories with no competition, far outperformed those in more competitive “red ocean” markets. . their book, Blue Ocean Strategywas an instant hit, selling over 3.5 million copies.
The book by Bain consultants Chris Zook and James Allen, Core profit, boasted even more extensive research, including 200 case studies, a database of 1,854 companies, 100 senior executive interviews, and an “extensive review” of existing literature. They found that firms that focus on their “core” far outperform those that deviate.
It doesn’t take too much thinking to start seeing the problems. How can you simultaneously “focus on your core” and seek the “blue oceans”? It stands to reason that both strategies can outperform each other. Also, how do you define “core”? Main markets? Basic capabilities? Major customers? While it is true that blue ocean markets lack competitors, they also lack customers. Who do you sell to?
Yet there is an even bigger, more insidious problem called survival bias. Notice how the “study” does not include firms that went out of business because there were no customers in these “blue oceans” or because they failed to diversify beyond their “core.” Data refer only to those who survived.
It’s hard to think of another area where researchers could get away with such apparently sloppy work. Can you imagine medical research that doesn’t include deceased patients, or airplane research that doesn’t include the flights that crashed? Suffice it to say that since the two books were published two decades ago, they have shown no capacity to predict whether a business will succeed or fail.
Don’t believe everything you think
When I finish a book, I submit sections for fact-checking by experts and those with first-hand knowledge of the events. I’m always amazed at how wrong I am. In some cases, I make really gross mistakes about facts I should have known (or knew but didn’t consider). This can be an incredibly humbling process.
That’s why it’s so important not to believe everything you think, there are just too many ways to mess things up. Like Richard Feynman put it on“The first principle is that you must not deceive yourself – and you are the easiest person to deceive.” I would add a second principle, that just because you have succeeded in fooling others does not mean that you have done it right.
Unfortunately, so many of the popular management ideas today come from people who have never managed a business, such as business school professors and consultants. These are often people who have never failed. They’ve been told all their lives that they’re smart and expect others to be impressed by their ideas rather than explore them deeply.
The problem with so much business thinking today is that there is an appalling lack of rigor. This is the only way clearly flawed ideas like “blue oceans”, “core profiting” and John Kotter’s ideas on change management can gain traction. It is hard to imagine another field with such a complete lack of quality control.
That’s why I send fact checks because I know how likely I am to think stupid and inaccurate things. I’ve also noticed that I tend to be most wrong when I think I’ve come up with something brilliant. Much like Tolstoy wrote about familiesthere are infinitely more ways to mess things up than to get them right.
Greg Sattel is a transformation and change expert, international keynote speaker and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change. His previous efforts, Innovation Mappingwas voted one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto
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