Neil Bedwell

Change & Transformation
8 minutes

The Assumption Problem In Corporate Change Initiatives

This story originally appeared on on June 8, 2021.

Imagine if, over drinks one night, you and I come up with an idea for a new company. Something wholly new and amazing. It will create an entirely new industry. Fund our biggest dreams. Or at least that’s how it seems to us once we’re six or seven drinks in.

The next morning, I show up at your office — strong coffee for you in one hand, articles of incorporation in the other. I ask you to invest your time, capital, network, reputation and career in the idea. Right now, today. Here’s a pen so you can sign.

We have no data demonstrating that anyone actually wants or needs what we’re going to sell. We have no plan for how we’ll convince them that they should. We’re just going to assume that if we build it, people will buy it.

Are you in?

Just Because I Like It Doesn’t Mean You Will

This scenario isn’t limited to one-off drunken innovations. Even major multinational brands sometimes leap headfirst into new markets. They assume people will buy what they’ve come to sell. This is the assumption problem.

Starbucks infamously flopped big in Australia, closing more than 70% of its Australian stores in 2008, eight years after landing there. Starbucks entered the market assuming North American coffee preferences would translate Down Under. It underestimated how exacting Australians are about their coffee and cafe culture. It didn't pay attention to what locals actually valued. Starbucks made bad assumptions about Australians, and it cost them their success in that market.

Most corporate change initiatives are launched in a similar way. It’s why so many of them fail.

Paychecks Don’t Purchase Passion

Leaders map out a path to change to create new growth, find new efficiencies or mitigate disruptive threats. They then often assume that their employees will willingly make the journey with them, just because they give them a job and a paycheck.

The problem is not cruel intention or some sadistic desire to ruin people’s day. It’s more passive, more institutionalized than that: assumptions.

In Britain, we say, “assumptions are the mother of all f***-ups.” Americans say, “when you assume, you make an a** of you and me.” Different swears, same sentiment. Nothing good comes of assumptions.

Have one or more of your previous change initiatives failed? Is one failing now? The underlying reason is almost always the faulty assumption that your employees will believe in your vision and share your passion.

The truth? Paychecks only purchase attendance and a minimal level of compliance — not nearly enough to fuel a successful transformation.

Even if I paid for those drinks last night, I cannot mandate that you believe in our new company vision. Can't make you actively support the new initiative. For a transformation to succeed, employees need to believe that change will make a positive difference in their own lives.

Imagine you are rolling out a new operating model. If you assume employee investment in how it serves the company, they may just perceive it as an additional burden. Drop the assumption, and you can reframe the operating model with the benefits it brings to their work. Perhaps how it saves them time or removes unnecessary administrative burdens. Or how it gives them greater involvement in company decisions and solutions. No matter the transformation you are driving, there will be some value every employee can draw from it — if you don’t assume they already care. You need your employees to care, and caring is something you have to earn — not once, but time and again. And convincing people to care is really hard. Ask any marketer. It’s what we do every day.

Thinking Like a Marketer

I’ve been in marketing for over 20 years, with experience in just about every aspect of the discipline. Most people don’t understand what marketing actually is. They see it as advertising, promotional messages, social media stories and all the rest. But these are only the outputs of marketing.

Marketing is actually a mindset — a perspective that impacts every aspect of any business: believing that connecting with customers is everything.

Corporate change so often fails because it’s missing that mindset. The only difference is the audience. Corporate transformations should be oriented around employees just as consumer marketing is oriented around customers.

Perhaps a better way to say it is that employees are the internal customers of corporate change. You should treat them as such, just as you would the external customers for your goods and services.

Know What You Don’t Know

In consumer-facing marketing, we work from several first principles that underlie most successful campaigns:

• Consumers don’t already care about what we’re selling.

• For our product or service to succeed, we must convince them to care.

• Caring comes from connecting our product or service to what gives consumers joy, fulfillment or meaning.

• We don’t yet know what consumers value most.

From there we begin a thoughtful, iterative process of studying, asking and experimenting our way toward a better understanding of our target customers. Upon that understanding, we build connections. We convince customers to care.

Any leader of a corporate transformation should do no less. The marketing mindset applies. The principles are easily translated:

• Employees don’t already believe in your vision for change.

• For your transformation initiative to succeed, you must convince them to care.

• Caring comes from connecting your vision for change to what gives your employees joy, fulfillment or meaning.

• You don’t yet know what your employees value most. You must ask, listen and test every hypothesis.

From there you can begin to work toward understanding. And with understanding, you can build connections that earn employee buy-in.

Win Your Employees and You’ll Transform Together

It’s a lot of hard work, but your employees are definitely an audience worth the effort.

If you can win them, they will carry change forward for you.

If you can’t, then change will die with their ambivalence, yet another casualty of the assumption problem.