The Science of Successful Organizational Change

The Science of Successful Organizational Change

This week Steven dives into Chapter 6 of Paul Gibbons’ book The Science of Successful Organizational Change.  Section III, which we begin today has been a tough read for me.  There are a lot of techniques that I see used on a daily basis that are based on pop psychology. Confronting the true believers is often a lot like jousting at windmills.   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


This week we begin Part III, Change Tactics, of Paul Gibbons’ book “The Science of Successful Organizational Change” (get your copy).  Part III consists of an introduction and four chapters. We review the intro and Chapter 6 in this week’s re-read.

Part III Change Tactics

In Part II, Gibbons explains the difference between strategy and tactics – “strategy properly focuses on goals and not how to deliver those goals” (p. 71) Tactics define the how’s.

The odds of success in a change initiative improve if programs:

  • Define Strategy First,
  • And then your Tactics Second.

Gibbons opens Part III from a quote from Sun Tzu – “Victorious warriors win, then go to war; defeated warriors go to war and attempt to win.”

Part III title is “Change Tactics” because Gibbons prefers this phrase over Change Management which he feels is an overloaded term.  However, Chapter 6, which starts Part III, is actually about what to avoid, rather than what practices to use during a change initiative.

Chapter 6 – Misunderstanding Human Behavior

Gibbons tells us we get off-track in our change projects, often, because we have the wrong beliefs in-place – “what should work” versus “what actually does work”.  Because of confirmation bias, we observe what we believe, rather than believe what we observe.  Thus, it is hard for us to shed beliefs that are incorrect.

Gibbons presents his Change Management framework again (p. 163)
(first presented in the Introduction (Week 2).

  • X axis – Usefulness Axis
    • Harmful (to the left of the y axis)
    • Useful (to the right of the y axis)
  • Y axis – Validity Axis
    • Invalid (below the x axis)
    • Not validated (around the x axis)
    • Validated (above the x -axis)

Chapter 6 focus is in the lower, left quadrant captioned “Debunk Practices Shown to Be Invalid or Harmful.”

Folk Psychology and Folk Management

Before Gibbons lists some common psychological myths, there are several pages explaining “fake” psychology and “fake” leadership.  The word fake is used because they are are not based on scientific findings nor have they withstood strenuous academic review.  The quote from the book that drove the point home was –

Gibbons: “Psychological pseudoscience dies hard, especially when people have commercial interests in its continued existence.” (p. 174)

Gibbons points out, unlike the physical sciences, psychology is much harder to measure.  Thus, causing two problems:

  1. The tendency to measure nothing.
  2. Measuring what is easy to measure and devaluing the harder to measure influences.

Gibbons recommendations, in the Human Resource Management / Organizational Development space, found on pages 176 – 177, are:

  1. Use more science.
  2. Combine qualitative and quantitative measures and long-term and short-term measures in a single dashboard.
  3. Treat early HR analytics implementation as experimental.
  4. Be cautious about HR analytics driving outcomes and behaviors toward the easily measurable.

These recommendations are germane for almost space in the business environment (such as management and software development) if you substitute the use of HR with the area of the business you are interested in.  — Tom

“Ask your how often you have seen a critique of the ideas of Drucker, Kotter, Christensen, or Bennis.  No scientific idea, nor any scientist – not even Hawking, Turing, or Einstein – get a free pass the way management thinkers do.” (p. 171)

Software Estimation, not a Science in Most Places

Let me take a side-trip for the SPAMCast listeners and a major theme of “The Science of Successful Organizational Change” – measurement and validation of ideas.  Software planning and estimation certainly fall into this category – pseudoscience.   I have observed (over and over again) that current practices by most organizations planning and estimating rely on invalid belief.

Tom Cagley has interviewed several authors and thought-leaders and shared his own thinking in recent SPAMCast podcasts to help evolve software planning and delivery to more of a science-based practice.

  1. SPaMCAST 449 – Jasveer Singh, New Functional Software Size Measurement Methodology (July 2, 2017)
  2. SPaMCAST 445 – Capers Jones, Selecting Software Metrics (June 4, 2017)
  3. SPaMCAST 443 – Brad Clark, Cost Estimation COCOMO II, COCOMO III (May 21, 2017)
  4. SPaMCAST 438 – Size for Testers, Organizations as Systems, Problem Solving (April 17, 2017)

 The Myths of Psychology

Gibbons presents six reasons why pseudo-psychology can lead us astray (p. 185)

  1. What we understand as facts are really just theories.
  2. When people tread on those theories, we blame the person.
  3. We overrate the theories – illusory superiority bias.
  4. Our theories, right or wrong, become normative (“should”).
  5. These theories lead to errors in understanding people’s behavior.
  6. Theories tend to be shallow (derived from a few experiences) and do not apply in different contexts.

Psychological Myths

Gibbons presents a table of 9 psychological myths (p. 178) and the one psychological myth that really stands out for me is “Maslow Hierarchy of (Psychological) Needs”, which I learned in college and assumed to be absolutely true.

Maslow Hierarchy of Needs is a very useful model, but not a validated model.  So, it belongs in the lower-right quadrant – “Validate Models and Tools in Widespread Use “- within Gibbons Change Management framework (p. 163)


Gibbons introduces one more topic in Chapter 6, neuroscience and the effects it has had on management and leadership.

“How useful is it to discuss the biology of the brain in business?” (p. 182)

Gibbons explains why he is a “neuroskepic”; one reason is knowing how the brain physically works does little to predict human behavior.  Neuroscience is a young science and current knowledge can mislead or distract good leadership practices.  Just like an airline pilot that does not need to know the ins and outs of a jet engine in order to operate a jet plane safely and effectively.

Gibbons does recommend David Rock’s work in applied cognitive psychology.  David Rock’s book “Your Brain at Work” is full of practical ideas based on neuroscience.  Behaviors we have experienced, but may not fully understand, like trying to-do something really important when your brain is too tired to function well.


We moved into Change Tactics (Part III), from Change Strategy (Part II).

  1. Beware of pseudoscience in psychology.
  2. Beware of common management practices that are based on theories and have yet to be validated.
  3. Neuroscience is not (yet) that useful in a business setting – but applied cognitive psychology is useful.

Question:  take a look at the psychological myths on page 178 (table 6.1), which do you strongly agree or disagree with?

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

Week 4: Change Fragility to Change-Agility

Week 5:  Governance and the Psychology of Risk

Week 6: Decision Making in Complex and Ambiguous Environments

Week 7: Cognitive Biases and Failed Strategies