Innovation may be the thing that we need to move forward.  It may be the thing that every organization wants most, but it’s also the most misunderstood concept in all of business.  We believe innovation to be ideas – but it’s not the birth of an idea, it’s the adolescence.


Everyone has ideas.  You’ll have hundreds of them while reading this post.  Some will be mundane.  Some will be gentle nudges to yourself not to forget to pick up milk today or call about that appointment you keep meaning to reschedule.  Some may be profound, like the way to end world hunger.  It’s these profound ideas that can change the world – but only if they can be catapulted out of our consciousness into the cold hard world.

It’s ideas that people seek to capture in knowledge management and suggestion boxes.  Organization sets rewards and bounties for the behaviors that lead to new ideas being captured in paper or electronic form.  However, these initiatives are a waste of time.  They allow you to collect a quite massive pile of rubbish.  It’s the kind of thing that innovation is designed to address.


Innovation is the successful implementation of an idea.  It’s testing and refining it until it’s ready to be adopted by the masses and change the world.  Edward Catmull of Pixar explains that all of their movies suck at first.  (See Creativity, Inc.)  They make some of the best animated movies in the business – and all of their movies suck.  They start out as ideas, and the development process that movies go through at Pixar gradually refines them into the story that we see.

It’s not the idea that’s great.  It’s not the selection process.  It’s the refinement process that distils the idea to its essence.  It removes the impurities that will prevent it from being adopted.  To get to the innovation, an idea must be forged by challenges and questions.

Innovation Adoption

Once the idea has been refined, it must be adopted.  Innovations are the adoption of an idea, so without adoption, it’s really not an innovation.  It’s simply an idea.  However, adoption isn’t as simple as it first seems.  Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations explains that we’ll get knowledge from anyone and attitudes from our peers, but we need to make a personal decision to change.  (See Knowledge-Attitudes-Practices for more.)

Getting to adoption of an idea must first pass the hurdle of refinement and move on to the second state where people become aware of it.  It’s with awareness that it’s possible for people to adopt an idea and convert it to an innovation.  But it takes changing attitudes, and that’s where it becomes an opportunity for the change leader.


Persuading people to change their attitudes and behavior is the heart of what the change manager does.  They enable organizations to reap the benefit of those ideas that have been refined by helping people first change their attitudes towards the idea and ultimately change their behaviors in order to make the change.

Without change leaders, there will be little change.  Like a reaction without a catalyst, it may get there eventually, but over a much longer and inefficient process.  Change leaders are the catalyst that makes innovations happen from the raw materials of ideas and refinement.

We’re all familiar with the form of rule as democracy, however fewer of us are familiar with the term oligocracy, how these two terms dance in organizations, and the implications for implementing changes.

Greek Roots

Both democracy and oligocracy derive from the Greek root-based suffix -cracy, which means power or rule.  Democracy begins with a form of demos – or populace.  Oligocracy begins with the prefix of oligo, which means “a few,” “chief,” or “principal.”  In short, rule by the few.  This is contrasted with dictatorships, where the power of rule is concentrated in a single person.


Most organizations are in some stage of what Fredrick LeLoux describes as Reinventing Organizations.  They’re on the path from fear, power, and command-and-control approaches to collaborative approaches to working with one another.  However, the path isn’t as straight as it first appears.  On the one end, you have dictatorship, and on the other end, it appears that you have democracy – but many would appropriately argue that it becomes anarchy.

Organizations exist to coordinate the effort of individuals into a unified force.  That historically happened through the power and force of a single individual and has gradually been diffusing across the organizational leadership into a cord of multiple strands.  In short, our organizations are becoming more oligocratic.  This is particularly true of partnerships where there is no one partner with complete control regardless of the ownership percentages.


Winston Churchill described democracy as the worst form of government – except for the other forms we’d tried.  In theory, democracy is a great idea, but it’s not without its practical limitations.  Getting everyone on the same page can take a long time – a prohibitively long time.  That’s why the Thomas-Kilmann Mode Instrument doesn’t recommend the middle ground of the assertive and cooperative dimensions – compromising.  Building true consensus can take an infinitely long time.

Imagine for a moment that the United States Congress had to reach consensus for everything they did.  Literally nothing would get done – except for recess.  This is the descent into anarchy.  It’s what happens when nothing can get done, because there’s no power for anyone to encourage others to do what they want.  Congress relies on many behind-closed-door agreements, where one member agrees to support another’s initiatives.  It’s the lubrication that makes the limited democracy of Congress work.

Primus Inter Pares

It’s Latin for “first among equals.”  It’s the way that partnerships navigate the difficult waters of who gets to make the decisions when everyone wants to lead in different directions.  One person is elected to do a role, and the others agree to subject themselves to the decisions of this role.  They thereby distribute decision-making authority between equals to prevent the deadlock and anarchy that can occur when democracy is allowed to run amok.

For your change initiative, the goal should not be to make everyone equal.  The goal should be to ensure that all are treated fairly, and that decision-making authority is appropriately distributed so that decisions can be made.

Like in partnerships, there’s an implicit understanding that if the person elected to the role doesn’t dispatch the role well, they’ll be replaced.  This pressure ensures that the person with the role considers the needs and desires of others while making their decisions.

The goal in your change should be neither democracy nor oligocracy but primus inter pares.

Some change professionals resist the inclusion of personal change approaches in the category of change management, feeling that these approaches are best left to self-help books and personal issues addressed outside of the organization.  However, all change is personal.  It may be that we can’t leave personal change expertise outside of our organizational change simply because, without personal change, there can be no organizational change.

All Change is Personal

When it comes down to it, an organization has no behavior on its own.  Organizational behavior is a result of all the individual behaviors of the people that make up the organization.  While an organization’s structure, rules, values, and processes create a culture that tends to bias behaviors into a consistent and acceptable way, it doesn’t ensure that individual behaviors are what is expected.

Because individuals are free to make their own choices about their behavior, and because organizational behavior is a function of those individual behaviors, we create change in an organization by changing the forces that are influencing behaviors and motivating individuals to make different choices than they made in the past.  It’s when we can get the individual behaviors to change and maintain those changes that we’re able to accomplish sustained organizational change.

Powerful Motivators

Kurt Lewin first spoke about the force fields that push people to and away from various behaviors.  He expected that behavior was a result of these competing forces that would hold people back from making changes or compel people towards them.  With advances in neurology, we know that some forces are created differently than others.  Some of the most powerful forces we are aware of are the result of a synthetic drug hijacking the brain’s own reward systems.  They create an unnatural and profound attraction to the addictions.  While there’s much more to addictions than pharmacology, there are powerful forces at play.

We can learn the most from things that operate at the extremes – like addictions.  Many forget that the Indianapolis 500 race was initially designed as an endurance test – not a race in the same sense that it’s meant today.  What we learn from car racing is transferred back into the automobiles that we all drive.  Similarly, we can learn a great deal about how to motivate behavior change by focusing on those behaviors that are the hardest to change and looking for the successes.

Addictive Change

Helping people overcome addictions is big business – and tragedy when it fails.  People who are addicted are held prisoner by their addictions, unable to choose different behaviors.  While the success rates aren’t great overall, there are techniques and approaches that have been effective, and they’re remarkably similar to the kinds of recommendations that you’d make for organizational change.

For instance, one of the powerful recommendations for recovery is to change the environment around the person to encourage the desirable behaviors.  For the person who is addicted to alcohol, this may be to remove the alcohol from the house.  It may be to avoid the behaviors – like going to bars – that might lead them to want to drink.  In our organizations, we try to change policies and systems to make the old behaviors more difficult.  And similar to the situation with alcohol-addicted persons, we often find that people find creative ways to get around our blockages.

Another powerful environmental approach is to change the community that the person is a part of.  That means changing friends.  It means changing the activities that they enjoy with other people.  In organizations, we try to demonstrate the new behavior and create the appearance that everyone is doing the new behavior.  There’s solid research to show that people will change their behavior if they believe they’re one of the few people who are not showing the desirable behavior.

Personal Learning

The key to leveraging personal change techniques isn’t to replace time-honored organizational change approaches – it’s to augment them with a depth of understanding and new techniques that may lead to better outcomes.  It’s adding depth and character to what we know about change techniques, so we can learn to use them better.

There are some people who believe the way we approach change by looking at problems instead of opportunities is broken, and we can get to better change by focusing on opportunities rather than threats and strengths rather than weaknesses.  The idea has some merit – but it can also be taken too far.


To provide some context for the conversation, it’s helpful to think about the classic SWOT analysis that breaks the process of analyzing the current situation into Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.  Strengths and weaknesses are internally focused positive and negative factors.  Opportunities and threats exist in the environment outside of the person or organization.  The key question here is whether focusing on the strengths is more important, or should we focus our energies on addressing the weaknesses?

Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman is known as the father of positive psychology for his work, while APA president, to change the focus of mental health from restoring the broken to helping folks live more full and complete lives – to flourish (see Flourish, and The Hope Circuit for more on Seligman’s push for positive psychology).  His colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, also contributed greatly to finding the best in people, rather than focusing on their worst.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and Creativity for Csikszentmihalyi’s work.)  The positive psychology movement has been gaining support slowly but steadily in the decades since their initial work.

Our neural wiring supports a focus on the negative events in our life – but this works against our happiness.  By focusing on positive aspects, we can find greater happiness, and in doing so, we can become more successful.  What we’ve learned about the neurology of our brains is that the more we focus on something, the more anchored it becomes in our neural networks – and the more difficult it becomes to dislodge.

Many popular psychology approaches have taught us to visualize what we want so that we can achieve it.  Built on solid science with a very long and precarious extension ladder, this approach can leave us well short of the goal if we visualize something that we don’t ourselves do – like winning the lottery.  The solid science that it’s based on notices that the same neurons are firing when we think about throwing a ball as when we finally throw a ball.  From this, we can easily take that mental rehearsal of an action can improve our performance – and studies have been done that bear this out.  The problem is that there’s no research supporting this in non-kinesthetic scenarios.  We just don’t know.

Force Fields

The biggest challenge to the exclusive focus on the strengths and opportunities comes from the work of Kurt Lewin’s work on force fields.  He proposed that people are motivated to and away from behaviors based on a set of forces operating on them.  Some of those forces propel us forward, and some of them hold us back.  The problem is that when we neglect the forces that hold us back, they can get bigger.

There are plenty of leadership books that extols the benefits of having open dialogue and how being able to discuss difficult situations can improve teamwork and the perception of leadership.  The same applies to weaknesses and threats.  The more openly we can look at them – without dwelling on them – the more quickly we can neutralize their impact.

Irrelevant Weaknesses

Key to avoiding the tendency to dwell on the negative is to put the weakness or threat in its proper context.  Few humans have perfect eyesight.  We walk around with glasses or contacts.  We have surgeries to reshape and repair our eyes.  A lack of visual acuity is something that most of us face but that we don’t dwell on – because we’ve got the tools to address the weakness.  If you wear glasses or contacts, your weakness is irrelevant.  You’ll see as well as any human can.

So, while it’s important to focus on the positive to reap the benefits of new positive wiring, be cautious not to neglect the negative to the point that it becomes a big threat or hinderance.


If you want a refresher on what your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are to make it easier to practice positive psychology for your change, you can get our SWOT & PESTLE Resource Book now.  It will walk you through the process of figuring out those four aspects of your organization.  Just go to

It’s a set of questions I get asked all too often.  “What are the essential skills that someone needs to have to support change?”  This is almost always followed with, “Where can they go to get them?”  I’ll quickly acknowledge that I have an answer to this in the form of The Confident Change Management course and delve more broadly into why my answer may or may not be right, and why it is so difficult for anyone to answer.


Before I can explain the skills someone needs, I must also address the challenge that exists when there are certifications in the market.  A certification is supposed to simply say that someone has met a standard.  However, the question becomes what standard?  In the case of the CCMP, it’s “The Standard” as defined by ACMP; but in other markets, it is different things.

The next question is whether the standard is relevant to the job performance.  In the 1990s, Novell and Microsoft were criticized for having “paper” CNEs and MCSEs, respectively.  (I’ve intentionally not expanded the acronyms because they don’t matter.)  Bootcamps had formed, and people were walking in with no experience and walking out with a certification.  These bootcamps were teaching for the test but not for the knowledge that someone needed to be effective at their job.  The result was that the market decided you had to have the certification and experience.

Embedded into this is the problem that hiring managers must be able to use the certification as an indicator that you’ll be able to do the job, task, or role they want to hire you for.  When there’s no match between the skills and the job, the certification has no value.

Selecting the Skills

“The Standard” for change management isn’t about skills at all.  It’s about inputs, outputs, and processes.  So, any discussion of selecting skills isn’t informed by looking to ACMP’s “The Standard.”  Frustratingly, CMI’s Body of Knowledge has devolved into a single-vendor training program and a book that no longer holds the body of knowledge moniker.  (The book is The Effective Change Manager: The Change Management Body of Knowledge.)  The problem is that this book doesn’t define a set of essential skills for the new practitioner, it defines a semi-exhaustive list of things that might be useful to a change practitioner.

We’re left, then, on our own to identify what skills are essential for a beginning change manager to know to be successful.  They can’t know or learn everything all at once.  At the same time, they need to know enough to be successful with a moderately complex project or as a part of a larger project with a more experienced lead.

Candidate Skills

In the development of The Confident Change Management course, I found several broad skills that I felt were important.  Things like communications planning and execution, the fundamentals of project management, familiarity with a few change management models, and stakeholder management or engagement.

This was a good start but, without defining specific skills and techniques that could be used, there would be no value.  As a result, I pushed deeper to convert the broad skills like communication execution into specific things, like writing inverted pyramid, leveraging Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, and writing teasers as key things that I felt like everyone working in change should know.  By identifying specific, measurable techniques, I could teach people the basics of change management without having to worry about being exhaustive.

I don’t believe that I got the skills set exactly right for everything – but at the same time, I think it’s close.  Maybe you can let me know what you think the syllabus is missing, and we can work together to identify all the skills necessary for someone who is just starting as a change manager.

If I simply say, “The staff is bad,” you have no context for the statement.  Depending on your frame of mind, you may believe that I’m speaking about the employees of an organization.  If you’ve recently been on a long walk or hike, you may sense that I’m speaking about a stick used for walking.  In either case, you’ve used your own perspective and experience to fill in the gaps where I failed to be explicit.

The problem with this is when we’re changing organizations, we have no way of knowing what context people are approaching our communications from.  We can’t assume that they’re encountering our messages with the right frame of mind, which is why we need to provide some context for our communications and for the need for the change in the first place.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek’s popular book, Start with Why, implores us to explain why we’re doing things before we explain what we’re asking for or how we’re asking for it to be done.  This is solid advice, as anyone who has met a toddler knows that “Why?” is their favorite question.  Even adult learning theory acknowledges the need for adults to know why what they’re learning is important to them.

Too often, organizations fear that sharing the challenges of the current market will scare employees too much, and they therefore minimize the real threats to the organization’s long-term viability in favor of creating the appearance of a shimmering future.


The problem with a disconnected vision is that it often appears to employees – and outsiders – as a mirage.  It’s too hard to believe that it’s real without the framework for why the vision is possible and at least some of the major milestones that need to happen between the current state and the future state.

John F. Kennedy’s address to the United States Congress imploring everyone to make sending a man to the Moon – and returning them safely home – a reality is often heralded as the quintessential vision.  It escapes the risk of being perceived as a mirage, because everyone in Congress and the entire American public knew of the progress that had already been made with the space program.  While the trip to the Moon was a fantastic scientific and technological leap, it seemed possible because of the hard work that had already been done and the successes that had already been seen.

Communicating Context

Effective communications about change explains the current situation honestly, including both strengths and weaknesses.  It evaluates opportunities for the organization to grow and considers the threats to long-term survival.  (See SWOT & Pestle for more.)  Communicating completely builds trust and enables people to believe in the proposed vision.

The vision must then be built on the context of the organization and the environment and must seem possible based on what is known now – or can be known through effort.  Providing the contextual pieces that make the vision the one that those doing the planning believe is the best option makes it easier for everyone to buy into the believability of the vision.

With context in place, fewer people will resist, and more will engage in creating the vision even if the path from the current situation is difficult and dangerous.

There’s something about the idea of a curse that harkens back to a time of mystery.  It calls back to a time when we didn’t understand much about the world, and everything was magical.  Lurking deep in the idea of the curse is that someone might be able to influence your luck and therefore doom you.  Knowledge, on the other hand, is a prized asset, something that can be held in the minds of people and, in some cases, recorded into ways that others can use it.  Together, the curse of knowledge is something that we should fear – but too often, we aren’t aware and therefore don’t.

In leadership and change, the curse of knowledge is all about what we know and the expectation that others know it as well.  At some level, we’re aware that we need to educate the organization about the change.  We need to explain why, where we are today, and where we want to go to.  We need to explain the high level of how, what changes are being made at a high level to accommodate the change.

You’re Soaking in It

The problem is that we often attempt to deliver these messages all at once.  We expect that the process we went through to reach these insights and proposals aren’t necessary for others to go through.  We assume that they can accept radical reorganization of their worldviews without the benefit of time to process and accept the information.

To us, these changes didn’t occur in a flash of inspiration – even if it felt like it.  They came through the continual soaking in the idea of the current state and the market forces that might erode the base from our current state.

There’s an old Palmolive commercial series where women are getting manicures for their “dishpan hands.”  The technician is telling them about a new dish soap that doesn’t leave hands as dry, and the client asks about it.  The answer is “you’re soaking in it.”  The beauty of this commercial is that we often find ourselves in situations and we fail to fully realize it.

Compression Without Loss

The organization cannot afford for everyone to go through the processes that led to the need to change.  Reaching the detailed agreement on every aspect and in every way wouldn’t be effective.  We must find a way to compress the experience and package it in a way that doesn’t lose anything important.

Computer compression is a wonderful thing that promises reduced transfer times or reduced storage.  The idea is that you can faithfully reproduce something with less space by using mathematical algorithms and structures.  It’s effectively what we’re trying to do when we’re compressing the journey of discovery to the change for others.  Computer-based compression is limited to about 2x on average.  However, when we shift from an exact reproduction to an approximation, the average compression jumps.

This is the way we compress images.  By agreeing to the degree of loss of detail that we’re willing to accept, we can make images smaller.  The higher the quality, the more time and space it will take.  The decision shifts from whether to share a picture to how to share it in a way that is effective.

Stripping the Non-Essential Bits

In sharing the planned change journey, we must find a way to share the essential bits and remove anything that’s not essential.  We can do this best when we’re willing to test our messages on others who have not been involved with the change process.  Small pilot groups or trusted friends can provide the feedback we need to know what parts of the change message we must keep – and those we can part with.

Because of the curse of knowledge, we must rely on others to help us tune the message, or we’ll fall subject to the curse and doom ourselves to failing.

Daryl Conner started the analogy.  It was in relation to a literal burning oil platform off the north coast of Scotland, but it’s been misunderstood, misused, and driven to extents that weren’t intended.  However, fundamentally, making it impossible for things to stay the same is a time-honored strategy to force change to happen.

Burn the Boats

Legend has it that, in 1519, Hernán Cortés landed in what is now Mexico and ordered his men to burn the boats so that they wouldn’t be tempted to try to return home.  (There is some question about whether they burned the boats or simply ran them ashore.)  This is perhaps the first recorded situation of someone ensuring that they wouldn’t be going back on their change.  Obviously, this isn’t the gentle, friendly, persuasion approach to ensuring change – but it is one way to ensure they didn’t go back.

Sometimes drastic times call for drastic measures.  While it isn’t typically necessary to take such drastic actions in the changes that we make today, sometimes it’s useful to create some barriers to going back.


Literally, the reference to the burning platform was based on a man who jumped from certain death on the platform to possible death in the seas below.  In that situation, the decision was appropriate, because staying on the burning platform wasn’t viable.  However, that doesn’t mean that every change should involve a burning platform – literally or figuratively.

While fear is a powerful motivator, it’s also an unpredictable one that has the frustrating possibility of freezing people where they are instead of motivating them to change.  As a result, it’s important to mitigate the amount and kind of fear that’s used to motivate people towards change.

Lighting the Truth

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t honestly let people know if their current situation isn’t sustainable – that their platform is burning.  However, it does mean you should pause before lighting the platform on fire.  You want to expose the risks of staying the same without igniting fear in the minds of everyone to the degree that they’re immobilized.

Deepwater Horizon

The name of the drilling platform that resulted in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was Deepwater Horizon.  The ultradeep platform didn’t simply catch fire while drilling, it exploded, killing 11 men and starting the largest marine oil spill in history.  While the platform was not intentionally destroyed, the platform was operating with risks that ultimately led to the tragedy.

In addition to the tragic results, there were long-term changes in regulation, monitoring, and safety of deep well drilling – and some more aggressive limitations.  The report on the incident was nearly 400 pages and wasn’t complete until over 9 months after the accident.

The Challenge

The real challenge of burning platforms is that they’re unpredictable.  In your change effort, you neither need nor should ignite one.  If you’re standing on a burning platform, you should share that knowledge as clearly as possible to others without trying to accelerate the burning.  Instead of focusing on the burning platform itself, you should be focusing your change efforts on the hospitability of the alternatives.

If you’re leaving the platform for a pleasure cruise, there’s no contest.  If you’re leaving it for cold, hypothermia-inducing, shark-infested waters, no amount of burning platform is going to make you desire the change; you’re only going to be willing to jump because you have no alternatives.

So, while it’s possible to speak of burning platforms in your change effort, you’re more likely to get results if you can make the alternative more appealing.

The role of the change manager isn’t always as clear cut as we might like.  In smaller initiatives or organizations, we’re a one-man band.  In larger initiatives and organizations, we’re a conductor – or a member of a jazz ensemble.  Here’s how to navigate those waters.

[Disclaimer: I abhor that the English language uses the male noun to mean refer to both men and women with an inference towards male only.  Often, I will intentionally switch pronouns between male and female.  However, I rarely switch from, for example, fireman to fireperson, because it’s awkward for the reader.  In cases where is an alternative is available, such as policeman to police officer, I will use those.  There is no suitable replacement for “one-man band.”  I ask that my readers accept that I’m not intending to minimize the powerful women who fill this role.]

The One-Man Band

One of the impressive things about the change managers is their ability to adapt and reach into related areas of expertise to fill essential gaps.  In smaller organizations, change managers must provide communications expertise and training support.

Instead of working with a dedicated communications team, the change manager is required to develop communications plans and sketch, if not write, the communications themselves.  While this is a skill set that every change manager should possess, it’s equally a skill for which there are dedicated professionals.

There are entire professions around learning and development.  However, when they don’t exist in your organization or they’re too busy with other initiatives, it becomes incumbent on the change management professional to step up and design training and productivity aids that support the successful changes the organization desires.

Of course, project management is a key skill that keeps the project aspects of the change running smoothly as well.  Effective change managers often adapt into providing project management services for small-scale projects where a dedicated project manager isn’t available.

Changes need certain elements to be successful.  If they don’t exist, the adaptable change manager may find that they have to create them.  The opposite end of the spectrum comes when there’s a larger organization and a larger, better-funded project.

The Conductor

When there is an internal communications team, training and development team, and project management team, the role of the change manager changes from one-man band to that of conductor.  A conductor doesn’t play all the instruments in the symphony.  Nor is the conductor the best player of any one instrument in the symphony.  Their power comes from their ability to help the symphony members coordinate and work together effectively.

Instead of being tasked with the developing the communications plan or the individual communications, an effective change manger facilitates these into the larger set of activities happening in the change.  Project managers are able to manage the day-to-day tracking of progress, freeing the change manager to look for how stakeholders aren’t being supported sufficiently with the planned activities and artifacts.

In the role of the conductor, the change manager may occasionally step in to help out in an area.  But they will most frequently look for the gaps that may cause the change to fail, much like a jazz musician looks for ways to keep improvisational jazz going.

Jazz Musician

In a jazz ensemble, there’s no one leader.  The music is led dynamically as different musicians add their performance to the piece, and it constantly evolves.  In organizations with well-managed disciplines for internal communication, training and development, and project management, the role may feel more like that of a jazz musician dynamically finding ways to add to the process in the service of the overall performance.

Change managers shouldn’t be afraid to do what they need to do as a one-man band, to lead like a conductor, or to perform as a part of the ensemble in the overall flow of creating success for the change.

Most of the time when we’re working to change an organization, we’re focused on the benefits of the change.  We’re speaking to the utopian vision of what can be.  However, to be effective at change, we must acknowledge that every change has negatives and loss.  And sometimes the negatives can’t be predicted.

Resisting Loss

As I explored in Why People Don’t Resist Change, people don’t resist change.  Built on William Bridges’ work in Managing Transitions, people resist loss.  Sometimes that loss is known or can be anticipated, but sometimes the loss is unanticipated.  Therefore, we must consider not only what we anticipate people may lose but also the things that they think they may lose – and the things they don’t even know they might lose.

Conquistadors, Christians, and Chaos

The Spanish conquistadors in their quest for gold decimated the Latin American peoples they found with disease.  African cultures were destroyed by the imperialism of French, Belgian, Portuguese, and British colonials.  The Native American Indian cultures were destroyed by the European settlers as they made their way from East to West in North America.  Even aboriginal tribes in Australia were disturbed by farmers and eventually Christians.

In the early 20th century, there were still untouched aboriginal tribes who lived in the Stone Age.  Their best tool for cutting wood was a stone axe.  They were difficult to make and not very effective, but they were all the tribe had.  Christians who wanted to share the good news of Christ with these “uninformed” natives brought to them their beliefs and steel axe heads.

Side-stepping the issue of imposing your religious beliefs on another group for a moment, there was a bigger problem, and one that was caused not by malintent or even paternalism.  It was an unintended consequence that unraveled the very fabric of their society and led to unintended consequences.

Rituals and Results

In these tribes, the cost of stone axes made them things that only the elders possessed.  The younger men would come to the elders and ask for the use of the axe head.  As a part of this, they’d compensate and pay homage to the elders.  This was a part of the fabric that bound together the tribe in a set of interdependent relationships.

When Christians introduced these steel axe heads, they did so by primarily giving them to younger men and women, thereby eliminating the need to maintain the relationship with the elders.  The result was that the social fabric of the tribe became frayed and decayed.  It led to prostitution and the “misuse” of the innovation itself.

Not even the most enlightened could have foreseen what redistributing power in the form of a precious axe head could do.  The intended consequence of raising material comfort never materialized, as those with the axes ultimately failed to use their additional time in ways that would move them or their society forward.  So, the innovation of a steel axe head didn’t contribute much to additional material comfort.  It only left the tribes with challenges they had never encountered.

Social Responsibility and Monitoring

Change managers cannot predict the unanticipated consequences by their definition.  They can, however, find ways to monitor the change in such a way as to be open to discovering the emergence of harm, so that it’s possible to forestall further damage to a group.  In this way, change managers can accept that it’s possible the change may cause harm and, at the same time, take steps to guard against it and stop it if necessary.