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Why Proven Change Methodologies Fail

Dec. 16, 2013
Change follows a set of principles Conditions support change Complex, integrated settings “Change solution” selection

It’s astonishing how businesses and individuals continue to be influenced by solution providers and consultants of change methodologies. Those solution providers and consultants somehow are able to convince an organization and/or individual that if they want to obtain a desired change, then all they have to do is “execute this,” “do that” or “buy into this methodology.”

Of course, the potential for misunderstanding with such simplistic explanations are obvious. Nevertheless, for organizations or individuals under pressure to find a solution to obtain a specific change, it’s understandable that they might be vulnerable to simple explanations.

However, the purpose here is not to criticize solution providers and change consultants. There is in fact much knowledge and potential benefit to be derived from their products and services. Instead, the aim to examine why those claims may not be accurate for your situation.

Not a Goal. It's an Experience

The first thing we must recognize is that change is not something to be obtained, but rather something we are all continuously experiencing. From all the change at the subatomic level to the movement of the galaxies in the universe, change is occurring around us constantly.

Therefore, we can understand that change requires the execution of some sort of process. Change is not an art, but instead should be considered a science. All change follows a set of rules and principles, as scientific principles demonstrate. More importantly, by understanding what are the rules and principles of change, and how they work, we can use them to our advantage when attempting to obtain a change.

Environmental override — One of the most powerful of these change science principles is that of Environmental Override, which states that, “If the conditions in a given environment do not support the processes associated with a desired change, that change will not take place in that environment.”

In other words, a proven process that has worked well and provided successful change in other environments does not guarantee that such a process will work in your environment. A successful change in your environment will not occur unless all the conditions in your environment support all the requirements of that process.

Environmental override is one of the main reasons that a specific methodology/process can produce a desired change for company X but is unable to produce the same change for company Y. It can also go a long way to explain why a specific diet works for one person, but does not work for another.

Not all environments are equal — Over the years countless service providers and consultants of change methodologies have maintained that the way businesses operate, in general, are not all that unique from one another. Therefore, the solutions they were proposing were made to work on a universal basis and will work in most situations where there is adequate commitment on the part of management or the individual.

In addition, these solution providers had an answer if there was some unique aspect that needed to be addressed. They would argue that it was either in the best interest for that organization or individual to eliminate the uniqueness (for example, follow best business practices), or they would say, “don’t worry; our solution is easily customizable/configurable.”

On a global level such arguments make sense (for example, every manager or individual wants to be known for following best practices) and in some cases might even be an accurate assessment. However, management and individuals need to recognize that this is not always the case. The environment in which a change must take place is generally very complex and has developed over time in some sort of integrated relationship.

Therefore, the conditions in that environment might never support a given change solution. Also, even if the environment is modified to support the requirements of a given change solution, it might represent a complete revision of the organization with both plus and minus ramifications.

For example, a particular business system used to obtain a specific change in an organization might require individuals that have a specific skill set. By using that same business system in an environment where individuals with those skills are few or nonexistent can make such a system either inoperable or unacceptable from a cost perspective. Likewise, a diet that works for a healthy person might not work for an individual that has a particular health condition (note, that in this case the body is considered a unique environment.)

Leveraging Environmental Override

Many management groups have been frustrated when a proven process fails to work in their organization, and many individuals have been frustrated when a proven process that has worked for others, fails to work for them.

The critical point is that by understanding the change science principle of environmental override, you are now in a position to address it head-on at the beginning of your change solution selection process.  Here’s how you can do this:

1.  Make sure you clearly understand all of the requirements associated with that solution.

2.  Look at the conditions that exist in the environment in which this solution will be executed and compare them to the above requirements.

3.  Realistically assess whether the conditions in the environment can be adjusted to support the requirements of the proposed solution.

4.  Make sure everyone in the organization (including upper management) agrees with the operational, financial, and cultural ramifications associated with adjusting the conditions in the environment to support the proposed solution. If this solution is for you individually, make sure all the ramifications associated with adjusting the conditions in your environment are realistically acceptable.

The effort involved in the above exercise will vary depending upon the significance and complexity of the change you are attempting to obtain. However, just having an awareness of the change science principle of environmental override can go a long way to helping you avoid the pitfalls associated with making the assumption that if a process/methodology works for someone else, it should also work for you.

Tom Somodi is a speaker and expert on change, applying his extensive domestic and international business experience, including reorganizations, acquisitions, strategic change initiatives, and taking a company public during the difficult 2011 financial markets.  He has held CEO, COO, CFO and board level positions. He is the author of The Science of Change: Basics Behind Why Change Succeeds and Fails, now available. Visit or email [email protected].