Déjà vu is the phenomenon of having the feeling that the situation currently being experienced has already been experienced in the past. For those attempting to change and transform their organisation, the feeling of ‘being here before’ happens regularly.

The Australian Transformation and Turnaround Association surveyed transformation and change leaders in over 900 businesses, covering industries from banking and finance, manufacturing, technology, consulting, government, academia, and health.

When the question was asked ‘What is the greatest challenge facing your organisation this year and next?‘, a whopping 71 percent1 of respondents answered: ‘Management resist change‘.

Gartner Inc. research 2 reported similar findings:

When embarking on a digital business transformation, too often organizations ignore the need to change the mindset of their staff. … A technology shift not backed up by a corresponding cultural shift puts the success of a digital business initiative at risk. … Staff trapped in a “fixed” mindset may slow down or, worse, derail the digital business transformation initiatives of the company …

Are warnings of change and transformation been thwarted by management resistance and a fixed mindset culture new, or is it simply Déjà vu? In an paper written in 1992 titled: ‘Improving the performance of workgroups through information technology’3), Clive Holtham stated:

The failure to improve the effectiveness of work groups often lies for less in any technical dimension than deep in the management style and culture of an organisation. If key strategic steps are not taken from the top of the organisations, no amount of effort at middle levels can compensate for this …

Holtham wrote this over 25 years ago. If we look further back, in 1980, Peter Keen wrote in his paper ‘Information Systems and Organizational Change’4:

When technology is changed, the other components often adjust to dampen out the impact of the innovation. Many writers on implementation stress the homeostatic behavior of organizations and the need to “unfreeze the status quo”… We now have adequate theories of implementation. We have less understanding of counterimplementation … overt moves, often made by skilled actors, to prevent a disruption of the status quo.

It’s not like anyone hasn’t heard of Peter Keen. He has been ranked as one of the world’s top 100 thought-leaders in business, the most cited researcher in the academic and business literature, and among the top 10 IT consultants. His paper quoted above has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. And yet, the problems he highlighted 38 years ago still exist and today are reported as revelatory news. It is almost as though we learn nothing from our experience.

As with most problems that organisations are trying to solve, issues such as implementing new business models and technology, shifting mindsets and culture, and change being resisted have existed for a long time. Various frameworks, methodologies, practices and tools have come and gone; a plethora of panaceas that have purported to solve each of these problems. Although born from plausible-sounding ideas, without theory and method, inevitably each panacea becomes a fad, bowing out to the next wave of ‘new thinking’ and labels.

These panaceas are thwarted by forces that are not commonly known and are elusive to those attempting to change and transform. They rebound off the status quo comprised of embedded mental models that hold the current organisation in place.

The reason for repeated failure is simple; each panacea did not have within them sound underpinning theory coupled with practical method to address the fundamental issues of reconceiving the way in which work is designed, organised and led.

What is required is the application of a different philosophy, where high-value work is defined that sets the context for improvement, people are organised and enabled to do that work more effectively, and productive leadership practices are embedded. Sustainable positive behaviour and culture results. Resistance is nullified, mindsets grow.

Let’s learn from the past and not repeat the same mistakes. No more déjà vu!

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  1. Insights into how to keep up with today’s changing world, Australian Transformation and Turnaround Association, 2017 

  2. Gartner Says Digital Business Requires Growth Mindset and Not Just Technology, Gartner Newsroom, Mumbai, India, February 26, 2018 

  3. Holtham, C. (1992), Improving the Performance of Workgroups through Information Technology (Cambridge: Lotus Development (UK) Ltd). McDonald, J. (1991) (Cambridge: Lotus Development (UK) Ltd 

  4. Keen, Peter G. W., 1979. “Information systems and organizational change,” Working papers 1087-79. Report (Alfred P, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.