The Science of Successful Organizational Change

The Science of Successful Organizational Change

This week Steven dives into Chapter 9 of Paul Gibbons’ book The Science of Successful Organizational Change.  Chapter 9 is the capstone of the book putting all of the pieces parts together.  Steve is tackling Chapter 9 in two parts.  Two more weeks are left in this re-read.  Remember to use the link in the essay to buy a copy of the book to support the author, the podcast, and the blog!


Chapter 9: Leading with Science (Part 1)

Chapter 9 is the concluding chapter of Paul Gibbons book The Science of Successful Organizational Change (get your copy) and because this chapter is so idea-rich, there will be two re-read postings.

Three more weeks for this re-read remain (this week, Chapter 9 – part 2, and concluding thoughts) remain.

Chapter 9 – Leading with Science (part 1 – pages 255 – 272)

The previous chapters have all been building-up for Paul Gibbons masterful conclusions and call-to-action.

Moving Management Practices to a Science

Gibbons call-to-action – “we must start a scientific revolution inside businesses that lead toward practices that have a basis in science.  The craft of business leadership today pays too little attention to the science of how humans tick and too much attention to folk and pop psychology.” (p.255).

Gibbons urges us and guides to evolve leadership, inside businesses, to a science-based discipline much like the discipline of medicine has evolved over the last 150 years.

Gibbons paints the picture of how a science-based leader might perform with 4 scenarios (p. 256); two of these scenarios hit-home with me.

Scenario 1

The project is over budget and late; the leadership council recommends (and agrees) to continue the project.  The project budget and schedule can be recovered by reducing rounds of user testing and stakeholder engagement.  (I know, this scenario really sounds far-fetched – ha!)

The science-based leader (you), comes in with a different perspective and course of action …

“You demur knowing that escalation of commitment is a powerful motivator, that risk-seeking behaviors multiply when projects are behind schedule, and your colleagues are especially prone to groupthink because of loyalty to this director and have reputational interest having approved the initial budget.” (p. 256)

The new course of action is the sunk cost bias is arrested, along with other biases and fallacies, and the project is canceled.

Scenario 2

Agile Innovation or, as I call it, an Agile Transformation – proposal for a 3-day training program involving ~2,000 of the organization’s workforce, from a highly respected agile trainer.

Questions from a science-based leader (p. 256) include …

  1. “what is the program apart from theory
    (i.e., is there any data about the benefits claimed;
    and another related quote (p. 257)
    – “As scientists facetiously say, ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’”
  2. “are there behaviors, how will they transfer to the workplace
    (i.e., use change management techniques and get specific)
  3. “how you will measure the behavioral and financial benefits
    (i.e., success criteria)
  4. “what will be done to support managers attending in breaking old habits and forming new ‘agile’ ones”
    (i.e., breaking established habits is hard, even if the person wants to)

The final “that is”, let us not embark on this agile transformation training program because most of the industry is doing that, including some key competitors.  Let us figure out what we should expect from the agile transformation training program and a way forward the makes the change more likely to be successful.

What is Science?

“If science is not a corpus of indisputable facts, what is it?  It is an experimental, social, learning process for creating and revising a specific kind of knowledge about cause and effect.” (p. 260)

And I will add a business-pertinent quote outside this book: “A part of good science is to see what everyone else can see but think what no one else has ever said.”  Amos Tversky (taken from the “Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis)

Science is the process of discovery and validating your hypotheses.  In product development, that typically means finding out with more certainty the features customers/users will value and use.  And discovering this information in Lean Startup fashion, before you fully build-out the product feature.

Gibbons presents a variant of W. Edward Deming’s PDCA (Plan – Do – Check – Act) science-based learning cycle in the form of “Observe – Hypothesis – Test – Revise”.

Gibbons found an excellent quote from Winston Churchill to sum-up the experimental / learning cycle approach and mindset –
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” (p. 272)

This Book’s Main Graphic

We see the “Harmful/Useful | Invalid / Valid” graphic once again (p. 264).  We first saw this in the Introduction (week-2, p. 10) and again in Chapter 6 (week-8, p. 163).

Showing 4 quadrants

  1. Ideas/practices that are Invalid and likely Harmful
  2. Ideas/practices that have NOT been validated but probably Useful (and in wide-spread use)
  3. Ideas/practices that are Valid and Harmful <- stay away and learn to avoid
  4. Ideas/practices that are Valid and Useful <- of course, this is what Gibbons is pushing for as science-based leadership

Antiscience and Pseudoscience

Gibbons revisits another topic from Chapter 6 – antiscience and pseudoscience – “Primum non nocere.”  (First, do no harm.) – Hippocratic Corpus (p. 265)

The one anti-science example Gibbons writes I found very interesting was about Steve Jobs and his strong diet belief of fasting and juicing that Jobs carried over to fight cancer, despite the science-based advice his doctor friends were giving him.  The diet beliefs that served Steve Jobs well in normal health, did not serve him well when fighting cancer.

Gibbons makes the point that we can save money by using evidence-based findings/mindset.  I agree.  But even evidence-based research and findings are fraught with challenges as you can learn listening to the 3-part “Bad Medicine” series from Freakonomics radio (  Gibbons wants Management Science to become more like Medical Science – at least, current medical practices have moved away from the pseudoscience practices.

Summary of Chapter 9, part 1, which includes pages 255 – 272

  1. The book’s major theme is discussed, moving current management practices to practices based on science
  2. Gibbon’s presents four scenarios of what a science-based management practice might be like.
  3. Science is about learning and evolving knowledge.
  4. Target management practices that are both useful and validated.

Next week:  Chapter 9, part-2 (pages 272 – 292).

Two-weeks:  we conclude the re-read of “The Science of Successful Organizational Change” by reflecting on the book as a whole.  And I am sure Tom Cagley will have some thoughts to share also.


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

Week 8: Misunderstanding Human Behavior

Week 9: Leading with Science (Part 1)