Instituting cultural change across an organization is tough work. When faced with this challenge, remember the words of systems scientist and author Peter Senge, “people don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”
Or consider Samuel Rodenhizer’s description (italics mine). “The fact of the matter is that nearly everyone wants the world to change. We want things in the world to improve. In both the larger world and in our own private world. But we want this improvement to take place without any change on OUR PART.”
Together, these quotations suggest that we (1) do not want to change AND (2) do not want others to change us. So how can we create personal and organizational imbalance to accelerate change? In my experience, 7 key elements prove useful to foster an environment where change flourishes:
- Describe a compelling reason to change – Address (a) why change is important for the organization and (b) why it is critical now. If the company is in a precarious financial position, change may require some belt-tightening. Alternatively, if the competition just leap-frogged your technological blockade you may need to re-position your solution in the marketplace. Regardless, there must be a reason to change – describe why.
- Answer “what’s in it for me” – For some people a corporate rational isn’t enough to begin changing. For them, describe why it makes sense to change at a personal level. For example, “by taking training in a new technology, your skills will be more relevant inside the company (which may save your job) and outside the company (which may open up opportunities).”
- Join the movement – One reason we encounter “resistance to change” is that we describe it as something that happens “to” someone instead of “with” someone. Become part of the solution and describe that we will change. This simple perspective shift redirects the conversation from “you must” to “we will.” Being in the thick of the change with your team sends a powerful message.
- Create an appealing vision – When (not if) we change, the outcome must be something worthwhile to people. Describe how the corporate/personal trajectory will differ as we change. In our earlier example, we might suggest that by trimming expenses now we create space to innovate our way to a position of market dominance.
- Describe how to effect change – Much change is difficult but every journey begins with a single step. Many people will need help deciding how to start. James Clear’s book Atomic Habits lays out excellent pointers. One I particularly like is what he calls “habit stacking” the process of building new habits by identifying “a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top.”
- Persevere in the face of failure(s) – We know change is difficult. Help people anticipate hardship and reinforce perseverance as a way to achieving the desired outcome(s). In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Angela Duckworth describes that “what really drives success is not “genius” but a unique combination of passion and long-term perseverance.” One sure way to fail is to give up too soon.
- Be clear about the alternative – Failure to change demands significant consequences when people resist changing. So be clear about what happens if people don’t/won’t change. Not everyone will catch on. As I have previously said to colleagues “we need people to change, or we need to change the people.” Traeger’s CEO did just that as described in this HBR article.
Accelerating change requires all 7 elements.
Before initiating organizational changes, examine each element to decide your strategy. The pivot point is that when you can address each one, you are ready to start. If you can’t, you aren’t prepared. For example, if your company is not prepared to implement significant consequences (#7), then you do not have a compelling reason to change in the first place (#1). Good luck!