We Need To Take A More Evidence-Based Approach For Transformation And Change

Greg Satell
6 min readDec 2, 2023
Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

In The Knowing Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, the two Stanford professors show, in painstaking detail, that most enterprises fail to act on what they know. They point out that many are set up to reinforce the status quo, because mastering conventional wisdom is key to advancement.

There is a similar gap when it comes to transformation and change, but for somewhat different reasons. Decades of research and insights are largely ignored. Transformational initiatives are seen as exercises in persuasion, with practitioners designing slogans to “create a sense of urgency around change” and shift attitudes, assuming that will change behaviors.

Today we are in a change crisis. Businesses need to internalize new technologies like AI and adapt to new realities like hybrid work, but still struggle to adopt decades old skills related to lean manufacturing, agile development and cultural competency. If we are going to drive the transformations we need to compete, we need to take an evidence based approach.

The Diffusion Of Innovations

In 1962, Everett Rogers published the first edition of his now-famous book, The Diffusion of Innovations, which contained hundreds of studies of how change spreads. These ranged from the seminal study of the adoption of hybrid corn and the spread of hate crime laws in the US, to the doctors use of the antibiotic tetracycline and the uptake of mobile phones in Europe.

In some instances the same subject was studied in a number of different places. The spread of family planning methods was researched in a number of developing nations, including Taiwan, Korea and Egypt, among others. In others, the same effect was observed in very different contexts, like the importance of social ties in both recruiting civil rights activists during “Freedom Summer” and the spread of air conditioners in the 1950s.

The difference between this type of research and the case studies that underlie much change management thinking is that they are much more rigorous and transparent. In a typical case study, researchers interview a limited number of participants and interpret what they see and hear. These sometimes lead to genuine insights, but…

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Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com