Human change

By Matthew Stibbe
Change management is not a new thing. The idea that change is constant goes back to the ancient Greeks. ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice,’ said change consultant Heraclitus 2,500 years ago.
Today the world is changing faster than ever and businesses must evolve fast or die. In part this is driven by the pace of technology adoption. For example, it took decades for the telephone to reach the majority of households, but mobile phones got there in five years.
Yet ‘there is nothing more difficult and dangerous or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things,’ as management guru Niccolo Machiavelli observed in his book The CEO Prince.
This is the central dilemma of our time: change is essential but difficult. It’s easier to sign the purchase order for some new IT project than it is to get people to use it. In this light, change management is a core competence for successful businesses.
Entrepreneurs and employees
Entrepreneurs and business leaders have a higher tolerance for uncertainty, the ability to predict the benefits of change and less aversion to the risk of failure. Employees, not so much.
It’s like two people looking at a run-down house they might buy together. One can see that it would look great with a lick of paint, a bit of DIY and some new furniture and in any case ‘we need more space’. The other sees a dismal swamp that needs a lot of work and would rather stay in their smaller, but familiar and cosy, apartment.
This is not to say that one attitude is morally superior to the other. But in smaller, entrepreneurial companies’ business leaders tend to push for change and employees tend to resist it and, arguably, in larger, more established companies it is the other way around. And in some cases, an inflexible middle-management layer can be the obstacle to change.
Resistance is inevitable
The rational brain is only one partner in the decision-making process. Emotions also play a strong part. Understanding these emotional responses is an important part of change management.
  • Nostalgia. An old system can be a symbol of a previous, happier way of working. For example, when two companies merge and one company’s systems replace the others, this change can be emblematic of a wider loss of identity.
  • Sunk cost fallacy. It’s easy to feel that time spent making a bad system work is a good investment and shouldn’t be thrown away but, in fact, that cost has already been paid. The only useful yardstick is based on the future cost and benefit of change vs doing nothing.
  • Fear of loss. Change is scary because it brings uncertainty. Old skills become less valuable and perhaps people feel their jobs or prospects are at risk. Loss aversion is a very powerful feeling.
  • Need for status. People who have invested in mastering an old system are threatened by the introduction of a new one. They feel that their knowledge and experience is being disrespected.
  • Laziness. Some people don’t like learning new things or they feel that they will have to spend their own time to do so and they don’t want to make that investment.
  • They think it won’t work. If they don’t trust the company, if previous change projects have failed, if they don’t see the bigger picture or they have the power to sabotage it, failure looks like a real possibility so why bother making the change in the first place?
How do you overcome these understandable concerns?
  • Get the culture right. It is essential to build a nurturing company culture where people feel safe, respected and empowered even when taking risks and embracing the new.
  • Don’t change too much. Pick your battles. Don’t force too much change on people at the same time. Go for the 90 percent solution.
  • Be open and honest. Be clear about the impact of change on employees and discuss their concerns and answer their questions openly.
  • Link change to progress. Reward technology adoption. Incentivise process innovation. Explain why the change you want is important.
  • Identify who has something to lose. Address these concerns head on. Perhaps training, a new role or different responsibilities will allay their concerns.
  • Change is a process not an event. Your new project isn’t finished the day you switch on the new technology, deploy the new application or complete the roll out. That’s when it starts.
  • Empathy and compassion. There’s an old Buddhist saying: ‘There is no solution. Seek it lovingly.’ Try to understand how people will be affected emotionally as well as practically by the planned change.
  • Engagement. User councils, feedback forums, suggestion boxes, management by wandering around, listening carefully and responding truthfully are all ways to help people overcome their fear of change and address their concerns.
  • Create ambassadors. Some people will embrace change, engage with new technology and adapt quickly. Identify these people, engage with them early and make them ambassadors for change.
  • Celebrate success. Reward people and celebrate milestones, especially early on, to create momentum and psychological buy-in.
Paying attention to the human dimension of change makes it less painful and more likely to succeed.
Also by Matthew Stibbe
Matthew StibbeMatthew Stibbe is CEO of Articulate Marketing, a specialist agency with clients including Microsoft, HP, Symantec and LinkedIn. He is also founder of Turbine, an online purchasing, time off and expenses management tool.