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What Greek mythology has in common with change management

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Change management and Greek mythology have something in common.

Sisyphus eternally rolled a boulder up a hill, before it rolled back down.

A lot of organisational change is like this. How?

Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology who was condemned by the god, Hades. His punishment? Sisyphus had to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down just before he reached the top. He then repeated this for eternity.

Organisational change management is like rolling a huge boulder up a hill.

The current state is the flat at the bottom of the hill. The desired future state is the flat at the top of the hill.

The greater the scale and complexity of change, the greater the height and steepness of the hill. The greater the organisational inertia, the greater the size of the boulder.

Organisational change takes immense effort to attain and retain the desired new state. It’s hard to roll the boulder all the way up the hill and safely onto the flat.

There are all sorts of complicated reasons why change can fail. All sorts of reasons why the boulder rolls back down the hill before reaching the top.

A common, but easily avoided, reason is because organisations fail to push hard enough, long enough. They fail to stick with pushing the boulder until it is safely on the flat at the top of the hill.

What happens instead? As leaders, we underestimate – I suspect due to optimism bias – how much effort is required to see through a change. And how long we must persist to embed the change. And/or we get bored with or distracted from the change, as new issues and initiatives arise and divert attention.

Either way, the boulder rolls back down the hill before reaching the top. The organisation rolls back to its old, familiar state.

This is problematic for the obvious reason that the presumably worthwhile change hasn’t been successfully embedded.

But it’s also a problem, because people will be that bit more sceptical – that bit more resistant – to future changes. They may be less likely to put in the extra effort required to implement change, because it might seem pointless if the boulder is just going to roll back down the hill anyway.

I’ve observed this when people say of new organisational changes things like “I’ve seen this stuff come and go. Just keep your head down and wait for it to go away”.

So how do we avoid being condemned to Sisyphus’s eternal punishment?

However much change management you believe will be required, do more.

However long you believe you’ll need to persist with change management, stick with it longer.

Don’t back off pushing the boulder up the hill until you’re certain you’ve reached the top and it’s safely sitting on the new level.

The cost – let alone the reward – of pushing that bit longer will be trivial compared to starting again.

Afterword: Change resistance is never the reason why change fails

Saying that change fails because of change resistance is the catch cry of ineffective leaders.

It is an attempt to shift responsibility away from a manager’s failure to adequately plan for and execute a change on to those affected by the change.

Effective leaders accurately gauge change resistance and account for it in their change planning and execution. Ineffective leaders don’t.