Today, everyone seems to want to associate themselves with change. Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s former CEO, loved to call his firm a 124-year-old startup. Its value fell by 30% under his tenure and would later collapse. Bill Gates pointed out that the culprit wasn’t innovation or disruption, but basic mismanagement.
It seems that these days, Immelt’s leadership is closer to the rule than the exception. Everybody wants to be an innovator. Nobody wants to be associated with the status quo. Even political conservatives describe themselves as a “movement,” a seeming contradiction in terms. Change has become gospel, an end in itself rather than a mere means to an end.
The truth is that innovation is less about new ideas than it is about identifying meaningful problems. Too much happy talk about change can actually undermine meaningful transformation. If your focus on the fabulous yonder obscures your view into the day-to-day, you’re most likely headed for trouble. We need to start taking change more seriously.
Change Is Hard. People Are Struggling
Humans struggle to adapt. Our brains are not wired for change, but build synaptic pathways based on past experiences. These can change over time, but with some difficulty. We are also greatly influenced by those around us, whose brains have been shaped by similar experiences. Finally, there are often genuine switching costs that need to be overcome.
The notion that transformation can be challenging is nothing new. What managers often fail to account for, however, is that change never happens in a vacuum. It must be seen in the context of everything else that’s going on in people’s lives, including pressures related to family, economic, and health concerns.
Consider that research points to a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic. Another study reported in Harvard Business Review found that 76% of employees in 2021 reported at least one mental health symptom, up from 59% in 2019; 50% have reported leaving a job due to mental health concerns, compared to 34% two years earlier. Those are dramatic increases on already high levels.
Yet even before the pandemic, there were signs of trouble. A 2014 report by PwC revealed that 65% of respondents in corporations cited change fatigue, 44% of employees complained they don’t understand the change they’re being asked to make, and 38% said they don’t agree with it. Should we be surprised that so many change initiatives fail?
Too Much Early Talk Ignites Resistance
Managers launching a new initiative often seek to start with a bang. They work to gain approval for a sizable budget as a sign of institutional commitment. They recruit high-profile executives, arrange a big “kick-off” meeting and look to move fast, gain scale and generate some quick wins. All of this is designed to create a sense of urgency and inevitability.
Yet this approach can often backfire. Any time you ask people to change what they think or how they act, there will be some who won’t like it and they will work to undermine you in ways that are often dishonest, underhanded, and deceptive. Starting a transformation initiative with a big kickoff just gives them an early warning that they’d better get started sabotaging you or change might actually take place.
Unfortunately, there are perverse incentives involved in many initiatives. When change involves new capability, there are inevitably vendors involved and consultants are brought in to manage the process. Often, in addition to helping to design and procure systems, these consultants are given the assignment for organizational change management as well.
At first, it may seem intuitive and sensible that the same vendor that designs the system also helps implement the program. However, what is often missed is that these consultants are much more heavily financially incentivized to close the deal, which can often be worth hundreds of millions of dollars than to drive genuine long-term transformation.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that what passes for “organizational change management” is often little more than an internal communication strategy and a training program implementation. That clearly doesn’t suffice.
Change Is Nonlinear. There Are Advantages To Starting Slow
People who are passionate about change naturally want it to happen as soon as possible. This is especially true of action-oriented managers, who pride themselves on executing a plan quickly and efficiently. There are often informal organizational incentives as well. Executives who are seen to be hard-charging and who “get things done” can be more likely to move up the corporate ladder.
Yet consider the case of Gandhi and the struggle for Indian independence. Soon after returning to India from South Africa, he called for nationwide strikes in response to the repressive Rowlatt Act. The people immediately rose up, but things quickly spun out of control and ended in tragedy. A decade later, he learned from his mistake and set out on his salt march with just a small, disciplined cadre, which would inspire the world and help lead to Indian Independence.
Similar strategies have proven highly effective in organizational transformations. When Wyeth Pharmaceuticals began its shift to lean manufacturing, it started with a single team in a single plant, but success there led to a transformation involving 17,000 employees. When Experian sought to shift to a cloud-based enterprise, it started with internal APIs that had limited effect on its business but helped lead to genuine and complete change.
What each of these had in common is that they started with a keystone change, which had a concrete and tangible goal, involved multiple stakeholders, and paved the way for future change. While the initial wins were small, they showed what was possible and, because they were successful, they were able to build momentum and grow exponentially.
Change isn’t linear. Success grows exponentially on success. That’s why you often need to start slow to move fast.
Making Change Meaningful
My friend Srdja Popovi once told me that the goal of a revolution should be to become mainstream, to be mundane and ordinary. If you are successful, it should be difficult to explain what was won because the previous order seems so unbelievable. Yet many leaders approach change initiatives as if they were swashbuckling heroes in their own action movies.
The simple truth is that every change initiative starts out weak and vulnerable, without a track record of success. People are bound to be suspicious. They already have everyday struggles and don’t want someone else’s idea to add to their burden. Most often, they’ll pay lip service, take a “wait and see” approach and then turn away at the first sign of trouble.
The problem with cheerleading change is that it puts the cart before the horse. People don’t embrace change because you came up with a fancy slogan, they adopt what they find meaningful, that creates genuine value to their lives and their work. Without that, all the happy talk just seems like a con.
We need to have more reverence for the mundane and ordinary. For better or worse, it works and it’s what people know. To create genuine transformation we need to get out of the business of selling ideas and into the business of selling success. If we can help allies to make change successful, even on a small scale, they can bring in others who bring in others still.
That can’t be done through persuasion. We have to start by identifying people who are already enthusiastic about change. Change isn’t about communication, but empowerment.
Greg Satell is a transformation and change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DigitalTonto.
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