Thursday, 4 August 2011

Are you sure enough to be unsure?

About eight years ago, I attended a 'Persuasion Engineering' selling skills course in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was conducted by the co-father of Neuro-Linguistic Programing (NLP), Dr. Richard Bandler, and another master of the discipline, John La Valle.

John shared a conversation he had with his son's principal asking him: "Are you sure enough to be unsure?" I believe part of his objective was to confuse the principal, as I was confused when I heard the question. I've thought about this phrase ever since. I take from it that few things are absolute or completely certain. Context can change an answer from being right to wrong. Also, wisdom gained over time can prove an historic 'fact' to be invalid. As James Bond once said, "Never say never."

So how does this apply to change management? Firstly, it is not an exact science. There is no path that will work in all situations - each one is different. A framework can provide a good point of reference, however, there is no cure-all, multi-step, 'silver bullet' process. The best approaches are flexible and evolve over time based on the latest information available. Change is dynamic and therefore needs to be managed in a dynamic way.

Secondly, successful change management comes from the ability to listen to the people who are being changed, incorporating their recommendations into a plan. The consultant who professes to know the answer based solely on his or her experience is usually ignorant of the circumstances around the change they are trying to support. This is often how large change projects are managed. A command and control style is adopted as a way to communicate expertise and certainty of action. One of my tests of measuring the value of a consultant is to ask him or her what big mistakes they have made on past change management projects. If they say nothing or avoid the question, then I know they are amateurs who have little value to offer.

Thirdly, the best way to phrase a recommendation is to say, "Based on the information I have now, this is the best way to proceed," or, "From what we know now, we should do this, but we can't be certain until we see how it is received." Expertise enables you to act with confidence based on a read of the current environment. It doesn't enable you to guarantee outcomes. I confident about that, although I can't guarantee it.



  1. As soon as someone whips out a model, I shut off. Sorry, but models are for children (you know, building planes, get it?) and people who don't understand change. Take comfort in models at your peril.

  2. Mel, thanks for your thoughts. I find the models that are most loved are ones that are self-developed. They usually are created by blending existing models but defended as if they are unique and proprietary.

    It's like someone who loves using a specific chess piece and won't abandon it for any strategic advantage. "Never fall in love with a model," are words to live by.


  3. A model is just a fancy list... never perfect often useful