A Transformation Lesson From The Grinch

With the arrival of the holiday season comes the inevitable onslaught of television classics, including A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. While each are good movies in their own right, I wonder if the latter became a holiday staple largely based on the sheer number of times it has aired. Familiarity breeds comfort.

As often happens, this musing collided with my day job such that I started wondering if this phenomena has a parallel to business performance. After organizations first announce the objectives for a transformation, management often notices a change in employee behavior and even an improvement in performance. These improvements reinforce the transformation is working.

My experience shows this is usually a short-term blip with much of the benefits subsiding after employees’ attention wanders elsewhere. In response, organizations try the repetition technique, hoping that frequent exposure to the transformational messages will cause sustainable change. Like holiday movies, familiarity breeds comfort but it doesn’t necessarily improve performance. Sustainable performance improvement requires a fundamental change in behavior or environment. After all, culture eats strategy.

For fun, we can draw a comparison to the difference between Scrooge and the Grinch. In both stories, the main character starts out hating Christmas and seemingly all people. Both end up “transforming” to good guys but they get there in completely different ways. Scrooge is essentially scared straight by the Ghost of Christmas Future while the Grinch is overcome with emotion by the Whos’ ability to focus on the spirit of the holiday rather than the material trappings.

Our clue his changed performance might be sustainable is that we’re told “the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day”. Talk about a literal change of heart! On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Scrooge has fundamentally changed. It’s entirely possible Scrooge will go back to his old ways as soon as the shock wears off.

One conclusion is that carrots work better than sticks in truly changing behavior. But another interpretation is that organizations need a different approach to business transformation. Rather than hiring change consultants or blindly implementing technology, they should concentrate on changing their culture (i.e. hearts). As I previously blogged, managers should encourage employees to be brave, be fast and be open.

Unfortunately, my advice is at odds with many consultants who would be financially better off by coming back every year and re-scaring Scrooge into acting charitably.

Perhaps they are the true Grinches.

(This is an updated version of a 2007 post)



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