Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why Change Management Research Fails, Part 1

Too Much Focus Blinds

All Personality ... No Context

Researching "change" is problematic because of (a) how researchers frame the construct, and (b) the methodological restrictions relating to that frame.  Sound confusing?  It is.  Let me break it down for you with a D2 metaphor.  (D2 is downriver Detroit ... where I grew up ... value of keeping things simple)

Food as a metaphor for change

Do you like food?  "Well," you may say, "that depends on:

  • what type of food it is, 
  • who prepared the food, 
  • the way in which they prepared it, and finally 
  • how it tastes and feels once I'm done eating it."

Isn't organizational change the same way?  Whether or not we "like" the change depends on

  1. the type of change it is
  2. who is in control of the change
  3. the way those change leaders exert that control (power)
  4. my personal experience of the change
  5. how we (me and the organization) end up (better off/worse off)

R2C researcher Shaul Oreg calls these variables context.  The challenge for scholarly researchers like Oreg is that they need to reduce every variable down to one and control for all other variables.  While personality can contribute to a person's likely response to change, it is just ONE factor, not the only factor.

Cheese Killed My Change


Who Moved My Cheese? is a great example of the oversimplification problem associated with change research.  Does Johnson explain that some mice didn't think anyone moved their cheese, or did he focus on the mice with certain personality types?  No ... to complex.  Personality gets all the headlines while context is ignored.

Personality gets all the headlines
while context is ignored.

Assuming that personality is the primary driver for change behavior is like asking, "do you resist food?"  My answer is, "not usually, but I do have bad memories of foods that make me sick." (i.e. raw vegetables in Cabo San Lucas were poisonous to me as a teen).  Other people have food allergies.

Wrong Question

Instead of "do you resist food?"

Try "are you resisting __________"
i.e. Giordano's Pizza in Chicago

(the type of food, who prepares it, and how I like it)

Personal note - I wish I could resist Giordano's … not good for my waste line!

Smart Researchers Get It

In an awesome article, Oreg, Vakola & Armenakis define 5 different variables that cause an individual's response to a particular organizational change:

1.  Change recipient characteristics (personality),
2.  Internal context (culture),
3.  Change process,
4.  Perceived harm/benefit
5.  Change content

Fortunately, Shaul Oreg is smart enough to explain when he is focusing on personality.  Here are some examples of valid questions from his work in 2003:

One-dimensional perspective

  1. I generally consider changes to be a negative thing.
  2. I'll take a routine day over a day full of unexpected events any time.
  3. I like to do the same old things rather than try new and different ones.
  4. Whenever my life forms a stable routine, I look for ways to change it.
  5. Changing plans seems like a real hassle to me.
  6. I often change my mind.

And … Shaul Oreg is also smart enough to explain when he is focusing on multiple dimensions.  Here are some examples of valid questions from his work in 2006:

Multi-dimensional perspective

  1. I had a bad feeling about the change
  2. The change made me upset
  3. I complained about the change to my colleagues
  4. I presented my objections regarding the change to management
  5. I believed that the change would harm the way things are done in the organization
  6. I believed that the change would make my job harder
  7. I believed that the change would benefit the organization
  8. I believed that I could personally benefit from the change

The challenge is that the researcher needs to define (bound) the change.  By defining the change, the researcher limits the amount of people he or she can send the survey to.  Researching a particular change, rather than change in a general sense, is not without its own set of challenges, but that is for another post.

Oreg also published multi-dimensional perspective questions back in 2003.  It is just a research choice point … and I get that.  It's OK for researchers to block out variables, but not OK for change leaders.

We actually have a visual for change leaders who want to use the one-dimensional perspective to view individual responses to organizational change …


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