Out of time: the opportunities of non-linear change by Neil Usher

By Guest Contributor Neil Usher

Neil Usher, author of Elemental Change explains what opportunities can be found from 2020 through his easy to use Elemental Change framework.

A number of books, articles and presentations about leading change make the claim that 70% of organisational transformations fail. You’ll probably recognise the statistic. It’s a figure that is at first staggering and yet is often supported in our anecdotal recollection of projects in which we were involved or were affected by that appeared to be going awry. It’s a statement that has perpetuated because each has quoted the last to do so. It should come as no surprise that it’s an unproven claim that has no basis in original research, helpfully dismantled by David Wilkinson should there be any doubt. His conclusion is that the figure is more likely 6%. Quite a difference.

If we understand why change fails such that we can address the causes at source, while being aware of how it fails in order to be able to understand it and respond, we can bring this average down still further. There’s no reason to even be in the 6%. Fortunately, it’s not a secret.

It’s been helpful, however, to those peddlers of a cure that a myth regarding the failure of change initiatives has perpetuated. A system, process, list or acronym, a guarantee of success. All between two covers. “Don’t be one of the 70%”. It has also served to ensure we remain nervous and suspicious of change. Why would we want any part of something that stood such an alarmingly low chance of success?

It feeds the most inglorious tale about change of all, that people don’t like it. Which is of course garbage. Assuming homo sapiens appeared 300,000 years ago, our relentless thirst for change in the last 0.01% of our time on the planet has taken us from Stone Age to Artificial Intelligence via an increase in life expectancy of 40 years. We may be pattern-seeking creatures and find comfort in the convenience of some aspects of regularity in our life, but change is the essence of humanity.

Several weeks straddling the end of a year and the start of a new bring a disproportionate focus for us on three ideas that of a normal day simply roll off us: the past, present and future. From Dickensian ghosts to promises and commitments, time toys with us. It shuffles the arbitrary bookends, spins us blindfold. Few may spend their darker hours debating time’s Newtonian linearity, but at this juncture we’re more acutely aware of where we’ve come from, where we are and where we’d like to be heading.



It’s safe to say that 2020 gave us a little more to consider than just a job change or an image refresh, whether it be a pandemic and its effects, an exit from the EU or disturbing developments in the fabric of geopolitical norms. When we consider change – from the minutiae of our personal lives to the grandest scale of our professional – we struggle to separate that which we can influence from that we can’t. With the Covid-19 pandemic, we can be only too aware of how it has impacted our own lives. Most notably our working patterns and arrangements, and the education of our children. We can react, prepare and plan. Yet an undue focus on our government’s action (or not), the vaccine programme or the behaviour of others creates an imbalance in our response.

We therefore seek perspective. We focus on what we can affect and prepare for the rest. In both respects, an understanding the role of the past, present and future is essential for making sense of our situation. Or we’re floating. In a most peculiar and debilitating way.



When we consider leading change we’re inevitably future focussed. We instinctively map where we wish to get to, often with a sketchy understanding of where we are today and little or no interest in why and how we got to where we are today. Corporate archaeology has rather suffered from the transition from analogue to digital. Where we once had binders stuffed with records to refer to, most knowledge departs an organisation with the holder, their digital directories archived in the shadows. In the race against time in which we always seem to find ourselves, there is rarely any available to wade through the peculiarities of personal record structures. So, we don’t, and make assumptions instead. How often have we heard the lazy dismissal “we are where we are”?

We’re always shaping the past, present and future, giving a form to each. They don’t shape themselves. Ideas of non-linear time have all three happening simultaneously, impacting and influencing each other. We struggle to grasp this idea; its innate chaos is unsettling. We know we can’t ‘go back’ in time and create a different present. We know we can’t leap into the future just to check whether we’re making the right decisions today. But that’s all thinking about time in terms of itself.



Consider the past, how we got here. It contains a heady mix of events – actualities, things that really happened – and the perspectives and interpretations we hold of it today. Yet the past is fluid. New information comes to light. New thoughts and evaluations. The heroes once cast in bronze for their might and wealth are torn down in disgust the more, we understand that it was built on a cruelty unthinkable and intolerable today. The unscrupulous have attempted to re-write history to suit their narrative of the present and aims for the future, to weaponize it. It’s too important to leave it behind us, to make assumptions.

In a similar way we shape the present. The added complication here, however, is that the future has a role in our doing so. Our considerations of what the future may hold, how we intend to shape it, affects the perspectives and decisions we make. We deploy our knowledge of the past and present to shape the future. So inevitably the future that shapes the present is based on both the past and present itself. It starts to get complicated. Nothing stands still.



The opportunity we map for a change initiative therefore takes on a new character. One of ever-shifting interpretations and influences. Yet we rarely map in this manner but should. That’s because opportunity is the first component of our Change Operating System – along with vision, evidence, leadership, trust and resources. It is a critical aspect of being prepared. In simple terms it includes the following:


  Past Present Desired future
Broader environment
Key relationships
Key interfaces
Key dependencies
Time considerations
Risk areas


Yet as much of this is determined by how we shape the past and present and see the opportunity to shape the future, our analysis remains a living creation. We can’t pretend otherwise. At any point in our initiative, we may discover new information, form new ideas, be influenced by events occurring around us. Yet we’re fighting against ingrained practice. We’ve grown up with critical paths and phase gates and schedules, all based on Newtonian time, all solidified in charts and software applications and methodologies. But we have to shift this mindset and practice to one far more flexible and attuned to the way we and the world are. In constant flux.

As leaders of change, we shape the future therefore, so we shape the present and the past. So how do we get stuff done when nothing stands still? It’s precisely because nothing stands still that we can get stuff done. It’s why we are where we are. And why we’re heading to where we’re heading. The ever-opening gaps from this fluidity create our opportunities. Opportunities create more opportunities. If everything happened as we expected nothing interesting would ever happen. The future is already here. And we’re shaping it.


NEIL USHER has almost 30 years’ experience as a business leader who has delivered innovative working environments for large organizations globally. Together with this practical experience, his influential blog (workessence.com), regular conferences and academic talks have made him a leading thinker in the profession. He is also author of Elemental Workplace.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/neilusher/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/workessence?lang=en

Suggested Reading

‘You never step in the same river twice.’ Our intensely interconnected world never stops evolving. Amid the chaos of intended and unexpected consequences we’re expected to lead a change initiative. We have to learn fast, as its already started. This highly practical, human and humorous book shows us how to makes complex change attainable – organizational, professional or personal – whether you have years of experience or are facing your first major challenge. It helps us think about what change is and means, how we prepare for it and what we do to make it successful. It may just be the most readable book about change yet.

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