Academic Organizational Change Past, Present & Future

I am not Dreaming of an Evidence-Based Christmas

Managing and leading change always involve moving into the unknown. Myths is always part of the change process.


My final post of the year is on a festive note, in which I have a gentle (respectful) dig at colleagues who see evidence-based management (EBM) as the future for managing and leading organizational change. We need evidence, but we need to remember that managing and leading change always involves moving into the unknown, myths really are part of the change process.

Our understanding this festive season could be evidence-based

We could look to footfall in shops, comparisons of online versus shop sales, the number of flights from airports, the disturbing domestic violence figures.  There is plenty of evidence to inform our understanding of Christmas and I am sure many EBM enthusiasts will look at the evidence, in attempting to make the unknown known.  But what might they be missing? The study of myths goes back to the earliest philosophers and early civilizations. Interest in myths predates current management fads and buzzwords and I believe myths will still have meaning after the current management fads and buzzwords have gone out of fashion.

Our understanding this festive season could be open to surprise and revelation

We could engage with children and the magic they experience. We could celebrate the unknown as well as celebrating all we know.  We could cherish an unexpected reaction to a meaningful gift or a loving act.  We have accumulated so much evidence and knowledge in recent years, but I am not sure we have a deeper understanding of each other or even ourselves. I am grateful for the evidence-based medicine which helps keep my progressive arthritis at bay and myself mobile.  I am just not convinced that we should apply such methodologies to management and societies in an unthinking and acritical manner.  Today, even daring to question EBM feels akin to blasphemy.

It was just like Christmas

I am not a Christian but each Christmas I walk about a mile across the Sussex Downs to a small ancient church.  I follow paths which go back hundreds of years to a village which time seems to have forgotten.  They have a listing of Rectors on the wall going back to the 13th Century. I am humbled as I sit on a pew thousands of others have sat on over hundreds of years.  The local community come together and sing carols once a year.  Each year children perform a spontaneous nativity pantomime. As an introvert, I empathize with the anxiety these youngsters experience as they are challenged to embrace the unknown. That morning they did not know they would be Mary or a sheep or a shepherd, but they warm to their roles and through a collective leap of faith something magical invariably happens.  Elements work, and elements do not work, but the children appear to warm to performing and myself and the congregation certainly enjoy this annual spectacle.

It is odd but just for a few moments in that small village church everything seems to make sense. I am the only one who likes to view this as the annual change project pantomime.  I look for communications, resistance, teamwork, identity issues etc. I know there is a chance that this pantomime (change project) might not happen, the audience knows this uncertainty. The nativity is choreographed by an enthusiastic compere. It is her belief in herself and the children that facilitates the nativity. She takes the children from the known into the unknown, for me she leads change.

Movement from a known state to an unknown state

Organizational change involves movement from a known state (today) to an unknown state (tomorrow). Today even with EBM we cannot predict future organizational change outcomes with certainty.  Organizational change is potentially informed by natural science insights, as well as, social science insights. However, the rhetoric of EBM troubles me in attempting to frame organizational change in exclusively natural science terms, the implication is that we can predict the future with certainty.  I am not alone in my concerns, for example, Morrell and Learmonth (2015) offered criticisms of EBM.  They questioned claims that all evidence was evaluated in that they found this approach to be narrow and selective. The approach devalued narrative and story forms of knowledge and it was managerialist being for management, rather than about management.

Humble leaders may be more useful than evidence-based leaders

We need evidence and facts to inform organizational change, but we also need those advising to change leaders and managers to display humility in honestly and openly acknowledging the unknown aspect of organizational change.  At the level of leaders and managers, we need a greater appreciation that ‘organizations’ are collections of people.  These people may share the hopes and desires of their leaders, but they may have hopes and desires of their own.  These people may act rationally, but on occasions, they may act irrationally (I certainly do and the children in the nativity sometimes do).  They may experience an organizational change in very different ways, potentially thriving on change or struggling with organizational change.  If you find yourself in the latter camp, it does not mean that you are a bad person.  It does mean that you might not behave in the way a natural science formula suggests you will behave or your leader wants you to behave.

Editorial Note

Picture of author posing by Santa Claus
Santa Claus Selfie

Given the contentious and sentimental nature of this post, the Woodland Decay Editor required the post to be rigorously peer-reviewed.  The peer reviewer asked for his anonymity to be protected, but was willing to pose for a photograph with me and recommended publication without revision, it must be Christmas!

Further Reading

Hughes, M. (2019) Myth-understanding Organizational Change.  In Hughes, M. (2019) Managing and Leading Organizational Change. London: Routledge.

Morrell, K., and M. Learmonth. (2015) Against Evidence-Based Management, for Management LearningAcademy of Management Learning and Education 14 (4): 520-533.

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