The Squire of Gothos: Why Change Management Fails

In this Star Trek original series episode a very powerful being (the Squire) imprisoned Captain Kirk, Bones, Sulu and some of the crew on Gothos in an environment he created to look like a castle on medieval earth. Every detail of the castle was replicated to perfection. Well, almost perfection. The crew of the Enterprise soon discovered the fire burning in the large ornate fireplace had no heat and though the food looked very appetizing, it had no taste. The Squire had been viewing earth from afar and had built a prison castle based on a reflection: perfect in form but lacking in true substance.

Organizations often approach change management in the same way. The “forms” are developed and executed with excellence: speeches, memos, vision statements, new philosophy and values, policies, processes, roles & responsibilities, job descriptions, talent management, training, etc. Then, as soon as possible, new strategies and plans are developed that depend on the promise of the new future state. But much of the time the change hits unseen barriers, invisible walls, and in too many cases, the changes falter.

All the forms are put in place with great dispatch, but what about the substance? Like the Squire of Gothos, the “heat” in change is often lacking. That’s because organizations fail to recognize and change the old, existing culture. Culture is the unseen, invisible substance of any organization… its taste and heat. It’s the tried and true patterns of thinking and behaving in an organization that have been developed over time through shared experience. And then, those experiences inform to either encourage or discourage all future ways of thinking and behaving. In other words, not only can the existing culture be an invisible barrier to change, it can be a self-reinforcing force field right out of Star Trek.

Change management needs to go beyond creating the common forms. To break out of the culture’s self-reinforcing cycle, leaders need to provide heat through their passionate attention to a behavior-based change management approach (see works by Aubrey Daniels, Ned Morse, others). Behavior-based change management uses methods and techniques to identify the old behaviors in the current culture that need to be discouraged. The methods are also used to pinpoint the new behaviors in the new culture that need to be positively reinforced. As a result, experience has shown that a focus on behaviors actually accelerates the change process.

The Squire of Gothos was very effective in creating the forms in his prison but failed to address the substance. In the end, Captain Kirk and the crew escaped (thankfully, for us Trekkies). Let’s hope your change management plans aren’t creating a burning fireplace with no heat.

(Reposted from December, 2009.)