Skip to content


Wilful Blindness and Impact on effective Organizational Change

In her book and TED Talks on “wilful blindness”, Margaret Heffernan makes a powerful case for the effect of wilful blindness on individuals and companies.

I’ve applied “wilful blindness” as an approach when working with organizations implementing organizational change.

Most individuals and organizations have heard of lessons learned approaches. These are normally sought when something goes wrong instead of being part of an applied change management or project management method.

A clear differentiator between implementing effective and efficient change is the capability, competency and capacity of the organization and the sponsor(s) in acknowledging and acting upon “wilful blindness”.

An example of organizational ‘wilful blindness” is the almost universal ignoring of how to implement, sustain and gain the benefits from organizational change efforts.

In this case, “wilful blindness” is the ignoring of research-based evidence ranging from an IBM Study 2006-2008 to a recent CEB (Chief Executive Board now Gartner) Study, 2017 and several supporting studies. The evidence from both Studies despite being almost 10 years apart remains consistent.

Using IBM’s terminology Change Masters were those organizations putting people first and process second. Change Novices were those organizations putting process first and people second.

The 2017 CEB Study replicated these findings.

So why do some individuals and organizations refuse to implement a well-researched body of change management knowledge?

Could it be “wilful blindness” or is there something else at play?

My experience of over 20 years working in change management leads me to a point where “wilful blindness” is a significant factor. However, there is something else in play which perhaps gives additional insight.

In the global business environment created by the economic crash 2007-2009, individuals and organizations of all types became more focused on ROI (Return on Investment) than perhaps they were before the Crash.

A second factor influenced, at least in part by the Crash, is most organizations want a predictability of outcome from change management, unlikely to be available at least at the time of creating the CM Business Case.

Associated with the CM Business Case is this being given almost mythical status once they are created i.e. taken as fact when, on a good day, they are an experienced best guess.

This leads me to what I’ve experienced as the most significant factor in getting close to expected benefits from change management.

This is trust in the organizations, between those implementing the change and those affected by the change.

Trust in this blog is defined as that “thing” existing between all parties that enables making progress when there isn’t a clear view of the way ahead to the required outcomes.

An example of this is the implementation by many companies of an “Agile approach”. In itself this is a reasonable way to move ahead. Given that there is enough “critical mass” of staff who understand Agile methods, sponsors who understand what an Agile approach really means and an organizational culture that is capable of absorbing the surprises ahead.

I’ve experienced several companies who implement Agile as a way of not doing stuff. In fact those companies that get most benefit from Agile are those that recognise successful Agile requires considerable effort in ensuring that there is clarity about an Agile approach really is and staff roles and responsibilities have benefited from an applied RACI framework.

Back to the Trust thing. If everything was predictable and risk free when implementing organizational change, most organizations wouldn’t do it or the necessity of the change would not be pressing.

Accepting this and acknowledging that risk, issue and planning processes  contain assumptions, successful Change Masters are those having a culture where Trust is valued, sustained and maintained.

This provides a framework where people involved with change can try stuff for the right reasons knowing that if something unexpected happens there will be a high degree of sponsor/organization understanding.

This leads into the difference between Change Management and Change Leadership….but for another blog!   

Posted in Accreditation, Change Management, Qualifications.

Tagged with .