To change or not to change…that is the question

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

One of the components of a successful transformation in an organisation is having people who are willing to change.

This is difficult, as change for most people is hard.

Photo by: Nicole De Khors

There are many reasons for this, (see this article from Rosabeth Moss Kanter for a great read) mostly stemming from the individual discomfort I feel as I try to start to behave differently.

One way to overcome this discomfort, or at least make it bearable, is to have the individual be driven by a state in the future that is preferred to the current state. Psychologists have used this approach with elite sportspeople for decades with great success. It is also documented in the academic literature, with over 30 years of supporting research. It is this dynamic that explains why New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or go to the gym are so often unsuccessful, whilst solution-focussed coaching and daily intention setting work so well. ‘I want to lose 5 kilos’ is less motivating over time than ‘I want my clothes to fit better’.

Helping people ‘see’ the preferred future state is a key part of transformation. In terms of change adoption, there is a hierarchy — preferably individuals want to experience the change, if this is not possible, then they want to hear about it from someone who has experienced it or finally, if neither of those is available, they will listen if someone they trust delivers the abstract form and how it will impact on them.

The content of the change message is less important than the manner in which it is delivered — let me say that again — even if the news is bad it is more important to deliver it in ways that individuals can see themselves in the future than it is to soften the blow or sugarcoat the message.

Additional supporting activities, which often get mistaken for the main players, are videos by the executive; communications plans with emails and newsletters about the change and whole of organisation meetings where people are told what will happen. Whilst all of these are useful as initial engagement actions to warm people up to the idea of change, they will not deliver the individual enough information or insight to have individuals imagine what the preferred future will look like FOR THEM.

So this gives transformation teams in organisations a few routes to pursue to gain traction with their colleagues:

  • The gold standard is to make the change ‘real’ by prototyping the end point. For example, organisations that are moving to new activity based workplaces setting up labs where people can work for a period of time to understand how the new desk setup will work for them. Service design that prototypes future customer journeys for delivery staff to experience.

  • The sliver goes to cross-organisational project teams working together to create the strawman future state. Projects that investigate the problem, develop a solution and test it to see if it works can tell the story of that experience in a way that is compelling for listeners. Service design with detailed service blueprints can assist people to understand the proposed change.

  • The bronze goes to people leaders in each team who are able to talk to their groups with authenticity about what they think will happen and what it means. This works as long as the team leader has enough information to work their way through the implications of the change for themselves first, they will be able to then communicate to their teams and the team will listen and start to engage with the change.

All three options assume that feedback from employees and customers will be sought and listened to by the project team.

The timing of the change message is also key, too early and you will spook people because there are too many unknowns, too late and they will feel that the change is being done to them and they will resist. The art is in engaging early, with some information, as it is available, and then ramping this up into full-on visceral experiences of what the future will look like, smell like and taste like for people.

So change is not hard for organisations to manage, but it does take time and the investment of money and energy to help people break through their discomfort.

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