Of Myths, Babies and Bathwater

Of Myths, Babies and Bathwater

Back in September 2013 I wrote a myth busting post about the commonly used statement “70% of Change Management projects fail”. It received a strong positive response from readers and had good social reach. When I re-published a version of it on LinkedIn a year ago, the reach grew further and periodically some-one finds it and gets the viral reach moving again. It’s now had nearly 1000 views on LinkedIn which is big for my posts (they average about 300 views). As I noted at the time of first publishing, I was not the first to bust this myth, I was keeping good company.

We’re increasingly seeing more of the myth busting activity in management “science”. Paul Gibbons has about 20 myths busted in his book “The Science of Organisational Change” and some of the really popular myths I have read busted in the last three years  can include:

  • The emotional lifecycle of change (modelled on Kubler Ross)
  • The 70:20:10 best practice model of learning
  • The LSI typologies
  • The VAK learning preferences of people
  • That all people resist change

And you know what? I’m increasingly getting uncomfortable with the myth busting for a couple of reasons. Primarily, I’m concerned we are throwing babies out with the bathwater.

Here’s what I am thinking.

Too many times I am seeing people refer to the myth with “well that’s just a myth and doesn’t mean anything any more” … with a casual indifference to the creative destruction cycle (e.g. once something is destroyed, something must be created in its place).

I ended my myth busting post with a call to action, and a subsequent post on how we should define success. In his book, Gibbon’s offers insights and challenges to how we think differently. Yet, I am not hearing the conversations evolve along this line. The myth busting is just a slap down. End of conversation.

The other thing that has me uncomfortable is the belief that if science can’t (hasn’t proved) it, it can’t be true. I just don’t buy that – I think there are many things in life that will never be proven scientifically but just feel right or true to us. There are many things that we do not yet know how to study scientifically. AND I know I use a scientific research argument in my 70% post…

An example of this if the emotional lifecycle of change – the Kubler-Ross version.  Those in the “anti” camp will tell you it was never empirically proven as a model of death and dying. They will tell you it paints an overly negative and pessimistic model of change. That it does not account for learning cycles, resilience, well designed change, and assumes that everyone goes through this cycle. Practitioners who use it with clients are frowned upon and whispered about in snarky tones (much like I use with those who use the 70% myth…)

But you know what – I use it frequently. One, because I believe that it is a very valid representation of what I see happening in many organisations. Believing that it is true, does not prevent me including appreciative inquiry approaches or designing for learning cycles and innovation. And two, because it has utility.  It helps me:

  • explain what change management does (change management makes the curve skinnier and more shallow)
  • and why I need leaders to step up and lead and resource change (you risk under performance while people move through the curve)
  • and expectation set / sense making (don’t be alarmed if you see this, or this is great, you can see this group has moved through the curve to the point of experimenting)

And this is where I think we need to move the conversations of myths to – what is the utility of this myth? Why has it taken purchase? If it is so ingrained in our organisational life, what could (should) we retain and use.

I’d shared in an earlier post, that there is a trade-off in the development of good theory. Accuracy, simplicity and generalisability. If you want something that is simple and general (and thus memorable like the  the Kugler-Ross change cycle) it will lack in accuracy. Are myths born of theories that attempt to be general and memorable – a sticky story, ala Jonathan Champ’s comment below?

Last month I was really fortunate to meet up with fellow organisational change management practitioner and blogger Garrett Gitchell in San Francisco, and it was a debate with Garrett (who is anti) about this curve that made me realise we spend so little time on being curious – Really? You use that model or framework? How do you use it? In what way? Garrett is the curious kind, and his questions provoked some good thinking! Instead I fear we are quick to play out the myth busting smack down and dump and run… and throw babies out with the bathwater.

So. A new challenge. When some-one says “oh but that’s a myth”… grab them, hold them in conversation, fuel the creative destructive cycle – “it’s a myth? That’s really interesting – so what are you using now to fill the need it created…”



Dr Jen Frahm – Author of Conversations of Change: A guide to implementing workplace change.


  1. Great post Jen – and a provocative one. Remember, there are two meanings for myth: erroneous information that persists despite subsequent proof or knowledge, and; archetypal stories that have resonance beyond their origins as ways of passing along broader stories. I love you idea of using the myths in the dialogue about change, rather than simply excluding them. What was useful about those models for understanding? What knowledge has replaced them? Why did they persist? What does that tell us about how they contributed to sense-making? What new stories are needed?

  2. Paul Gibbons says:

    As usual, you’ve done a great job challenging us to think differently – in this post you “challenge the challengers!”.

    You cover so much, but if we use Kubler Ross, perhaps it will illustrate wider issues. The interesting question is – “if something works, do we care if it is true”. For example, belief in some kind of deity grants people solace, and may give hope that other ideas may not… If someone’s kid dies, and they get some comfort from theistic notions – why should some curmudgeon take away what comfort they have?
    (Or, if K-R is helpful, who gives a monkey’s whether it is true… or Maslow, or VAK, or burning platform, or unfreeze yadda yadda)

    I have two thoughts –
    – first model builders should try and have their models track reality… in the org change world EVERYTHING is metaphor or analogy… so never true or false, only apt/ not-apt, or helpful/ unhelpful
    – psychologist (and change people) PROJECT their models onto the client… so whether KR is true or not, when you bring it up, you help make it true… we are authority figures, and the sensemaking tools we offer are adopted unquestioningly (usu)

    In the long-run, using untrue (un-apt) models and metaphors hurts, because it hinders development of more accurate, more helpful measures in the future.

    So as practitioners, we can have away at whatever stuff (and boy there is a lot of crap) we choose…
    but as model builders, we have to be more careful…

    • mm Jen Frahm says:

      Great response Paul, thank you – I’m going to use one of your statements to illustrate what I am talking about further (because it’s not so much the challengers I am challenging, it’s those who use the out put of the challenge!)

      Smackdown: psychologist (and change people) PROJECT their models onto the client… so whether KR is true or not, when you bring it up, you help make it true… we are authority figures, and the sensemaking tools we offer are adopted unquestioningly (usu)

      Alternative: I see you find [model] really useful. I’m curious, how do you manage the problem of projecting on to the client what you believe to be true and not leaving space for other truths?

      And the dialogue continues… but as I allude to above, I am social constructionist, I do believe that dialogue can benefit development of more accurate and more helpful measures.

  3. Paul Thoresen says:

    If the evidence is weak, then yes that myth needs to be stamped out.

    People need more nuanced answers even if they do not want them. 🙂

    Part of this issue is determining how strong the evidence is in the first place..

    I do agree about replacing with something better when we are debunking and have found this very true in my conversation with people who think the MBTI increases org effectiveness. IF you can get through to them, the question becomes “If not this, then what?”

  4. Koen Smets says:

    This is a very interesting piece, that exposes our inherent need to be able to explain and predict the world around us with simple, universally applicable models.

    In the same way that when you debunk someone’s belief in some form of junk science, you really need to replace it with a better, evidence-based description, we need to replace busted myths with a better alternative – it doesn’t matter so much what, as long – as my old friend Paul says above – as it works.

    But our desire for simple, universally applicable models tempts us towards new myths. Even the total rejection of ‘busted’ myths shows characteristics of the myth: it gives us permission to stop thinking and being critical.

    As we go about challenging sweeping, simplistic models, maybe we should consider that, perhaps, the myth is not so much in the claims made by a model, but in its absolutist application. Yes, “all people resist change” is a myth, but does that mean that there is no such thing as resistance to change? Or is reality more a case of “some people feel some resistance to change, some of the time, in some circumstances”?

    That doesn’t mean there are no complete myths: let’s be led by evidence, not by belief. If we use facts to guide us, we’ll mostly find a nuanced reality. Making sense of it requires intelligent use of evidence-based approaches, as well as a good dose of judgement.

  5. Excellent post, and excellent comments. In particular, Koen, I think you identify the issue well. The problem is not the model, but the application. To re-use the phrase from 1001 NLP courses, originally from Alfred Korzybski: “the map is not the territory”. To those who appreciate this, the K-R model is a [potentially] useful map. The issue comes when someone uses K-R not as an abstraction, but as a definition of the human condition.

    My personal feeling is that what makes K-R less useful when dealing with large groups (that it is not a linear process that will be experienced synchronously by all) is its greatest benefit: it allows a dialogue that separates the change and the transition. One MUST be careful when doing so, however, as it will be far to easy for those listening to understand the model as a linear process to be executed.

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