The APQC Blog

Change Management Spotlight: Ron Ashkenas On New Ways To Think About Change

Change has a reputation for being difficult, hard, and stressful. But what if we modified that perception? What if we started to view change differently? Would we be able to make organizational changes more easily? One thing that Ron Ashkenas, a senior partner of Schaffer Consulting and expert on organizational transformation, suggests is that change can be easier if we adjust our mindset. He offers three new ways to think about change.

First, he notes, let’s accept that change isn’t predictable. It isn’t necessarily a direct line from point A to point Z. Ashkenas says, “Life doesn’t work that way. And organizations don’t work that way.”  Yet many times, this is how organizations approach it—as though it’s a straight line. He explains, “The word ‘implementation’ carries with it the assumption that we know exactly what we want to do and it’s just a matter of executing it.” This isn’t realistic. “We never know exactly how change is going to happen and exactly what it is we want to do.” Understanding that things are not always laid out in stone, in advance, can be liberating during change efforts.  

Second, because change isn’t always predictable, engineering principles don’t always apply. Many times, organizations draw up a plan and blueprints for how to move in a new direction. While these can be helpful, a more fluid approach is essential. Ashkenas says, “Oftentimes, we’ll have a vision or a plan, but it’s never going to come out perfectly.  It’s not like an engineering design when you’re dealing with human beings.” Instead, the most effective changes occur in iterative cycles of discovery where you can experiment, and then build on what’s learned. Organizations need to set “short term goals where you can iterate towards the ultimate goal.” Ashkenas said that he often works with organizations on rapid results projects that get “small teams to accomplish things in 100 days.” They then take the successes and lessons learned and apply them to the next stage of the project over the next 100 days, and then the next project over the next 100 days after that.   Doing this not only creates a more realistic environment, but it’s also more fun because people see tangible results and get new insights along the way.

Finally, because change is iterative and experimental, we have to open up the process and engage more people. Ashkenas says, “In my experience, people don’t resist change, they resist being changed. If you involve people in the change, and offer the opportunity to be engaged, you will have more success.” This of course is something that all of the change models suggest, but that many managers avoid anyway: “We know all the right things to do: A lot of good communication, involvement with teams of people.” But if you get lots of people involved, you also have to listen to their ideas, and be flexible about possibly incorporating them.  This makes things messy and uncomfortable, so managers shy away.  To overcome this, he suggests using tools like town hall meetings, idea-a-thons, hack-a-thons. “Find structured ways to get people involved. They’re trying to do what they think is the best thing, as well.” So by engaging people in the process, they will be more likely to understand and contribute to the changes’ success.

Change doesn’t have to be hard, but it does take effort. As Ashkenas said, “It’s a process of learning and discovery, not a straight line. “

APQC is embarking on a new study on this topic. Learn more about it at the study website: Transformational Change - Making It Last.