Announcing our latest book

We delighted to tell you that Beyond Command and Control will be published in September. As well as covering familiar ground in an unfamiliar way this book says more about the ‘how’ of change and the need for whole-system change in our service organisations, in other words what do we do about HR, Finance, IT and so on. John also takes on Agile, the most incredible of fads, to point out its fallacies and describe how to design digital services that work without any of the rituals, roles and new-speak that Agile has brought. And more besides…

Read the reviews and order your copy.


“…the thinking behind traditional management and the resulting practices are both ruthlessly challenged.”
Bjarte Bogsnes, Chairman, Beyond Budgeting Institute

“Aviva PLC sees the change method described in these pages as a strategic signature…”
Darren Cornish, Aviva PLC Group Director



First students to be accredited in the Vanguard Method

A group of students are the first to complete a post graduate short course in ‘Applying the Vanguard Method to People Centred Services, accredited by Kingston and St George’s University London. The students will receive 30 academic credits towards a postgraduate award or towards continuing professional development.

Pictured alongside the students are Dr Rick Hood, Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Professor John Seddon, the founder of Vanguard Consulting.

Recruitment is now open for Cohort 6 of this popular course, starting in October 2019. Read more about the course and apply.

Evaluating social care as a system with Jo Gibson

Find out how one local authority and home care provider have moved away from a transactional model of care to co-create a brand new model, based on building relationships, truly understanding what matters to people and using an individual’s strengths, skills and abilities to help them help themselves. You’ll have to watch the video to find out how much money they are saving!

Evaluating Social Care as a system with Jo Gibson is free to view. Please log in or register below.



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If you are interested in doing something similar, check out our systems leadership programme here.

The greatest challenge is management resistance

Déjà vu is the phenomenon of having the feeling that the situation currently being experienced has already been experienced in the past.

I have this happen to me regularly. Let me give you an example. I recently read a report titled ‘Insights into how to keep up with today’s changing world‘ written by the Australian Transformation and Turnaround Association. I recommend reading it.

The report was written after surveying transformation and change leaders, in over 900 businesses, covering industries from banking and finance, manufacturing, technology, consulting, government, academia, and health.

When the question was asked ‘What is the greatest challenge facing your organisation this year and next?’ – a whopping 71% of respondents answered: ‘Management resist change’. It was followed closely by ‘New technology & business models’ which 67% of respondents also identified.

When I read this, it triggered a feeling of déjà vu. I was sure I had heard this before…

I looked around at some old articles and found one written 25 years ago titled: ‘Improving the performance of workgroups through information technology’ by Clive Holtham.

In 1992 Holtham stated:

The failure to improve the effectiveness of work groups often lies for less in any technical dimension than deep in the management style and culture of an organisation. If key strategic steps are not taken from the top of the organisations, no amount of effort at middle levels can compensate for this

Déjà vu!

Holtham is right when pointing to the top of organisations. We shouldn’t just limit management resistance to the often criticized ‘middle-management’ – or the ‘frozen middle’ as Peter Drucker termed them. A good example of this is when the CEO of one of Australia’s biggest banks announced that his organisation was embarking on a transformation that will move away from a traditional hierarchal structure, and yet, in that same announcement, the CEO also stated that the transformation would cut in two levels below him.

As with most problems that organisations are trying to solve, the problems have existed for a long time. Over the course of time, various frameworks, methodologies, and approaches have come and gone. Panaceas that promise much and purport to solve these problems, turn into fads and die, bowing out to the next wave of ‘new thinking’. As the 71% of respondents to the question: ‘What is the greatest challenge facing your organisation this year and next?’ can attest, Holtham’s issues of management resistance, highlighted in the early 1990s, gives empirical evidence to the fact that the latest panacea does no better than its predecessors

It is not uncommon for people trying to transform organisations to rationalise a failure of change away, complaining that ‘If the only managers had got it!’. What they should be reflecting on is that it was a failure of rationalistic method.

Turning our attention to ‘New technology & business models’, the paradox here is that IT & Digital teams do not have what is required within them to make it work either, or to put it another way, IT & Digital is cultural too.

Over and over again, new technology and business model improvements are thwarted by forces that are not commonly-known, and are illusive to those attempting to make changes. This social inertia is because of the lack of effectiveness in current methods available to technology professionals and managers alike.

Our findings show that the 71% quoted in Australian Transformation and Turnaround Association report is an underestimate. We have found that almost 100% of transformation activities fail, or fail to sustain, due to being fought off by the management culture, or to be more precise, fought off by the organisational system the managers have created.

Why do I want to turn the attention to technological transformation? International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts worldwide spending on digital transformation technologies will reach $1.2 trillion in 2017. That’s a lot of money being spent on change. How’s it all going?

PointSource, in 2017, surveyed 300 decision makers in Marketing, IT and Operations, and published the results in their ‘Executing Digital Transformation study’.

In their key findings, PointSource reported:

Organizations are not confident in their visions for the future: Less than half (44 percent) of respondents are extremely confident in their organization’s ability to achieve its vision for growth, and 4 percent are not confident at all.

Why the lack of confidence? The study found that management culture was an issue. For example, when decision makers were asked ‘Does your culture support change and innovation?’ – it was found that:

  • ‘Department leaders do not regularly collaborate with one another: Just 30 percent of respondents say departments across their organization always come together to problem solve.’
  • ‘Respondents feel their company culture supports the ideals of innovation, but they cannot overcome a lack of internal collaboration that makes executing digital transformation difficult.’
  • ‘(76 percent) of respondents say their department competes with other departments in their organization for resources and/or budget.’

The report goes on to give rationalistic ‘Tips for organisations’ to help them solve these issues. One ‘tip’ is: ‘Organizations must work to remove silos so that all members can collectively contribute to an improved end product that exceeds audience expectations.’

I had that feeling of Déjà vu once again…

Back in 1992, Holtham wrote:

It is necessary to be able to create new, more fluid partnerships and alliances, both within and between organisations

It is almost as though we learn nothing from our experience. The same issues are prevalent 25 years later, supporting the reality that they are designed into the organisation.

Sticking with technological transformation, you can’t move today without bumping into an article or speech that highlights the perils of ‘Being Ubered’ (a phrase coined by Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy, meaning your organisation is at risk of being disrupted and dethroned, and therefore you must evolve). The facts pointed out are stark; very few of the Fortune 500 companies listed in 1955 either still exist, have not gone bankrupt, or have not been merged or acquired by another firm.

Maybe this is another contributing factor for decision makers lack of confidence in their organization’s ability to achieve its vision for growth, as reported by PointSource.

When I was a child I used to watch a futuristic world where the Daleks in Doctor Who would warn “You will be exterminated!” – now I’m an adult, I encounter the world where consultants warn “You will be disrupted!”.

Unfortunately, the prevailing answer to disruption, promulgated by the consulting firms, is to invest in technology. With a $1.2 trillion trough, you can see why. The problem is that to fend off disruption, investing purely in technology isn’t the answer, the organisational operation must also change. Both go hand in hand. Various commentators are now voicing similar opinions. However, is it again Déjà vu?

Peter Keen, in his book ‘Information Systems and Organizational Change’, published in 1980, wrote

When technology is changed, the other components often adjust to dampen out the impact of the innovation. Many writers on implementation stress the homeostatic behavior of organizations and the need to “unfreeze the status quo”

Peter wrote this 37 years ago. It’s not like anyone hasn’t heard of him. If you look at his biography it states that he has been ranked in a number of surveys as one of the world’s top 100 thought leaders in business, the most cited researcher in the academic and business literature, and among the top ten IT consultants!

The challenges of ‘Management resist change’, ‘New technology & business models’, ‘Executing Digital Transformation’ and ‘Not being Ubered’ are all a product of the same superordinate issue; the command-and-control design and management of work, which has dominated organisations for years, and, without method, is remarkably impervious to change.

Peter Keen wrote back in 1980:

We now have adequate theories of implementation. We have less understanding of counterimplementation … overt moves, often made by skilled actors, to prevent a disruption of the status quo.

Technology has been an unwitting instrument and enabler of command-and-control. This is because IT & Digital professionals are being asked to solve problems from a command-and-control point of view, and it is that very point of view that needs to change if we want to enable the technology to work and work well, from the users’ perspective.

Applying a design thinking, human centered, lean-agile approach, by using service design and experience design experts in a command-and-control organisation, will result in little to no discernible change.

The PointSource study shows a deep lack of confidence in executing digital transformation. If organisations are to spend $1.2 trillion, there will be a lot of money poured down the drain. As a consequence, many of the people involved in such programs of work will see their hard efforts wasted. Who wants to put their heart and soul into creating something that is either cancelled or is not valued by the recipients?

This isn’t to say that people at all levels are stupid, or guilty of malintent. This is not about stupidity or intention. Everyone would say they are trying to do things better. What is more appropriate is to state the people are guilty but not to blame, in other words, the crux is that they have been let down by bad perspective and methods.

To solve the challenges of ‘Management resist change’, ‘New technology & business models’, ‘Executing Digital Transformation’ and ‘Not being Ubered’, technology professionals and managers ultimately require a different structure, different measures and, most importantly of all, a different philosophy; one where they move beyond command-and-control, where the prevailing thinking is aligned to customers, and where they see their job as adding value to the work. This will then solve these challenges for good.


To obtain differentiated results, progressive leaders are turning to the Vanguard Method which has received numerous academic awards for contribution to management science and were the first winner of the Harvard Business Review / McKinsey Management Innovation Prize for ‘Reinventing Leadership’.

If you would like to learn more, join us at the Progressive Leaders Summit 2017, Melbourne Arts Centre, on the 2nd November.


Why are so many projects doomed to succeed?

By Jeremy Cox, Vanguard Consulting

Staff or manager, everyone has worked on projects that were clearly failing to all involved, yet officially presented as successes. What’s going on here?

The problem is systemic, applying to projects both digital (e.g. Universal Credit) and non-digital. It is rooted in the way organisations plan and manage change. Believing (wrongly) that their role is to act as specifiers and controllers, managers create structures and routines that focus effort on ‘making the plan come true’; including post-facto rationalisation to show that the plan has worked. In other word, projects are destined for success from the outset, whatever the objective result.

  • Business planning processes set up pre-determined deliverables, timescales and budgets for projects to achieve the annual plan. In a financial services organisation we found that more than half the IT budget was going on management overhead because the original deliverables were based on flawed assumptions and projects had to be constantly re-scoped and re-scheduled.

  • Because the ‘book of work’ has to be delivered to make the numbers in the business plan, organisations set up hierarchical reporting systems to ensure projects are on track. Juniors tell seniors what they want to hear, and so on all the way up the food chain. The reality when we study projects is that most ‘green’ projects are actually ‘red’ – the hierarchical feedback loop is fundamentally flawed.

  • Performance management based on on-time, on-budget delivery, produces perverse incentives for project managers to ‘make the plan come true’. Holding people to account for arbitrary time and cost targets leads them to de-scope and cut corners to get projects over the line and collect their bonus.

As well as these organisational system conditions, there are a number of psychological traps for the unwary. One is escalating commitment, when commitment to an existing course outweighs emerging indications that things are going wrong. Rather than altering course we ignore the signals or rationalise them away with compelling reasons for carrying on.

The net effect is that most projects, including digital projects, end up being, in the words of a client, ‘late, expensive and wrong’, yet officially a success. The ‘doomed to succeed’ problem is designed in to organisations largely because of conventional assumptions about the separation of management decision-making from work.

The way out is simple in principle and profound in practice.

First, change in service systems should always be structured as an emergent process.

Secondly, all change must be anchored in knowledge gained through systematic study and redesign.

Finally, managers need to give up trying to control change through plans, reports and meetings and begin to practice active leadership, leading processes of learning and improvement on the ground. Follow these principles and digital projects will start to shift from late, expensive and wrong to fast, cheap and effective. Instead of being doomed to succeed, digital projects will become opportunities to learn and improve.