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Breaking a Vicious Circle

  • Breaking a Vicious Circle

Faced with a problem that cannot be ignored, budget and deadline constraints often push well-meaning decision makers toward the fastest, cheapest fix. A quick fix treats the symptoms, but rarely addresses the underlying problem. This pattern is described by the “shifting the burden” systems archetype. Decision makers recognize a problem and see two possible courses of action. One is a symptomatic approach, which appears to be quicker and cheaper. The other is a fundamental approach, which requires more expenditure and time. Taking the quicker, cheaper route alleviates the symptoms, at least for a while. However, it also draws time, attention, and investment away from the fundamental solution. Worse, failing to tackle the fundamentals nearly guarantees that the problem will return. When it does, the reaction is to reimplement the symptomatic fix—further drawing attention and investment away from the fundamentals.

Shifting the burden is all too common in implementing an organizational change. Since only about 15-50% of change initiatives succeed, employees are often skeptical of an initiative’s staying power. A fundamental way to address this skepticism would be to demonstrate value from the change as well as management support for it (e.g., create small test cases, measure results, reward successes, anShapiro Oct Blogd learn from failures). This fundamental approach takes time and money, both of which can be intimidating. A media campaign—which also makes people aware of the change and could include information on why it is needed—may look like a good alternative. No one turns to the media campaign because they believe it is better than the fundamental approach, rather because it is easily managed and measured, and it shows results quicker. A media campaign goes only so far, and if it is not backed by the fundamentals, the skepticism is soon back. The knee-jerk response is a bigger, better media campaign, drawing even more energy and resources away from the fundamental demonstration of value and support from management. The unintended side effect is a vicious circle that deepens employees’ doubt and skepticism, making it even harder for the fundamental solution to be effective.

Breaking this cycle takes deliberate action. A company implementing do-or-die improvements in their manufacturing processes to reduce inventory and still meet customer demand took such deliberate action.1 The firm had experienced many “flash in the pan” change initiatives in the past. Employees’ experience of previous change initiatives was a big announcement with insufficient follow-up and no real change. This history lead to employee skepticism about both the process improvement program and the company’s commitment to it. The VP responsible for the program led by example. He took careful steps to make sure his team understood the initiative and were all effective advocates for it. The team made certain that needed infrastructure was identified and quickly put into place. They were actively involved in bringing people on board who they felt were critical to implementing the process improvements. There were resisters to the program, and the VP himself dealt with them in an open and nonthreatening way. He either incorporated their ideas where appropriate, or used their objections as opportunities to explain the process and gain more alignment. This management commitment reduced employee skepticism and brought people on board to the change. Doubt was eradicated when employees saw reduced inventory, less expediting, and better customer service. The company reaped the rewards of successful process improvement by addressing employee skepticism head-on and in a fundamental way.

1 This account is adapted from a case study written by Dan Siems from my book Creating Contagious Commitment.


About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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