Myths and Patterns of Organizational change

A myth is something we believe that isn’t true. All cultures subscribe to a collection of myths that define and support their practices. Even when, at some level, we know the myth is not true, we behave as though it were, for a whole host of reasons. Santa Claus comes to mind. Myths about change, however, are not just shared beliefs. They can impair your effectiveness. Perhaps by examining some of these myths we can improve your change success rate.

Let’s start with what I think is the most insidious myth of all. It impacts not only how we think about change but how we think about everything:

Smart people are rational.

Subscribing to this myth means that we believe that if we simply explain the rationale behind our great idea, perhaps in a nice Powerpoint presentation outlining the benefits and downsides, then our listeners will be influenced to support us. We’ll gather folks in a meeting and just explain how the idea works. That’s guaranteed to work given our belief in this myth, right? I wish I could see you and note whether your heads are nodding. The fact that this approach doesn’t seem to work doesn’t dissuade us from believing in the myth, however. The reaction I typically see when a logical argument fails is to label the listeners as stupid. Clearly, they don’t get it. What’s wrong with them? We were doing the right thing. They must not be as smart as we thought they were.

Now that there’s abundant research in the relatively new discipline of behavioral economics that shows that we are not rational decision makers, we should expect that this myth will soon disappear. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The Powerpoint decks are not diminishing. The logical arguments in the hallway continue.

For a better approach, let’s look at some patterns from a couple of books I wrote with my good friend, Mary Lynn Manns, Fearless Change and More Fearless Change. Two that immediately apply are: Emotional Connection and Personal Touch. Research shows that stories are more convincing than logic. Measurements in scanners show that our brains begin to synch up with the brains of storytellers. We want to know what happens next and how the story will end. When our brains hear a logical argument, we being to analyze and criticize and we are definitely not in synch with the speaker. We especially love stories that are about people like us. Stories build emotional connection. Stories that use a personal touch answer our questions and concerns. When listening to someone outline a new approach, we are all asking, “What’s in it for me?” Failing to address this means the proposer is less likely to influence listeners. And that answer is not be the same for everyone in your audience. What developers want to know is different from what testers want to know is different from what managers want to know, and so on. The personal touch must be personal. Do your homework.

This brings us to another myth: If I had enough power, I could just make people change.

This myth happens to be true. If you say to your team, “You are going to adopt this new way of working or I will fire you.” That works. That’s very effective. Throughout history, we have seen that autocratic regimes have said, “Do this or we will kill you.” People do it. Of course, what you get with this approach is compliance. In your change effort, since you believe it is a good idea, you want people to adopt the approach because they also believe in it. You want commitment. You want their support because they believe in it, too. We know from the work of E.M. Rogers that in a population you will get the following responses to any innovation:

It’s new so it’s cool!  Innovators–2.5%
It’s interesting, but I want to learn more.  Early Adopter–13.5%
I want to know what other people think.  Early Majority–34%
If I have to. I guess.  Late Majority–34%
We’ve always done it this way.  Laggards–16%

If you focus on the Low Hanging Fruit (the Innovators and Early Adopters) then over time as the Early Majority sees that others are having success, they will come on board. Even the Late Majority and Laggards all want to do their best, so it’s possible that many will join you. However, this takes time. You can never expect that everyone in your organization will be doing everything the same way and that’s OK. If you want the best from the people in your organization, you should build on their talents and inclinations. Let the Innovators and Early Adopters lead the way. They can be the trail blazers, the experimenters. Let the Late Majority and Laggards make sure you don’t forget the lessons from the past. Never feel that you can discard everything that made your organization great, just because some new ideas are on the horizon. Late Majority and Laggards are good Champion Skeptics who make sure you don’t just wholesale run over a cliff because you are excited about something new.

Our last myth: This is my idea. I want to be recognized for it. I don’t need help from others.

Research shows that asking others for help is the best way to influence them to adopt your new idea. When you say to a colleague, “You know that other department better than I do. Can you help me share what our team has been doing with our new agile practices?” Not only will you be able to reach others in your organization, who will be more responsive to someone they know, but your colleague will become a fellow Evangelist, helping to spread the word. Ask for Help is a powerful pattern that you should use from the start. It’s paired with Sincere Appreciation. Don’t forget to say thanks to all who help you. Research shows that the most effective way to offer appreciation involves the following elements:

Be Sincere
Be Timely
Be Detailed
Describe the impact

As an example: Thanks for working late last night. You fixed that bug, so now we can do the customer demo on time.

So often, when we do remember to say thanks it’s perfunctory and at the end of the quarter and generic: Hey guys, thanks for all your hard work over the last several weeks.

No wonder few of us feel appreciated these days.

We all love being appreciated, especially by someone who really understands what we did and why. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about receiving thanks. Instead of saying, “Oh, it was nothing, just doing my job,” which denigrates the person who took the time and spent the effort to personally offer thanks, let’s get into the habit of saying, “I’m sure you would have done the same.” This acknowledges the speaker and helps build good team spirit – we’re all in this together. Certainly, we need more of that especially these days.

Myths are good things. All cultures have them. We seem to be hardwired to share myths with those in our groups. They bind us together and build a common “we” that helps ensure survival. But perhaps some of them get in our way. I want you to be more successful, so perhaps addressing just a few of these myths will help.

About Linda Rising 2 Articles
Linda Rising is an independent consultant who lives near Nashville, Tennessee. Linda has a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in object-based design metrics. Her background includes university teaching as well as work in telecommunications, avionics, and tactical weapons systems. She is an internationally known presenter on topics related to agile development, patterns, retrospectives, the change process, and the connection between the latest neuroscience and software development. Linda is the author of numerous articles and five books. She was honored by the World Agility Forum in 2020 with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Her web site is:

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