Does your change initiative need a MacGuffin?


Change can be paralyzing. Even if you know your organization needs to change, you may not know how to make it happen or how much is the right amount or in what direction. Figuring it all out is a daunting task and sadly, it often takes a crisis to produce real change. If you don’t know where to start, and you’d like to avoid a crisis, a MacGuffin can help.

What is a MacGuffin you ask? A MacGuffin is a plot device used to drive the story forward in a book or film. The MacGuffin is often an object pursued by both the hero and the villain to get the action going. Famous MacGuffins include the Holy Grail, The Maltese Falcon and R2-D2. But MacGuffins are highly substitutable – the Shroud of Turin, an Iberian Duck or C3PO would have worked just as well.  What they are is less important that what they do – they motivate the characters and drive the action.

When a company needs to change, it needs something to motivate decision-makers and drive action. In a corporate context, a MacGuffin can get the change engine up and running by picking a relatively small or broadly agreed upon issue to tackle. The MacGuffin is a managerial pursuit to get the action moving.

Here’s an example. Several years ago, I initiated a capability assessment project. We hired a consulting firm and they generated industry benchmarks on a wide range of competitive capabilities. Ostensibly, the intent was to identify the right areas for new, discretionary capability building. In practice, the project showed that our existing corporate strategy was completely misaligned to changes in the market and consumer preferences. The result was a sweeping change mandate whose scope went well beyond the narrow outcomes of the capability findings.

Yes, we made capability investments, but we also tackled rewards and recognition systems, enterprise portfolio prioritization, process and cost structure, organizational design, culture and values, and a host of other broad issues. The capability assessment was just a MacGuffin that unlocked the larger change story.

If you need to drive change, but you are not sure how to start, or if your organization is not aligned, here are some MacGuffin ideas that often lead to much larger change agendas:

  • Portfolio assessment
  • Cost structure review
  • Purpose, vision and values
  • Business process assessment
  • Almost any benchmarking activity
  • Strategic planning process and design
  • Corporate strategy review

Yes, change can be paralyzing, but the worst response is to do nothing. Start somewhere and don’t worry too much about whether you’ve picked the right beginning – the true story will unfold once your MacGuffin gets the action going.