Doomed to Failure

We have become wedded to a model of change that goes something like this; ‘think of an idea, find a place to try it, take what works and implement it elsewhere’. We have become so wedded to this idea that we no longer recognise it for what it is, an idea. It is a theory of change. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not ‘how change occurs’ or ‘the theory of change’. It is simply a hypothesis and in some circumstances it works. That does not make it universally true.

In the language of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, pilot and roll-out is an ‘espoused theory of action’. It is the mental model we hold about how things actually happen. When the outcomes we get differ from those our theory projected it should ring alarm bells. Something should be telling us that the way things really happen is different to our theory. So we need to re-examine our mental models if we are to be more successful.

In the UK, so many government programmes of change are predicated on this theory of pilot and roll-out. It holds true for many global corporations as well. Invariably, the successes of the pilots (and there are often many successes) fail to be replicated at scale in the wider system. We notice this but continue to pursue the same model in each new change initiative. If we are to break this pattern we need to consider afresh the way in which we attempt major change.

The pilot and roll-out model works well in a mechanistic system.  If I have a problem with the suspension on my car I can adjust the damping until I get a setting that works better. Applying that adjustment to all similar suspension systems on all similar models of car will most likely be a success. This is a characteristic of mechanistic systems; they are predictable.

When we come to work with human systems something different occurs. Jake Chapman described the difference between mechanistic and living systems in a wonderful metaphor. If a mechanistic system is like throwing a rock (in that it is predictable, with a knowledge of basic ballistics you can accurately predict where the rock will fall) then a living system is like throwing a bird. Once it leaves your hand who knows where it may go, perhaps the place you intended but not necessarily by your predicted route. Or it may go somewhere entirely different.

Cesar Hidalgo explores how knowledge and know how are transferred in order that we might make things. He has plotted the network of relationships between industries, employment and places. The bigger and more complex the network that holds this information, the harder it is to move it. Only a few countries are major producers of jet engines for example. Moving and copying the information in a large network (such as all the technology involved in producing jet engines) is much harder than moving and copying the information in a small network such as how to make shirts. Most countries have manufacturers involved in shirt production.

Hidalgo describes this as moving a jigsaw puzzle. Imagine having to pick up all the pieces of a jigsaw and move them from one place to another. The relationships between the pieces that hold them are broken and so when you get to the new location you have to start to build the puzzle all over again. You know a little more about how it fits together  but you are pretty much back to scratch.

Now lets take this a stage further. Let’s look at a situation whereby the constituent pieces are not things but people. People who are in relationship with each other. People who are in relationship also with others outside the puzzle. This web of relationships determines many properties of how that living network behaves, what it can do or can’t do, will do or won’t. Now imagine saying to one operating company, or hospital or city, we want you to do what our pilot company or hospital or city is doing. In order to this in this living system, it would be necessary to replicate all those key relationships, inside and outside the topic area, such that it would work. This is impossible. Pilot and roll-out in human systems is doomed to failure.

Well, in a living system the clue is in the name. You have to ‘grow’ something. Something that infects the system and spreads through it such that each node or place in the system grows its own response. This means giving up control from the centre. Once the ideas start to spread and grow, your ability to control them is gone. The role of leadership shifts from the illusion of control to the holding of space. This means formulating sufficiently strong relationships, aligned around a broad strategic intent that creates the space for people to grow the ideas you are seeding. It means nurturing these ideas rather than limiting or killing them. It means ‘tending’ to growth, not managing a roll-out.

This seems inherently weak for people who feel they are held accountable for results. It is an act of considerable courage to let go of this illusion of control. Such people might remember David Blunkett’s words on becoming Secretary of State, ‘it was only when I got my hands on the levers of power that I realised they weren’t connected to anything’. Yet through fear or ignorance, we continue down our route of pilot and roll-out, somehow believing, despite the evidence before us, that we can ‘project manage’ human change.

If we opened our eyes we would see the wonderful irony. Trying to manage human change through pilot and roll-out has actually grown something. A proliferation of project managers.

The Big Five


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