How do you know you need to start stopping a change project – even if you already spent 13 months of hard work on it.
‘Listen up, guys. As L&D we nééd to make this happen. The organisation is facing an enormous transformation. We can’t stay behind. I want to seize this opportunity to facilitate the change process as a department, and thereby claim our position once and for all.’
John is fired up about his plans to take a leading role as L&D in the change process the organisation is starting.
As he’s talking, some of the team members deflate like a leaky balloon.
‘Pffffff…. We just got started on the new talent system, we’re in the middle of a team development process ourselves, we can barely keep up with our normal case load and now you want us to take up the role of change experts in the organisation…?’, sighs Gerard, one of the consultants.
Change is the new normal. Nothing as constant as change, right?
How often do you hear this? ‘Changes follow each other up more and more rapidly, we live in an ever more complex world. In order to survive, you need to keep up and develop.’
All true. But we do tend to make two, very human, thinking errors in this reasoning.
The first thinking error is the assumption that the multitude of changes in the organisation and society, thus mean you have to follow suit on every change.
The velocity with which changes around you happen, create a restlessness to react to each and every one of them as quickly as possible. But restlessness as a rule is not the best frame of mind to make well-thought-through decisions. You just go along with the flow instead of stepping aside and taking a good look first.
Huge change programmes are started this way, without proper thought beforehand.
A much more sensible reaction to the tsunami of changes, is to not go along with them just because they’re there. The more around you changes, the better you need to think about what you do and don’t do.
The second thinking error happens once you’re on the way. Because you’ve invested so much time and money in it by now, stopping is not an option anymore.
You go on, for the simple reason you got started.
‘Otherwise we throw away all this time, effort and money we already spent on it.’ It’s what Daniel Kahnemann calls the sunken cost fallacy. Also known as the busstop-principle: once you spent a certain amount of time waiting for the bus to come, it feels stupid to now leave and waste all that time (‘odds are, it’ll come as soon as you’ve left’).
I remember being caught in a traffic jam for hours on my way to a concert, while all I really longed for is being home to read the new Jack Reacher, cuddled up under a blanket. But since I had invested in the ticket, I did not budge. That would be a waste of money, right?
Whereas if you look at this factually: the investment won’t come back either way. What you can prevent, is to invest even more (annoyance in the jam) without any returns (I didn’t fancy the concert anymore).
The problem with this fallacy is that you don’t just look forward anymore from your current point in the journey. You cannot un-know what you’ve put into it thusfar. And if you don’t proceed, it feels like a loss. A loss that needs to be compensated by a chance of success. Even though you know that change is very slim at this point. If this would be your starting point, would you go for it? If you wouldn’t, then how come it does make sense to proceed now…? Any ‘yes but’s you may experience when you ask yourself that question, show how the sunken cost fallacy fools you.
Stopping a project you’ve committed to, isn’t easy.
As mentioned, there is now time, money and energy in it. Stopping it then, takes guts. Also because pulling the plug implies acknowledging it didn’t work out.
And yet, it’s wise move to every now and again take the time to decide what not to do (anymore).
How can you do this? Call your Management Team together for a start-stop session.
Everybody comes armed with a list of running and newly planned change projects, initiatives, change requests, programmes or whatever they’re called. With a two-sentence description of what they’re about.
Your goal of the session is simply to decide what you’re going to start up, and what you’re going to stop. Based on the consequences each of these decisions hold.
All of your plans and projects, you check against four seemingly over-simple questions:
- What happens if we do (go on with) this?
- What happens if we do not (go on with) this?
- What doesn’t happen if we do (go on with) this?
- What doesn’t happen if we do not (go on with) this?
(double negation, I know, but just try it and see if you get different insights again)
John does this with his L&D team. First up is John’s new plan to give the department a firm role in the transformation to come. They conclude that not only does the idea of being change facilitators in this process is very appealing to them personally and professionally, it will also prevent a lot of misery having to deal with the mistakes of others. They do still need to solve the issue of time: making sure they don’t fall behind in the cases they’re dealing with even more than they already do.
Right, that one’s clear: START!
Next up is the already running talent programme. An entirely different picture arises. They’re astonished to have to conclude that the answer to the second question: ‘what happens if we do not do this?’ is … ‘actually, nothing really…’. Combined with an unclear goal (the answer to the first question), they decide: STOP.
Auch, that hurts. Especially to those who’ve been working on this for months.
That’s part and parcel. Focussing means choosing. Also for what not to do anymore.
No matter how hard it is in the moment, it creates space. Space to come to. Space for new developments. And to look at new possibilities and options with a sharper view and less emotional ties.
And as a side effect, you’ll get a lot of kudos from the organisation. Because in the end, who doesn’t complain about useless projects which cost too much and deliver too little? There you go, that’s something you don’t do (anymore)!
* Daniel Kahneman explains this in his famous (and brilliant!) book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’.