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Everything You Know About Change Is Wrong

Everything You Know About Change Is Wrong

Everything you know about change is wrong. And I mean everything. A recently published essay written by Todd Bridgman, Stephen Cummings and Kenneth Brown uncovers the following. 

  1. There is no theory underpinning the foundational model of change management
  2. Further elaborations of the theory by academics and consultancy firms, therefore, have no underlying foundation on which to rest
  3. Contemporary conditions of constant change make this non-existent foundational theory obsolete, but it’s still pretty much all we’ve got.
  4. Given the above, it’s not very surprising that research into the successful implementation of change suggests two-thirds of change initiatives fail. As change models are built on smoke and mirrors, perhaps we should be applauding the great success rate!

Now, if I were a leader who’d just sanctioned another $100 million change program and just discovered this, I’d be angry. Very angry. Livid even.

So, if the theory is kaput, what do we actually know about change? Three things.

  • Firstly, conditions of constant change mean we have to learn to live with ambiguity, uncertainty, contradictions and paradoxes.
  • Secondly, humans are hardwired not to be very good at living with ambiguity, uncertainty, contradictions and paradoxes.
  • Thirdly, as the change models aimed at helping us to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty, contradictions and paradoxes are misconstrued and inherently flawed, we are up shit creek without a paddle!

So, what do we do? I suggest we examine the current evidence about how people live in conditions of constant change and look at the reactions of those best coping with them. We can then perhaps try and learn from them how to plan for and cope with ambiguity, uncertainty, contradictions and paradoxes, rather than assuming our models actually tell us anything.

Re-Examining Change without a Theory

It’s pretty widely accepted that you can break up responses to change in a 20-60-20% split, in which 20% of the organization will embrace change, 20% will completely reject it and 60% will lie somewhere in the middle. Focusing on either of the twenty-percenters will pretty much guarantee a failed change, as the “loving it” twenty percent won’t drag enough people with them to stick the change and dealing with the “hating it” twenty percent sucks all the energy out of the initiative. Dealing with the middle 60% is the vital sweet spot.

Huge swathes of research have attempted to capture how to do that. It has categorised reaction types as bewildered, basket-cases and buffoons:

  • The Bewildered: They need their hand held throughout the change so they can begin to cognitively understand, adjust and cope with the new processes and systems. This is where the change manager or agent comes in.
  • The Basket-Cases: They struggle to psychologically and emotionally cope with the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding the change, requiring counselling and guidance to stop them collapsing into mental illness. This is where the organizational therapist or psychologist comes in.
  • The Buffoons: They cynically and sarcastically laugh and joke at the foolishness of the change process whilst managing to maintain a relatively effective performance. Nobody talks seriously with or helps them, other than their line leader perhaps laughing along or giving them a clip around the ear if the sarcasm gets a little too close to the bone.

While the first two types need guiding through the change to prevent processes and systems failing of people mentally disintegrating, the third just gets on with it, releasing the mental stress in ironic humour and communication. They are the ones who seem to best cope with ambiguity, uncertainty, contradictions and paradoxes, yet we don’t pay them much attention, almost treating them as an irritant that will eventually go away. 

Buffoonery and Irony

Organizational buffoonery has nearly always been theorised as lightweight resistance, a temporary jokey ethos that, while tolerated in the short-term, eventually gets crushed into obedience by organizational power as the change begins to take. That’s hardly surprising as buffoonery has nothing to say other than to make jokes. However, perceiving it as merely resistant buffoonery misses the whole point. Whilst some resistance is undoubtedly of this ilk, other commentary is far more critical and meaningful, couching genuine insights that reveal structural absurdities in the change in sarcasm, cynicism, jokes, mockery and satire. This is not buffoonery, but a critical and engaged ironic performance.

Indeed, the very idea that it is resistant buffoonery rather than critical commentary fails to capture the creative and innovative power that is the stock of trade of the ironist. Ironic communication is critically insightful, speaking truth to power, but indirect, requiring interpretation, or the instigator risks losing his head. It requires the powerful to work out for themselves the absurdity of the situation and address it. If they do, they cannot punish the ironist for they’ve creatively seen the problem for themselves rather been directly told they are idiots. If they don’t, the ironist survives as they are none the wiser and will not punish him.

Ironic critique is nearly always authentic. Evidence spanning millennia suggests it is the most effective way of coping with ambiguity and change when surrounded by powerful others who won’t listen. History is littered with ironists that made a transformational difference; Socrates, Cicero, Erasmus, Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Soren Kierkegaard, Oscar Wilde, and, more contemporarily, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jon Oliver, to name but a few. By revealing the absurdity of the action in a way that forces the powerful other to confront it, they generate a space in which novel ideas can germinate. That a few lost their heads thanks to the power of those they opposed helps illuminate the risks, but it is they, and not those whom they opposed, that are most remembered.

Irony is also a community builder. American social and literary criticism has long researched the degree to which ironic commentary on the foolishness of others bonds a group. These groups possess a certain perspective or knowledge that illustrates how and why the other group is foolish, and the indirect ironic commentary bonds those who “get it” against those who don’t. Given successful change requires group rather than individual acceptance while nearly all the current aids focus on the individual, surely it is time to start taking the most common creatively cognitive response to change seriously. Listen to the ironic communication that bonds a group as they are trying to say something important about the change.

Finding that Paddle

While there is copious evidence that irony abounds during change, labelling it resistance ensures organizations cannot benefit from the insights it brings or the novel solutions it might produce. While some research is beginning to realise that sarcasm does generate creativity, sarcasm is but a minor tool in the ironist’s bag, revealing absurdity to the target but not the insight that discovered the absurdity in the first place. Irony informs the perspective that reveals the absurdity, the performance that shares it, and the personality that copes with it. However, it seems most academics, consultants, leaders and managers do not get irony.

There’s a strong degree of irony that while the foundational model of change, merely a wisp of thought floating around in the ether, attracts excessive academic and consultancy attention, the theory of irony as relating to change and transformation, rooted in 2,500 years of debate, is treated as an irrelevance, something that cannot sell in the serious discipline of change management and only of fringe interest. The irony of irony perhaps? It is my hope and ambition that, in these conditions of constant change, we begin to take seriously the notion of an ironic sensibility, listening to and celebrating those who possess it. It might just push those successful change figures in the right direction.

Irony | W. Somerset Maugham
Aesthetic Irony

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Saturday, 15 December 2018

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


Research recognised as exceptional by world-leaders in the fields of power, leadership and organisational change, receiving considerable praise for its originality, depth and rigour.


Extensive training, coaching and mentoring experience in professional development in well-known organisations, governments and business schools across the world.


Consulting on change, transformation, culture, organisational narrative, innovation and creativity, and communications to private and public sector organizations and entities.

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