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Posted Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Phrenology was a popular science in the Victorian era. Proponents claimed you could predict someone’s personality based on the shape of their head. If your skull had a certain shape, for example, a protruding forehead, you were a kind, charitable person. Phrenologists said the “organ” responsible for kindness was situated in the frontal lobes. When phrenologists encountered unkind people with prominent foreheads, they said another “organ” of the brain was more dominant. When kind people with large foreheads were examined, phrenologists claimed victory. Phrenologists ignored contradictory evidence. They claimed phrenology was the only “true science of the mind.”

PhrenologyWhen contemporary scientists examined the anatomy of the brain, they looked for measurable explanations to explain their observations. One scientist noticed that people with lesions in a certain area of their frontal lobes had speech disorders. After conducting a dozen anatomical studies, he concluded that a person’s speech production center is located in the ventroposterior region of the frontal lobes. His name was Broca, and the area he discovered in 1861 is still known as Broca’s area.

After Broca’s scientific exploration of brain function, Phrenology was derided as a pseudo-science. It was referred to as “bump-ology” and vanished into history.

Organizational change management is a lot like phrenology. We think we see patterns of behavior associated with organizational change. We use “best practices” to explain how employees should react during a change initiative. If a change goes well, we take the credit. When it doesn’t, we blame poor leadership, poor project management or something else. But we really don’t know the right way to facilitate change. Because we haven’t measured, dissected and examined them we just see the bumps and draw the same conclusions.

And that is why 70% of change initiatives fail.

It is time for organizational change managers to start measuring. It is time to examine things closely, repeatedly, using data and drawing evidence-based conclusions. Until we conduct enterprise change management with something approaching scientific rigor, we will neither succeed nor be taken seriously. We will remain bump-ologists.

It’s time for change management to change.


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