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Interview: Change Alchemy, Changing Mindsets & Organisational Diseases with with John Hackett

John Hackett of Franklin-Hackett (Organisational Change Alchemists)In today’s blog post, we break from our usual format to bring you an interview with John Hackett of Franklin-Hackett. I first met John at a business analysis conference a year or so ago, and I’ve really enjoyed hearing about his innovative approaches and reading his blog.  I recently caught up with John for a ‘virtual’ chat, and John shared some really interesting insight:


So, John, you engage in a rather intriguing discipline that you describe as “Organisational Change Alchemy”.   Can you tell us a bit more about what this involves?


Well firstly, thanks for inviting me to contribute to your fantastic blog, Adrian!


Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to talk about how change in organisations has been carried out historically.


Organisations tend to think of change in a very structured way, which means they usually try to implement it in the form of a time-limited, specific and managed approach. Hence why we have “change projects”. It’s an attempt to implement change in a controlled way.


This situation exists because the dominant mindset within organisations states that change is a short term phenomenon that has to be planned and structured in order to avoid disruption and reduce “risk”. It treats change as something that comes in, does stuff and then goes away again.


So traditional change methodologies accommodate this mindset by being heavily structured and focusing purely on specific areas such as business processes or purely on IT.


The problem is that in reality, change is actually a constant and emergent phenomenon. It is also complex, in that there are multiple elements that work together to create a situation, all of which have to be considered when implementing change. The structured approach of traditional change interventions is at odds with the emergent nature of change. The tendency towards a narrow focus when implementing change means that many traditional change interventions fail to address all elements and result in poorly embedded outcomes.


Change Alchemy is a mindset that seeks to address these shortcomings. The concept is simple – change is emergent and involves multiple elements. By allowing change to emerge naturally within an organisational situation and by addressing all elements of a situation when making that change, you become able to achieve profound and lasting results without the attrition and setbacks of traditional change approaches. We look at situations from a systemic viewpoint.


But the most profound aspect of Change Alchemy is this – the understanding that the mindset of individuals within an organisation is the main point of intervention.


The main driver of an organisation’s performance is it’s system – the way the work works. The main factor that decides how that system is constructed is the way the people within the organisation think. So by understanding how people think and helping them to change it, we make dramatic improvements at a systemic level – improvements that are sustained, not temporary. We allow change to emerge by challenging the way people think, the way they behave and they way they design and manage work. Provoking things strategically, if you like.


There is something mystical about this approach – hence the “alchemy” reference. We are taking a situation and by understanding what specifically needs to be done to change it, we can create something better. Just like the ancient art of turning base elements into gold. But nothing like a Dire Straits album with incredibly long guitar solos!



That’s really interesting.  Progressing change in organisational change is certainly hard — and two themes that I have picked up from your reply are systems thinking and people.   How important are these? And do you think companies actually pay attention to either factors?


I think the role of people and their mindset in creating the systemic culture of an organisation is generally poorly understood and under-appreciated. Transformational management seems to have split into two camps in recent years – the process-focussed mindset and the performance management of people mindset. I rather like to think of them as “beat up the process” and “beat up the people”. What’s more, they tend to be mutually exclusive – so if you are a follower of one mindset you generally rebuke the other.


I strongly believe that one of the major causes of difficulty in progressing change is this rigid adherence to specific and structured views of the world. The problem with such a narrow focus is that you miss important details and thus fail to fully understand the system of the organisation.


The reality is that both people and systems are important. They are co-dependent. The way people think is what creates the system, as I said earlier. You have to pay attention to both if you want to deliver change within an organisation.



What can we do, as individuals, to make change work? 


First and foremost, raise our own self-awareness. We need to become aware of our thought processes and behaviours and develop alternative approaches to widen our skill set. It is very likely that we will be personally contributing to the culture of the organisation we’re based in. We are also the recipient of subliminal conditioning from the behaviour of others, making us revert to type and help propagate the existing way of doing things. So we need to separate ourselves from that a little.


Secondly, we have to gain a greater understanding of the behaviours of others. How do they behave? What is their mindset? What might lead them to think and act the way they do?


Finally, we need to be able to influence others. This becomes possible once we are self-aware and able to read other people. We can use this skill to direct people towards new ideas and concepts, in a way that allows them to make changes at a pace that fits them.


We are but one cog in the wheel of our organisations, so we only have control over what we put out into the environment. By getting control of ourselves, and gaining understanding of others, we can positively influence change within an existing culture.



You’ve raised some really interesting points.  To what extent would you say that culture is important?  I’ve heard you speak in the past of ‘ogranisational diseases’ — insidious behaviors which consume companies!  Can we counter these types of destructive cultures? 


Culture is everything. And of course culture is the result of the way people think and therefore behave. If enough people within an organisation have a change-resistant mindset then you get a change averse culture.


A destructive culture slowly rots an organisation out from the inside, like a disease. If you looked at organisations as living beings, you could say that many are seriously diseased! They display the symptoms of their infection through their culture. The diseases in question are behaviours – the things people do every day within an organisation that all add up.


I often talk about four particular diseases:


  1. Blaming and Persecution – reacting to mistakes by blaming people and persecuting them for their error
  1. Victim Identity – treating everything as outside your control and therefore taking little to no responsibility at work
  1. Past Focus – an obsession with past situations, often those that are perceived negatively, to the detriment of decision-making about the future
  1. Consensus Paralysis – an unrealistic expectation that everyone within the hierarchy needs to be “happy” or “comfortable” with a decision or proposal, resulting in slow and fractious decision-making.


It’s the sum of these behaviours that creates negative cultures.


The best antidote to these is, as I said earlier, to become aware of one’s own behaviour and that of others and avoid falling into the trap of perpetuating them. Like real diseases, these behaviours are extremely contagious and spread easily through individuals. This is why people who join an organisation with a negative culture quickly begin to act out the same behaviours as their colleagues, even when they didn’t behave in this way in their previous organisation. It’s like being subsumed into the Borg Collective!


If these behaviours continue, the two most important aspects of business, decision-making and negotiation, are severely impaired. This is what eventually kills organisations.


So behaviour equals culture – if you want a better culture you have to have better behaviour.


Finally: If you could change one piece of ingrained, traditional thinking tomorrow — what would it be?


Right and wrong thinking! The whole right and wrong concept is a human construction that has arguably outlived its usefulness, particularly in business.


The world is not a binary place and every decision has multiple outcomes, not just a right choice and a wrong choice. If we were able to separate our emotional baggage from the workplace and see situations in a more holistic way, free from arbitrary rules and customs, we could make incredible leaps forward in innovation, culture and quality of life. Anything is possible, it’s just an option!



A massive thanks to John for sparing the time for this interview.  If you enjoyed this article, take a look at John’s blog by clicking here. and you can find out more about Change Alchemy at the Franklin-Hackett Website. 

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