The term cargo cult, if you haven’t heard it before, refers to doing things in the hope of getting results with the sole reasoning that these actions have worked, or seem to have worked, before. The term stems from 19th century Melanesians who, after having seen planes delivering goods, built runways to attract more planes. (This is just one of many cargo cults.) Physicist and master explainer Richard Feynman popularized this concept in a 1974 speech at Caltech:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Much of this rings true for the change management field as well: Institutions teach, and consultancies execute change management methods that have little to no evidence of working at all. While evidence-based methods are par for the course in engineering, medicine and, lately, even psychology, they are notably absent from change management.

To resolve this issue, Steven ten Have and his colleagues instituted a massive meta-analysis and published the results in their book Reconsidering Change Management: Applying Evidence-Based Insights in Change Management Practice.

This article is a summary of the assumptions they tested, and the – often surprising – results. To our mind, these results are a wake-up call for every change practitioner.

Assumptions, a Quiz, and some Soul Searching

In their research, Steven ten Have and colleagues test 18 assumptions about change management. Before you read on, join us for a quiz. Ask yourself which of these assumptions you think are correct:

  1. Seventy percent of all change initiatives fail.
  2. A clear vision is essential for successful change.
  3. People will not change if there is no sense of urgency.
  4. Trust in the leader is needed for successful change.
  5. When managing change, a transformational leadership style is more effective than a transactional one.
  6. Organizational change requires leaders with strong emotional intelligence.
  7. Supervisory support is critical for the success of change.
  8. To realize change in organizations, a powerful guiding coalition is needed.
  9. Employees’ capabilities to change determine the organization’s capacity to change.
  10. Participation is key to successful change.
  11. Resistance to change is detrimental to the success of change.
  12. A fair change process is important in achieving successful change.
  13. Changing organizational culture is time-consuming and difficult.
  14. Organizational culture is related to performance.
  15. Goal setting combined with feedback is a powerful tool for change leaders.
  16. Commitment to change is an essential component of a successful change initiative.
  17. Financial incentives are effective ways to encourage change and improve performance.
  18. Self-managing teams perform better in realizing change than traditionally managed teams.

Solution: These are the correct assumptions: 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14 and 16. All the others have been proven wrong in ten Have’s research.

If you scored well (75% or better), consider yourself on the cutting edge of change management methods, unimpressed by cargo cult change. (Please note that we are simplifying the matter here somewhat by assigning polar true/false values; in some instances, there is, of course, a continuum.) Maybe some of the answers were obvious to you, and others caught you by surprise: The bottom line is that much of what change practitioners have been doing in the field is not supported by evidence.

For example, Ten Have’s research shows that the common belief that 70% of change initiatives fail is just that: A belief … that has been preached as gospel for decades. It was a very convenient belief indeed when trying to explain to clients why an initiative failed, and it could be used by prospective clients to fend off sales approaches: If 70% fail, why bother?

Similarly, most of the other assumptions were weakened, or right-out debunked. While no. 4 (trust in the leader) was confirmed, no. 3 (urgency of change) was found to be not relevant at all! As a consequence, change agents such as managers are urged not to establish an artificial crisis to force change. Also, the most effective leadership style (no. 5) is determined by context and nature of the change initiative, and while supervisory support (no. 7) is indeed critical for change success, emotional intelligence (no. 6) is not a necessary, but merely a nice-to-have factor.

As change practitioners, we should be committed to delivering the best possible results for our clients. This means to use only those approaches that show evidence of … you know … actually working. Neither ten Have nor we are trying to discredit the field or its practitioners. However, given that many of these 18 assumptions turned out to be flat-out wrong, we must ask ourselves: What have we done to come this far? And how can we improve the field going forward?

Doing what works vs. doing what has worked before

At the heart of the cargo cult problem, there’s the notion that what has worked in one or more specific contexts should work in other – probably similar – contexts as well. But change is much more complicated than building a big nest and waiting for an eagle to land and breed. Do “We did team development training at company A, so we’ll do this at company B,” or “We always start with C-level executive coaching” sound familiar? Let’s cherry-pick and discuss three assumptions that proved to be true:

a) Trust in the leader is needed for successful change

The research is consistent with our own experiences in change projects: To effect lasting change, it is indeed enormously helpful to communicate consistent, emotionally-connecting messages. After identifying activities that show (!) commitment to change, we coach the initiative’s leader through these activities. At every step, we ensure that the messages communicate the overarching intent of the change project and help to support it with actions. This requires a plan that creates “closeness,” i. e. a trusting relationship between leaders and subordinates, and the plan needs to be executed consistently.

b) Employees’ capabilities to change determine the organization’s capacity to change

Frequently, this is easier said than done, because many organizations lack capability-driven human resources processes. To increase the org’s capacity to change, we establish the concept of concept of differentiating capabilities and identify capabilities that are required for driving success. To create and reinforce capabilities, we create environments for learning and include capability building into as many change interventions as possible.

c) Commitment to change is an essential component

“Creating” commitment is as impossible as “creating” motivation. Personal commitment emerges more or less automatically when certain conditions are met. In our experience, those conditions can be established by: regularly communicate success; executing focused engagement activities across the entire organization; establishing feedback loops (both formal and informal) that show and communicate progress; discuss the feedback, especially with senior leadership, and adapt change interventions.

Looking Forward: Consequences for Change Management

Ten Have’s research provides a framework for evaluating change initiatives in an evidence-based manner and proves that even a “soft” discipline can be scientifically sound.

What should be clear by now is that change initiatives should not be planned based on myths: Don’t build runways for non-existent planes. However, we should be wary of using it as a catch-all for change initiatives. Research results are, by definition, statistic averages. A single company, organizational structure or team cannot be an average, so we need to take care to work on a case-by-case basis. We encourage you to read the book. We will go into more detail in future articles at alstracon insights. To get notified about new articles, subscribe to our newsletter.