Bold decisions that drastically change what is taken for granted have always been traits of leaders that attract and inspire people. The rise of social media and other means of online communication such as blogs, online communities and intranets allow leaders to spread bold ideas and big plans easier than ever before to their target audience and the wider public. On the one hand, this tremendous speed of communication is a powerful lever to mobilize people and initiate change on a level and magnitude never seen before. On the other hand, change is always accompanied with unintended consequences that backfire, if not handled properly.
Change always bears the risk of unintended consequence or change side effects
Such unintended consequences or change side effects can gain a considerable momentum, undermining the initial change intention and the leader’s legitimacy. In extreme cases, it can do more harm than good when change initiatives lead to havoc and chaos. Recent examples of such unintended consequences in the public and business domain include
Donald Trump’s travel ban that was finally blocked by an US court,
the VW Diesel Scandal that manoeuvred VW into the biggest legitimacy crisis in its history, and
the turmoil caused by the Brexit referendum initiated by David Cameron to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU.
Taking into consideration state of the art research in the area of change management, we derived five principles that leaders should consider to avoid harmful change side effects and undermining their legitimacy when change gets out of control.
Beware of the causality trap: Straightforward solutions do not always win
Even though it sounds illogical, the most effective solution to a problem is not the one that is most suitable from a causality point of view. Consider the following example: Like many other cities struggling with traffic congestion, London initiated measures to reduce air pollution by providing incentives for Diesel cars and encourage people to use bicycles instead of cars. As an unintended consequence, London’s air pollution has reached a record level due to even more congestion driven by cycling lanes that occupy space prior used by cars and high levels of nitrogen oxides from Diesel powered cars.
Even though straightforward solutions look most attractive at first glance, there is a considerable risk that they backfire in the mid and long run. This applies in particular when the intended change intervention target at systems with a high level of interdependencies such as organizations, cities, teams and families.
Agility is key: Plan, implement and adapt in cycles
Well planned is half done. While a good plan is still of critical importance for change interventions, the way how planning is done nowadays changed significantly compared to what was done some years ago. Governments and companies struggling to keep big IT and defence projects in time and budget had to learn the hard way that plans tend to be overtaken by reality after a certain period of time.
Spending more time to make a better plan can simply be considered creating more waste as uncertainty always wins. The answer to this planning paradox is an agile approach which was introduced first in the 60s known as OODA loop and is now widely applied in business and science. Instead of investing a hell of time, energy and resources in creating the perfect plan at the beginning of an intervention, an agile approach assumes that a first idea of what should be achieved with the intervention is just good enough.
After a fixed period of time usually referred to as Sprint, the plan is revised and adjusted to the new insights gained during implementation. As a consequence, the plan is always aligned to reality and adds value not just at the beginning of the intervention but when it is most needed during implementation.
Ask others: Conduct challenging sessions with stakeholders
Governments, companies and all other sorts of organizations have one thing in common: they are constituted by a complex network of (power) relationships and interdependencies that make them behave unpredictable unless you know at least some of the most important “circuits” determining how interventions are interpreted.
Thus, before decisions are taken, it is strongly recommended to critically discuss them with some of the key stakeholders. On the one hand, such challenging sessions produce valuable feedback from people who have detailed knowledge about the functioning of the organisation. On the other hand, they help to inform the key stakeholders about the intended change intervention.
As a consequence, the intervention can be adjusted such that the desired outcome will be achieved and you already managed to position change multipliers within the organisation that will most probably support your efforts or at least don’t oppose them.
Think in scenarios: What happens if…
Most properly, you already know what you want to achieve with your change initiative. You even know how to achieve it and which levers to move and buttons to push. Even though you might be convienced 100% that you are on track to succeed, it is time to stop and think about the following questions:
Did you already think about what could happen instead of the desired outcome?
Which organizational internal and external factors do have an impact on the outcome?
How does it evolve over time?
What could happen if it fails?
All these questions help to develop scenarios about possible unintended consequences and their effect. Even though this helps to get a grasp about what could happen, there is always a risk that it comes differently. Thus, testing the water in a trial run such as a small department, team, site or area could provide you with valuable information about possible side effects.
Go to gemba: Don't rely on what others tell you but go and see it by yourself
Once you made your bold decision and things change gradually it is key to observe whether everything develops in the right direction. As mentioned above, an agile approach can help you to adjust in case you experience deviations. Whether you experience deviations at all is very much dependent on whom you ask and the language used to explain what has happened.
This does not necessarily mean that people won't tell you the truth. The more you rely on observations of others, the higher is the risk that details get lost and you miss important developments. Thus, be prepared to walk the talk, meet relevant stakeholders, ask them for their opinion and get a firsthand impression how things develop.
Leaders have to expect change side effects to cope with them
Contrary to many popular business books and best practice change management receipts, organizations are not simple machines that can be changed top down just by taking bold decisions. Instead, they are chaotic, messy and on top of this dynamic networks of power relationships. Thus, being bold and taking though decisions will definitely have an impact. However, whether this impact leads to the desired outcome depends less on the boldness than on the smartness of the decision. As history shows, some leaders are change resistant and have to learn that the hard way.
Markus is one of the founders of CQ and leads trainings in the area of Management and Mechanical Engineering. He holds a Master and Doctoral Degree in Economics and Computer Science from the Technical University of Vienna and a MSc in Organisational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, University of London. Being a dedicated "Knowledge Worker", Markus has continued his career with various private sector assignments in the management consulting, automotive and mechanical engineering industry.