An elderly dog, the Pentagon and making change believable

In his memoirs fighter pilot Robin Olds likens change management programs at the Pentagon in the 1970’s to an elderly dog that sits by the fire for a few hours, briefly stands up and walks in circles for a short while then settles back into his original position.

For those who have experienced change programs within large Public Sector organisations Robin Olds analogy may well be familiar. The launch hyperbole intended to create the expectation of a dramatically improved service and work experience fades, the culture remains intact, and the intended beneficiaries are left with a feeling that they face much the same challenges, pressures and limitations that they always did.

There are, of course, many examples of successfully delivered public sector change initiatives. Enough fail though to give the change leader reason to reflect on why many of these programs result in some or all of the intended outcomes not being delivered. Reasons for failure are very often complex, multi-faceted and hard to identify but one of the most destructive change saboteurs has to be an immediate or emerging gap between rhetoric and reality?

Creating and communicating a compelling vision of the organisations intended future is undoubtedly a key component of an effective change management programme. The danger here is that in an effort meet expectations and create an exciting and engaging image of the future, the benefits and, often the timescales, get overstated. Reality and deliverability fall victim to the need or desire for dramatic effect.

As well as leaving people disappointed and disillusioned this ‘big picture’ failure can mask many elemental successes within the overall journey. In addition it can undermine engagement and commitment to future change programs. The key is balance. Considering how to ensure the compelling vision is not just exciting, engaging and ambitious but also credible, believable and achievable. Essentially, a destination people can see themselves reaching. This is the challenge that must be made for all change programmes. It’s not always easy but it is necessary.

And as a final thought: It is difficult to imagine the dog in Robin Old’s delightful illustration being easily persuaded to leave the fireside permanently. Pavlov’s dogs on the other hand changed their behaviour in response to a potent stimulus which, for them, offered a future they both desired and regarded as believable. Their occasional disappointment was for another reason entirely, which makes for an altogether different story…


Richard Gormley, Director

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