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Whatever you think, think the opposite

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Ram Srinivasan Head of Consulting, JLL Canada
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Ram is a strategy consultant by day and astronomy enthusiast by night (literally!). He is also a trained classical violinist and an avid mid-distance runner

Change projects that influence organizational and people behavior can be complex. A McKinsey & Co. research suggests that “two out of three change projects fail to achieve their goals”—it’s clear: making change a success is hard.

The traditional approach to change program creation involves defining current and desired states, identifying gaps and creating solutions. As sound as this process may appear, it could leave many aspects uncovered and risks identified. Often, our minds are trained to think about the steps we can take to success, not the failures and roadblocks that we’ll potentially meet along the way.

Looking at things from the opposite perspective

At JLL, we use a technique inspired by German mathematician Carl Jacobi called Inversion Thinking. Simply put, it’s about taking a look at the final goal from a completely different perspective and ensuring that you have a comprehensive setup in place to risk-proof your change program to the best of your abilities. Let me explain further.

Say a certain change program defines success as “complete understanding, successful transition to and full-adoption of an agile project management framework by all teams on or before Oct. 2017.”

Thinking linearly, the traditional approach would be:

  1. Define the current state. What are traditional project management frameworks?
  2. Identify areas that need to change. Where are the gaps? Are they in the people, process and technology?
  3. Create an action plan to bridge the gaps between current state and the desired future state.

Sounds like the ideal game plan? Not quite. This approach poses two challenges. Firstly, given the large number of possible actions and approaches to achieve the desired outcome, planning may just become an academic exercise. Secondly—and more importantly—this process fails to identify risks.

With inversion thinking, we restate the objective in the opposite sense. Continuing from the same example above, the objective now is to “ensure zero to no adoption of the agile development program by any individual or team now or anytime in the future.”

While it may seem odd, planning for failure helps you define the actions or behaviors that you should not adopt. Following which, you can prioritize and filter your actions, based on the risks they pose. Essentially, what you’ve just done is mitigate your risks, right from the start.

Applying what we discussed

Change programs may have goals such as engaging people, communicating change and evolving the right human behaviors to make such change sustainable. Here’s an example of a few ideas generated through inversion thinking for one of the workplace transformation programs that I’ve recently worked on.

Original objective:

“Engage people in adopting the organization’s new workplace strategy program, generate leadership buy-in and train people in new behaviors to make change sustainable”

Restated objective using inversion thinking:

“Ensure your people know nothing about the workplace program, alienate leadership and ensure low program adoption rates”

The action plan for ensuring failure:

  1. People love surprises; keep people in the dark until the very last minute.
  2. We live in the information age; no need to define terms and protocols.
  3. If you decide to communicate, do it in a cryptic, impersonal manner.
  4. No incentives are needed. Expect people to change because you said so.
  5. Your senior leaders are paid to lead change; provide them no guidance or support.
  6. People love change; no need to make this any more fun than it already is.
  7. This is a one-time effort. Don’t waste resources on making change sustainable.
  8. Never involve all your key stakeholders and risk contaminating your change plan
  9. No need for cultural alignment.
  10. We are all adults; change is part of life and we don’t need training.

In applying the opposite perspective to our objective, we have successfully created a list of “Do Not’s.” It is also now much easier to identify areas that require more effort from a planning perspective and those that will have the most impact from a risk-mitigation standpoint.

A fresh perspective on change planning

This is just one of the many approaches you can take to optimize change planning. While there isn’t one best approach, inversion thinking is definitely helpful in firstly, looking at the potential problems and roadblocks through a new lens, and secondly, identifying risks and prioritizing behaviors based on what will have the greatest impact.

Interested to find out more about Future of Work? Learn more about our outlook on the changing world of work here.

How would you apply inversion thinking to your change problems? Share your ideas with me.