How useful would it be if you could predict with pinpoint accuracy what will happen in the future? Imagine you could accurately predict the performance of a coaching client over a given time period. Or suppose you could accurately predict how effective any given organisational change approach would be in the long-term.

If you could make those kinds of predictions, you’d have a lot of influence over the future. But is it remotely possible? How confident can you be about what will happen down the track? Well, let’s explore this and see what we can learn.

Computers playing chess

You might have seen chess apps for IOS or Android. These programs can beat the best human chess players in the world. Why? Because computers are better than people at solving the sort of problems you find in chess. Chess is a system with strict rules of what is allowed and what is not, and there are a finite number of possible moves at any given time. Computers excel at situations where there are clear and fixed rules and limited options (even if there are thousands of them).

But computers struggle in situations where the rules are not clear. They struggle when you can’t give them all the variables, and how they affect one another. That’s why they aren’t good at predicting what the weather will be like in 8 days from now.

Butterflies in Brazil

You may have heard of the ‘butterfly effect’. This is the idea that a butterfly fluttering its wings in the rainforests of Brazil could potentially cause a tornado in Kansas. As strange as this might sound, it illustrates something real about how the world works.

Many of the things we deal with in life don’t work like the game of chess. There are no clear rules about how they should work and there are no guarantees that if you do ‘a’ you will get ‘b’.  In fact, you might get something quite unexpected. You might take tiny butterfly steps and get tornado results.

Many things in life work like this. We make decisions at certain points in our lives, and at the time we can’t even imagine that they could change our course altogether. Yet they do. Little things can have big results.

So, butterflies in Brazil teach us that life is unpredictable and that little things can have big outcomes. If that’s true, how confident can we be in predicting our professional outcomes? How can we predict whether a coaching client will make good progress, or whether our approach to organisational change will work?

Making general predictions

Computers are good at chess because there are strict rules and limited options. If you were to play against a computer chess app, I would be pretty confident in predicting the app will win. But it is much harder to predict how any of my coaching clients will perform over time.

Some are very keen at the start and I may feel confident of their success. But then things happen in their lives and their performance suffers. There are no rules governing how they will perform over time. Things happen that sometimes make it hard for them to focus on coaching. And this is even more likely to be the case with organisational change, where many more people are involved.

So, where are we left? Without any possibility of predicting change outcomes?

Not really. Because there are patterns.

You can never predict for sure how any one individual or any one organisation will perform around change, but you can make some useful predictions based on the rules that govern change and what people begin with.

There are some rules (or patterns) that describe how humans engage with change when they do it well. We call this ‘the change process’. We can predict that when people engage with change following these patterns, they are more likely to be successful, and when they don’t follow these patterns, they are less likely to be successful. That is something we can predict.

We can also predict that when people possess the psychological capacity (change fitness) to effectively engage in the change patterns that lead to success, they are more likely to succeed. And when they lack enough psychological capacity (change fitness) to engage in effective change patterns they are less likely to succeed.

And we can predict that when organisations have enough change readiness to engage in effective change patterns, they are more likely to succeed. And when they don’t have enough change readiness to engage in effective change patterns, they are less likely to succeed.

The patterns matter

Although we can never be certain how any one individual or organisation will perform, the patterns still matter. It matters how people approach the change process. It matters how much change fitness and change readiness they have. In fact, these are among the best predictors of success or failure with change.

The patterns matter: they should also matter to you.

What am I saying here? Change is not like a game of chess. There are no clear rules. Although each chess piece can only do certain things, and you can accurately predict the options each piece has, when faced with change, people begin with different capacities and they make unpredictable choices. This becomes ever more complex when more people are involved.

So, you need to look for patterns. There are patterns in how humans engage in change successfully. There are patterns in the psychological resources people need to successfully engage in the change process. And there are patterns in how organisations become ready to succeed at change projects.

When you understand these patterns, and you have ways to measure them, you can make some intelligent predictions about the likelihood of success. You can never be completely certain about success – reality doesn’t allow for that – but you can make some general predictions and act accordingly.

Acting accordingly

Let’s summarise what we have read so far. Some things in life, like chess, are bound by clear rules and there are limits to what is possible. Because of how these things function, you can sometimes predict what will happen. The chess computer will almost always win. And the casino will almost always win in the long run.

But other things in life operate according to fuzzy rules with variables that can’t be easily identified or controlled. The outcomes of these things are much harder to predict. That said, there are patterns we can observe.

Change, whether individual or organisational, is almost always something of the second kind. It has fuzzy rules and obscure variables. Therefore, you must act accordingly.

How do you do that? First, don’t approach change as though it were a chess game. It’s good to have a plan and strategy, but don’t imagine that the rules are clear, that everyone will obey them, and that people’s options are limited by the rules. Don’t imagine that you can know all the variables and how they work. You don’t, you can’t, and people don’t follow the rules.

Instead, approach change as an explorer. Remain open. Observe. Question. Let what is there reveal itself to you. Make small changes, learn from what happens, and take the next logical steps.

Second, learn to recognise the patterns that indicate the likelihood of success or failure. Learn the patterns of the change process, of change fitness, and of change readiness. Let these patterns guide your approach to change and the people you lead.

I invite you to learn more about these success patterns. Discover how to create more of them, and how to use them to manage change. If you would like to learn how to attract greater success, I invite you to reach out to me and let’s have a chat.

Written by Dr Steve Barlow

[email protected]