Change projects that influence organizational and people behavior can be complex. So complex, in fact, that McKinsey & Co.research suggests that “two out of three change projects fail to achieve their goals.”

It’s clear: making change a success is hard.

The traditional approach to change management involves defining your current and desired states, identifying gaps between them and creating solutions to fill them in. As sound as this process may appear, it leaves many aspects uncovered and potential risks are unknown. Our minds naturally think about the steps we can take to success, not the failures and roadblocks that we’ll potentially meet along the way. But looking at things from the opposite perspective reveals important factors you haven’t considered.

What is inversion thinking?

At JLL, we use a technique inspired by German mathematician Carl Jacobi called Inversion Thinking. Put simply, it’s a way to meet your final goal by first charting which steps not to do. Flipping your perspective ensures that you have a good sense of potential risks and can avoid them to the best of your abilities.

How to reverse your thinking

Say your change program defines success as “complete understanding, successful transition and full adoption of agile workplace technology by all teams on or before Oct. 2017.”

Before: the traditional approach

  1. Define the current state. What is traditional workplace technology like?
  2. Identify areas that need to change. Where are the gaps? Are they in the people, process and technology?
  3. Create an action plan to bridge the gaps between current state and the desired future state. This approach poses two challenges. First, there are a large number of unidentified actions and approaches that could fall within each step. Secondly—and more importantly—this process fails to identify risks.

After: the opposite approach

With inversion thinking, we restate the objective in the opposite sense. Continuing from the same example above, the objective now is to “ensure zero to no adoption of the agile workplace technology by any individual or team now or anytime in the future.” While it may seem odd, planning for failure helps you define the actions or behaviors that you should not adopt. Following which, you can prioritize and filter your actions, based on the risks they pose. Essentially, you’ve mitigated your risks right from the start.

How to apply inversion thinking to your change management program

Here’s an example of how inversion thinking would generate ideas for a typical workplace transformation. Original objective: “Engage people in adopting the organization’s new workplace strategy program, generate leadership buy-in and train people in new behaviors to make change sustainable.” Restated objective using inversion thinking: “Ensure your people know nothing about the workplace program, alienate leadership and ensure low program adoption rates.”

The action plan for ensuring failure:

  1. People love surprises; keep people in the dark until the very last minute.
  2. We live in the information age; no need to define terms and protocols.
  3. If you decide to communicate, do it in a cryptic, impersonal manner.
  4. No incentives are needed. Expect people to change because you said so.
  5. Your senior leaders are paid to lead change; provide them no guidance or support.
  6. People love change; no need to make this any more fun than it already is.
  7. This is a one-time effort. Don’t waste resources on making change sustainable.
  8. Never involve all your key stakeholders and risk contaminating your change plan.
  9. No need for cultural alignment.
  10. We are all adults; change is part of life and we don’t need training. In applying the opposite perspective to our objective, we have successfully created a list of don’ts. It is also now much easier to identify areas that require more effort from a planning perspective and those that will have the most impact from a risk-mitigation standpoint.

A fresh perspective on change planning

This is just one of the many approaches you can take to optimize change planning. While there isn’t one best approach, inversion thinking is definitely helpful in 1) looking at potential problems and roadblocks through a new lens, and 2) prioritizing your strategy based on what outcome will have the greatest impact.

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About the author

JLL Staff Reporter, Behind-the-scenes
A team passionate about delivering valuable content and tools about workplace to help you deliver the best experience to your employees.

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