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Four Keys to Successful Change

Ever try to get someone to change the way they do something that they've been doing the same way for years? Ever try to break one of your own habits? It's not easy. Not because people are intentionally contrary or obstinate, but because big parts of our brains operate on autopilot, in deep grooves of habit, and establishing new pathways is hard.

This can be a serious problem for individuals or managers who find themselves in the midst of major change efforts.

There are four things you can do to help make change happen:

Sell the problem, not the solution.

Prehistoric man only began raising crops in earnest once the wooly mammoths started dying out

People aren't in the market for solutions to problems they don't see or understand, writes William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions. For example, prehistoric humans were probably more inclined to give up their hunter-gatherer ways to grow crops once they really understood that the wooly mammoths were dying out.

To really sell change, you have to touch people's emotions. “Motivation is not a thinking word; it's a feeling word," says John Kotter, Harvard professor and best-selling leadership author. People have to feel a sense of threat, crisis or dissatisfaction before they have enough motivation to start the process of unlearning and relearning, according to Edgar Schein, an MIT Sloan professor and expert in organizational culture.

However, you have to be careful with how you use burning platforms, warns Kotter. If that's all you do, you can create a panic that stops new action. Fear makes people focus on self-preservation instead of organizational transformation. The way around this, says Schein, is to make sure that while people feel a sense of threat in the old, they also feel a sense of psychological safety about learning the new.

Focus attention.

Once you create the impetus for people to move away from the old, you have to provide them with a clear vision of the new alternative. Imagine the panic among the cavemen and women once they understood that their prey was disappearing from the land and before they realized they could domestic certain plants and animals to generate their own source of food.

Focus is essential because the working memory part of our brains can only hold a few concepts in mind at one time. The worst thing you can do in a change effort is overwhelm people with lots of extraneous information and detail. (For a great talk on this topic, check out David Rock speaking at Google on YouTube.)

It's important to distinguish between the overall mission of the group and its specific objectives. As long as you can show people that the new objectives still support the mission or core purpose of the group, it will be easier for them to switch. Early man's mission was to eat to survive, not to hunt and kill mammoths.

Engage everyone in the change.

Everyone should have a role to play in the change – otherwise it will be something that's being done to them. People have to be able to see themselves in the new future, and that will be easier if they play a part in shaping it.

The prospect of change causes uncertainty and anxiety in people. That anxiety is overcome when people have a personal insight. People have an insight by paying attention and reaching their own conclusions. And such insight is solidified when people voice their ideas. In fact, brain research shows that paying attention, having an insight and voicing ideas create a lot more activity and connections in the brain than reading about or hearing someone else voice a new idea.

What's more, insight makes people feel better. Just as uncertainty causes anxiety, reaching a personal insight causes real pleasure. This reinforces the learning in ways few other things can.

Craft a message that's simple and strong.

There are three keys to communicating change.

  1. When formulating your message, choose your words carefully. Words matter, and many a change effort has been derailed by a careless remark by a company leader.
  2. Images are better than words to create an emotional connection, so show, don't tell, by telling stories that paint a picture or using actual physical evidence or demonstrations to emphasize your point.
  3. Effective communication requires repetition. There is so much that can get in the way of human communication. It's rarely sufficient to tell something once and expect the message to get through. Don't stop at the memo; use blogs, posters, town hall meetings, one on ones.... and then ask questions and listen to make sure your message is getting through in the way you intend.

Most people don't resist change intentionally; resistance to change is part of our DNA. So if you want to change people's behavior, remember these four things:

Sell the problem, not the solution – you've got to help people get unstuck from where they are.

Focus people's attention – be very clear about the new priorities.

Engage everyone in the process of solving the problem – this is much more important than any particular solution.

Finally, keep your message simple, strengthen it by painting a picture that captures people's imaginations, and broadcast it far and wide.

See my recent presentation, “Leading in a Turbulent World," on Slideshare. You can view the slides on my previous post, but to read the substance of the talk, go to the Slideshare version.

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Comments

  1. Valuable ideas that tailgate with one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, this past spring in the M.Ed program at UMass-Boston (Adult as Learner). Also relevant, with my company one year into having been acquired and having to adjust to much change, including some communication snafus that can leave people confused, anxious, frustrated and angry. The message of positive change and opportunity can thus sometimes get lost.

  2. Thanks Laurie. I’d love to know what kind of communication snafus. I’m compiling a list for a future post. Care to share?

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