Visions of Change

1 March 2007 Alan Fowler

No business change will succeed unless we understand the dynamics and the people issues at work. In this extract from 'Accelerating Business Change and IT Projects', Alan Fowler and Dennis Lock explain all.

Business and IT projects depend on people accepting change. New procedures have to be learned and followed, while old beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, myths and habits need to be rooted out. Too often, projects fail because, although the technology is delivered, the people are badly managed.

Senior managers often think: "All I need do to achieve our goals is to sack a few people and invent some new job definitions." But making a post redundant will not save costs unless the responsibilities that went with it are also made redundant. Kneejerk changes simply create temporary failure in the system.

Making changes too frequently also creates chaos. If a finance function is changed more than once within its annual accounting cycle, flaws will be compounded, leaving no chance to observe the results of an individual change at the financial year-end.

This also applies to cyclic procedures and processes; making more than one change during a single cycle will create chaos. It is vital that the time to pause, analyse, learn and redirect is incorporated. Although this is obvious for a computerised process, it is equally true for any procedural change.

Large-change projects usually require schematic pictures to demonstrate how the new business will work and how procedures and technology will fit in. Although flowcharts are effective for talking people through post-change procedures, it can be difficult to relate them to how-to-do procedures. The purpose of the technology is represented through computer designs and dialogues, which interface between people and applications.

When computer technology was new, good practice was to analyse the business and business changes up-front and ensure that the business and the IT were designed as an integrated unit. However, in the 1980s and 1990s projects were passed straight over to IT departments, which developed ever more IT-focused project management methodologies. Today, people speak in accusatory terms of 'a lack of business readiness', which is deplorable.

Methods developed by Isochron Ltd radically reverse these two decades of misdirection. IT has to be an enabler – not a self-fulfilling objective. For people who have to change business performance, IT is usually best positioned as a sub-project within an overall programme of change.


Organisations develop legends and myths about themselves, and new recruits learn and become influenced by them. Legends and myths can be self-fulfilling. Ask people why their projects fail and they might give many reasons, but ask them why they succeed and they remain silent.

"It is important to create a detailed picture of what success will look like and then communicate that image."

Their myth is that projects always fail, so they can think of no reason for success. Such people know a lot about how failure happens. In their workplaces, preparation always follows the most familiar track, which leads again to failure. So the myth is fulfilled and reinforced.

Fortunately, the reverse is true. When a myth of success is constructed, success can be achieved. In managing change, it is important to create a detailed picture of what success will look like and then communicate that image. A vision of the successful future is unforgettable: once heard, it works in the unconscious minds of everyone involved, guiding millions of micro-decisions.

The project manager has to nurse this vision of success to make sure that powerfully entrenched failure legends and myths do not rise up and overwhelm it. Apart from being a positive and inspiring leader and radiating certainty in the outcome, the project manager can work out the recognition events and value flashpoints of the vision and then cement them in the project plan.

Analysing things that might go wrong is not a redundant effort, but it belongs in the risk management function. The possibilities of failure must not be confused with the desired outcome.


The results that people achieve are directly related to the way they behave. In turn, the way they behave is directly related to how they feel about events and to what they believe about those events.

"Pushing people to change polarises views and maximises resistance."

If, within change management, we can train people to have positive beliefs about the future, a positive outcome is more likely. Uncertainty should be dealt with as a possible risk, to be addressed with contingency plans and opportunity analysis. It must not be allowed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Most projects operate by forcing change on people. The executive makes the decision that change is necessary and decrees that it should happen. Senior management implement it with gritted teeth and a message of: "Get on with it or you're out!"

Most people are uncomfortable imposing their will on others too forcefully. We tend to prefer a democratic approach based on facts and persuasion. It is far too easy for the project team to say: "We've done our bit – now it's up to them to change."

Changes are often quietly and successfully resisted, meaning the company fails to achieve the expected benefits and return on investment.

A modification of the push approach is to use a 'carrot and stick' approach. A company could say: "If we don't make this change, we will have to close all our UK factories and make you redundant. So you really have no choice but to accept this change and comply with the new working conditions."

"Business and IT projects depend on people accepting change."

Management can alternatively make people think the alternative future is irresistibly attractive: "These new terms and conditions will give those that remain higher pay without overtime. Imagine the safer, brighter working conditions. Our new streamlined organisation will create opportunities for promotion to really exciting and rewarding jobs."

However, the iron fist of compulsion still underlies the change programme: the victim has no option other than to comply.

Push, or to reveal its true nature, force, is a simple way of making change happen but it is actually very expensive, so we must find other ways to make large-scale changes with less expense and with greater certainty of success.

In this example, an element of push and force was used. A relatively small but significant number of new posts were created and old posts removed. A few people were promoted and a slightly larger number of senior people moved sideways. The main move, however, was about communicating the future and helping people to adapt to it. This is the exact opposite of the traditional push project.

"Too often, projects fail because, although the technology is delivered, the people are badly managed."

Using this approach, people have the future described to them in personal terms so they can envisage the future state. They are then helped to pull their current state towards the future state while the environment changes around them.

The case study exploited our capacity for chronaesthesia, which is the brain's ability to imagine itself in a future state and then adapt its perceptions to match. When we watch a film, the storyline, music and visual cues involve us emotionally, and we subtly change 'personality' for a short time afterwards. It is as if we had lived for a short while in the world that we have seen in the film and gone through some emotionally charged experiences. It is some of this effect that we are capitalising on to accelerate and simplify change when we use the pull rather than push option.

However, 90% of these changed perceptions are short-lived. In a change project it is necessary not only to prolong but also to make it permanent. We do that by telling people that we will be coming back later to look for the changes that have been so vividly predicted and imagined.


It is a principle of change management that 'whatsoever we measure we get'. In Isochron Ltd's pull approach to business change management we initially try not to measure numerical targets so much as to inspect and recognise matters of fact. These are recognition events and value flashpoints. We tell people about specific events that will help them recognise success. When we explain that a manager will be coming to witness a particular event happening on a given date at a specific place, people are powerfully motivated to make it happen.

"It is vital that the time to pause, analyse, learn and redirect is incorporated into changes."

When we measure anything, even a matter of fact, we have to establish the current state as a benchmark, otherwise it can be difficult to demonstrate success. For example, many people involved in the multi-million-pound preparations for the year 2000 found that senior management were cynical when the millennium passed without any IT hiccup. They questioned whether the invested effort and cost had been necessary.

The benchmarks had not been adequately measured and communicated to them. They had not seen for themselves the clock in the BIOS on the PC motherboards flip to irrational values when wound forward past the stroke of midnight on 31 December 1999.

In managing business change, therefore, we have to document the initial state of our recognition events and value flashpoints. Having done that, we can then track progress towards those recognition events and value flashpoints, and recognise when they have been achieved. Only in this way can change be truly successful.

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