Why change management is so elusive to many organizations

Nov. 30, 2020
Tom Moriarty says keep your eyes more on the goal of behavior change, and less on the name of the technique you’re using.

My neighbor Tim is a computer programmer by day and musician by night. I like hanging around with Tim because he introduces me to concepts that I’ve not considered before. This month, I’m using something Tim introduced me to that explains why change management is so elusive to many organizations. It’s called the MacGuffin.

Human Capital

This article is part of our monthly Human Capital column. Read more from Tom Moriarty.

In literature, plays, and movies a MacGuffin is a plot device that sets the characters in motion and drives the story. Wikipedia states it this way: “In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.” An example is the meaning of Rosebud in the 1941 movie Citizen Kane.

In October, I presented a webinar about change management called “Actually Implementing a Change.” During the webinar I polled the 200+ people about which change management model they used when they were implementing a change. The choices were John Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model; Lewin’s Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze Model; Prosci’s ADKAR Model; or “other.” The vast majority, 80%, responded with “other.” That indicates that the majority did not use any of the most common change models.

It appears most organizations are implementing changes without using a well-known methodology. For seasoned professionals that have implemented many changes, the idea of not using a model or methodology to drive change will seem like heresy. But I say it’s a MacGuffin.

You see, the people implementing change are focused on a thing that is necessary to the plot (i.e., the change management model). However, the change model is a MacGuffin because the model itself is insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant. Why do I say that? Because any change model or methodology can be successful or unsuccessful. The model or methodology is NOT what is relevant.

What IS relevant is actually changing behaviors and having those behaviors continued. What changes behaviors? First, specifying the performance standard. Second, being attentive to observe actual behaviors. And third, assertively providing feedback. Specifying the desired performance standard explicitly states the desired behaviors.

Attentive leaders observe behaviors relative to the performance standard. Assertive leaders give reinforcing and corrective feedback that guides behaviors to match the performance standard.

Reinforcing feedback is just as important as corrective feedback, and is probably more important. Giving people positive feedback doesn’t just tell people they are doing something right. It also raises self-esteem and confidence. It makes it more likely you’ll get more of the desired behaviors. Corrective feedback is important not because it corrects a non-complying behavior. It also shows everyone that you’re being attentive and assertive.

In a true high performing organization, there should be no need to create a “change management” project or program. A change model can be helpful to organize thoughts, but the particular model used is still a MacGuffin. Whatever the performance standard is, new or existing, leaders need to be consistent. They need to ensure people understand the performance standard, observe behaviors, and assertively correct or reinforce those behaviors.

Organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for consultants, team building exercises, new software, the latest technology, etc. Those too may be MacGuffins if your leadership team can’t effectively guide behaviors.

The best thing to do is tighten up your leadership team’s accountability and their leadership capabilities. Ensure performance standards are defined and resourced. Require leaders to be both attentive and assertive.

Manage changes everyday by guiding behaviors. Behaviors performed often enough become habits. When most people have the same habits, those habits become the culture. Go forth and do great things.

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About the Author

Tom Moriarty | P.E., CMRP, President of Alidade MER, Inc.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in asset management, reliability engineering, and leadership improvement. He is a member of SMRP (Florida Chapter Board Member and CED Director), a past Chair of ASME’s Canaveral Florida Section, and author of the book “The Productive Leadership System; Maximizing Organizational Reliability”. He has a BSME, an MBA (organizational development), is a licensed professional engineer (PE) in Florida, and a Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional (CMRP). Contact him at [email protected], (321) 773-3356, or via LinkedIn at

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