The Science of Successful Organizational Change

The Science of Successful Organizational Change

This week Steven dives into Part 1 of Paul Gibbons’ book The Science of Successful Organizational Change.  In today’s entry, we cover the introduction to Part 1 in which Gibbon’s tells us that we live in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA)  and in Chapter 2, that we have to transition from change fragility to change-agility.  Remember to use the link in the essay to buy a copy of the book to support the author, the podcast, and the blog!   – Tom

Week 4…

It is a VUCA world for the week-4 re-read of Paul Gibbons book “The Science of Successful Organizational Change” (get your copy), as we look at the Part I introduction to Change-Agility and chapter 2 “From Change Fragility to Change-Agility”.

Part I Introduction to Change-Agility

We are living in a business world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA).  However, Gibbons points out every generation can relate to the VUCA concept due to the “availability bias” – overweighting what is in front of us (more about cognitive biases in chapter 5).

Gibbons tells what is special about how we perceive VUCA in our time is based on “information speed and volume”.  Gibbons concept of change-agility can help us respond to the challenges presented in a VUCA world.  On page 39, Gibbons outlines six characteristics that are the goals of a change-agile organization.

  1. Business structures look a like portfolio of change programs
  2. The ability to change is a competitive advantage.
  3. Businesses are antifragile – they are strengthened by the change.
  4. Dynamic flow – change, knowledge, and information move both bottom-up and top-down directions.
  5. Business is operationally adaptable – becoming the disruptor.
  6. Resistance-to-change no longer inhibits change because change is part of the culture.

This book will help the reader understand how-to get closer to these six idealist goals.  The one key idea to keep in mind, the change should no-longer be considered episodic, but continuous – always happening within and outside an organization.


Chapter 2 – “From Change Fragility to Change-Agility


Change-Agility is the central concept of Chapter 2.  When Gibbons uses the word agile, he means business agility or business adaptation.  Gibbons is not referring to the specific Agile practices and ideas we read about in software development.

Gibbons starts chapter 2 explaining Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile concept.  All organization structures fall somewhere on the continuum between fragile – robust — antifragile.  Fragile organizations crumble when asked to change while antifragile organizations prosper under stress, not just survive.

The Systemic, Change-Agility Model

Gibbons describes his holistic, systemic change-agility model (page 43); in order for change to-be sustainable, all four element-areas must reinforce each other.

  1. Mindsets and beliefs
  2. Behaviors, skills, performance,
  3. Processes, structures, strategy
  4. Culture, climate, relationships

“The insight that businesses are complex systems that only change as fast the weakest link is not radically new; it is, however, radically ignored.” (page 44).  Meaning, pay attention to all four element-areas in this model to become successful with change.


Mindsets:  what is the right change mindset?  Referencing change guru John Kotter (see, it is the “get-to” change rather than “have-to” change mindset.  Coupled with a strong team mindset, “we” over “me”.

Gibbons references Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset / Fixed Mindset model, which we are already familiar with from a previous re-read –

Learning Agility Dimensions

Gibbons goes into Korn Ferry’s Learning Agility Dimensions (page 48),
describing the 5 dimensions to this model.

  1. Mental Agility
  2. People Agility
  3. Change Agility
  4. Results Agility
  5. Self-Awareness

Gibbons assertion is change-agile organizations need more Growers over Knowers (growers actively seek out knowledge and change while knowers are biased to protect their expertise).  People who have spent their career in information technologies can relate to this idea.

Culture and Climate of Innovation

CULTURE is the elephant in the room because culture is the hardest thing to change, by far!  The failure rates of culture change projects verify this.

“When I have seen culture-change succeed, it is when culture change focused on changing a very specific and tangible aspects of top team behavior and then cascaded those downward.”  (page 50)

The culture of innovation is very important for change-agile organizations.  Gibbons references Goran Ekvall “Climate of Innovation” framework (page 56), that can help assess the organization’s ability to support innovation.


  1. Challenge
  2. Idea Time
  3. Idea Support


  1. Trust and Openness
  2. Playfulness
  3. Conflict levels


  1. Debates
  2. Freedom
  3. Risk-taking

It is one thing to talk innovation (what company does not) and another to become an innovative organization.

Agile Structures

Gibbons also addresses Agile Structures – beyond the organizational hierarchy, briefly describing

  1. Hierarchies – we know these – most corporations
  2. Project-Based Business – the movie industry
  3. Self-Managed Work Teams (SMWT) – agile development (e.g., scrum) strives for this
  4. Holacracy (\ – Zappos



Part I of this book consisted of just one chapter – Chapter 2.  And Chapter 2 is a goldmine of ideas.

Chapter 2 references THREE previous re-read books (Kotter, Dweck, and Robertson).  We are introduced to Gibbons holistic, systemic change-agility model (4 reinforcing areas).  Plus, Korn Ferry’s Agile Learning Dimensions model and Goran Ekvall Climate of Innovation framework.

Because of the breadth found in Chapter 2, I left out other topics discussed in Chapter 2 in this re-read blog post.  Question:  what topic covered in Chapter 2 did you find most interesting and new

Or was the VUCA world described in the Part I Introduction the most useful for you?

Previous entries in the re-read of the book The Science of Successful Organizational Change(buy a copy!)

Week 1: Game Plan

Week 2: Introduction

Week3; Failed Change