Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Change Initiatives Need Changed Approaches


The Harvard Business Review published an article by Ron Ashkenas called Change Management Needs Change. See link above. He said while change management has been around for over half a century, 60%-70% of change initiatives fail.  

In the article, he sites one of the key obstacles to successful change initiatives is
that management out sources change to HR and consultants. As he says, this approach allows management to get off the hook from being accountable for change.

While this is a fair assessment, there is a human element that impedes change. When you tell people they have to think and do things differently, that approach rarely produces the desired result. It seems like common sense that people can just stop doing things the way they have always done and start doing something different. Yet, if you observe, it is rare that people take on this challenge with alacrity.

Unless you provide people with tools to navigate out of old patterns, they will continue past behaviors. Why? Behavior is a correlate of mental models. Mental models are engraved in one’s brain, almost like a habit. Furthermore, asking people to function differently could imply 2 things in the person’s mind.

  1. What you were doing before was wrong or not good enough. People hate to be wrong. In fact, they will fight to the death to prove they were right.
  2. There is a fear of failure when learning something new. The new way could threaten job security. Ultimately, it evokes the fear is looking bad. The new way takes risk and practice. And it is easier to go back to old habits even if it is less effective.

Consequently, asking people to ‘just do it’ differently can be a formula for disaster. People need tools to alter how they view themselves, management, colleagues and disruption; doing things differently is disruptive. That way, engrained thought processes are shifted with minimal push back. 

Some managers may believe financial incentives will solve the problem. However, that can be expensive. Imagine. Every time you want people to implement a change initiative, you have to pay them extra. That becomes costly over time, especially in a world with increasingly more change.

Therefore, if you understand that people view themselves a certain way, then you will understand they see their survival in an organization as a result of certain behaviors. In other words, people have presuppositions/mental models about who they are, what they are capable of and what’s impossible. These beliefs constrain their ability to step outside of their comfort zone. As a result, when change threatens the ability to perform those behaviors they already do well, they become defensive.

On the other hand, if they possess tools that allow them to make adjustments in their thinking, instead of feeling threatened, continuity in performance is sustainable, even in the face of discontinuity. As an example, during change initiatives, language becomes a powerful tool to unite an enterprise. There needs to be a common language for new processes in the workflow. At the same time, it is equally effective to have a language for how people internalize and respond to changing environments.

Furthermore, since change initiatives often create new cultures and social anthropologists say culture is a network of conversations, language becomes a powerful tool. If a person talks about how easy life was before the change, instead of condemning them, understand they are using a language to communicate they are under pressure. What they may really be concerned about is being right about the old ways or they are afraid to fail. When management and colleagues can distinguish this undercurrent, they can mitigate the undermining behavior and calm the fears of the individual or team. With these tools, management will be in a better position to empower people and alter mindset before the new initiative starts.

For your next change initiative, prepare your people with tools that will first alter their mindset. From there, it will be easier to avoid push back and under performance. And your people will be better equipped to handle additional changes. Just remember, you will have to repeat your message many times to ensure the new behavior sticks.

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know.


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