Making a positive change with the hypothesis-driven process - a case study

We all learnt this in school: observe what is happening (or not), formulate a hypothesis about why this is happening, create tests to see if the hypothesis is right or wrong, then conclude and implement the lessons learnt. This is called the scientific method and it is still the basis of all learning in school.

Yet how many of you do this at work? Do you formulate hypotheses and test them? Do you look for what's wrong and how to effect change? If not, would you like to know how to do it? If yes, stick around, because in this article, I want to discuss how the hypothesis-driven process (aka the scientific method) can help in your change management situations.

Observe what is happening

To make change work, you need to have a keen sense of what is happening. Keep your eyes and ears pealed for what is really going on. For example, in 2007, we were asked by a European oil company in Southeast Asia to work on a change process. They were changing their shift system which would see the operators on-shift at the platform for 14 days instead of for seven; but they will also be off-shift on shore for 14 days instead of for seven. So they moved from a 7/7 to a 14/14 shift system.

While the business case was solid and the company was going to pay each operator an additional 4-figure monthly allowance as a result of productivity improvement, the operators were livid. Not only did they reject the proposed change, they even threatened to take drastic action. Even the Asset Director was disrespected in front of other operators for selling out on their people!

That was where we came in. We started to look at how people were currently working and their attitude towards the impending change. We did a lot of one-on-one's discussion!

Create hypotheses & test them

We first worked with the hypothesis given to us by management: "the operators are opposed to the change." We asked a whole lot of questions to discern if indeed that was true. After talking to more than 15% of the operators, we arrived at a different conclusion. Most were not opposed to the change. There had to be another hypothesis.

The next hypothesis we created was, "operators wanted to be consulted". To test this, we ran workshops and played games to see the effect of consultative decision-making vs top-down decisions. From the games, we opened up to discussions and suddenly we had an outpouring of emotions - not vitriolic but cathartic. It was not long that we realised that it was this lack of consultation that they were rebelling against, and not the change per se.

Create a solution

We went back to management and reported our findings. They were relieved to a certain extent, but also angry that their management style was called into question. Since the issue seemed to be about engagement, we designed a process where they could engage with senior management not about the things that are, but how things will be. So we put in a future focus on our engagement activities, and continued running our training programs.

We hit pay-dirt. Not only did we address the root cause of their frustrations, but we also managed to come up with a positive view of the change. By reframing their thinking, we managed to get them to enumerate what was good about the change, and not what was bad. We of course also had to acknowledge that there were missteps, but ultimately, they needed to accept that there was management prerogative and there was communal prerogative. It worked.

By the time the system went live on 1 October of that year, not a single person harboured any ill-feelings, most had already started planning for how they would use the 2 weeks on-shore, and all the fears of a drastic action didn't materialise.

This is a success story of the hypothesis-driven process. What started out as a project to prevent untoward actions against change, ended up with a complete mindset shift. We even had operators give testimonials to senior management why our program was the best they had ever attended. And we really didn't do much - we just applied the hypothesis-driven process and trusted that the system will work.

If you have a change management project to work on, use the hypothesis-driven process. Don't assume you know the root cause of the problem; instead find it out. That will make your change project an unmitigated success!

Talk to us

If you want us to talk to us about how you can apply the hypothesis-driven process to create positive change in your organisation, just drop us an email at

Written by Ian Dyason

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