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Three Surprises About Change

You can see how easy it would be to turn an easy change problem (shrinking people’s buckets) into a hard change problem (convincing people to think differently). And that’s the first surprise about change: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

All change efforts have something in common: For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.

Ultimately, all change efforts boil down to the same mission: Can you get people to start behaving in a new way?

To change someone’s behavior, you’ve got to change that person’s situation.

For individuals’ behavior to change, you’ve got to influence not only their environment but their hearts and minds.

We are schizophrenic. Part of us — our rational side — and the other part of us — the emotional side. The unavoidable conclusion is this: Your brain isn’t of one mind. In the past few decades, psychologists have learned a lot about these two systems, but of course mankind has always been aware of the tension.

More recently, behavioral economists dubbed the two systems the Planner and the Doer. But, to us, the duo’s tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.

The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin). The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment (all those things that your pet can’t do).

If you’re contemplating a change, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy.

When Rider and Elephant disagree about which way to move, you’ve got a problem. The Rider can get his way temporarily. But the Rider can’t win a tug-of-war with a huge animal for long. He simply gets exhausted. Self-control is an exhaustible resource. This is a crucial realization.

Much of our daily behavior, in fact, is more automatic than supervised, and that’s a good thing because the supervised behavior is the hard stuff. It’s draining.

When people try to change things, they’re usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the Rider. Change is hard because people wear themselves out. And that’s the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. If the Rider isn’t sure exactly what direction to go, he tends to lead the Elephant in circles. And as we’ll see, that tendency explains the third and final surprise about change: What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

How do you get Americans to start drinking low-fat milk? You make sure it shows up in their refrigerators. You don’t need to change drinking behavior. You need to change purchasing behavior.

Change as the basic three-part framework:

  • Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So, provide crystal-clear direction.
  • Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. The Rider can’t get his way by force for very long. So, it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side — get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.
  • Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. We call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the “Path.” When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.

We created this framework to be useful for people who don’t have scads of authority or resources.

The world doesn’t always want what you want. You want to change how others are acting, but they get a vote. You can cajole, influence, inspire, and motivate — but sometimes an employee would rather lose his job than move out of his comfortable routines.

To change behavior, you’ve got to direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant, and shape the Path. If you can do all three at once, dramatic change can happen even if you don’t have lots of power or resources behind you.

Some is not a number; soon is not a time.

Direct the Rider

Find the Bright Spots

Knowledge does not change behavior.

The “Not Invented Here” problem. Some people have a knee-jerk skeptical response to “imported” solutions.

Those people aren’t like us. Our situation is more complicated than that. Those ideas wouldn’t work here.

The Rider part of our minds has many strengths. The Rider is a thinker and a planner and can plot a course for a better future. But as we’ve seen, the Rider has a terrible weakness — the tendency to spin his wheels. The Rider loves to contemplate and analyze, and, making matters worse, his analysis is almost always directed at problems rather than at bright spots.

In tough times, the Rider sees problems everywhere, and “analysis paralysis” often kicks in.

Solutions-focused therapy was invented in the late 1970s by a husband-and-wife therapist team, Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, and their colleagues at the Brief Family Therapy Center in Milwaukee. Solutions-focused therapy is radically different from traditional therapy.

In classical psychotherapy (think Tony Soprano and Dr . Melfi), you and your therapist explore your problem. There’s a sense of archaeological excavation. Solutions-focused therapists, in contrast, couldn’t care less about archaeology. Solutions-focused therapists use a common set of techniques for discovering potential solutions.

Bright spots provide not only direction for the Rider but hope and motivation for the Elephant. The bright spots give you an action plan. “What’s working and how can we do more of it?” That’s the bright-spot philosophy in a single question.

Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.

A psychologist analyzed 558 emotion words — every one that he could find in the English language — and found that 62 percent of them were negative versus 38 percent positive. This negative focus is not confined to emotions. Across the board, we seem wired to focus on the negative.

A particular strain of this “bad is stronger than good” bias is critical when it comes to tackling change. Let’s call it a problem focus.

Our Rider has a problem focus when he needs a solution focus. If you are a manager, ask yourself: “What is the ratio of the time I spend solving problems to the time I spend scaling successes?”

We need to switch from archaeological problem solving to bright-spot evangelizing.

These flashes of success — these bright spots — can illuminate the road map for action and spark the hope that change is possible.

Script the Critical Moves

What happened here is decision paralysis. More options, even good ones, can freeze us and make us retreat to the default plan.

Decisions are the Rider’s turf, and because they require careful supervision and self-control, they tax the Rider’s strength. The more choices the Rider is offered, the more exhausted the Rider gets.

The status quo feels comfortable and steady because much of the choice has been squeezed out. You have your routines, your ways of doing things. Change brings new choices that create uncertainty.

Ambiguity is exhausting to the Rider, because the Rider is tugging on the reins of the Elephant, trying to direct the Elephant down a new path. But when the road is uncertain, the Elephant will insist on taking the default path, the most familiar path, just as the doctors did. Why? Because uncertainty makes the Elephant anxious.

And that’s why decision paralysis can be deadly for change — because the most familiar path is always the status quo.

Many leaders pride themselves on setting high-level direction: I’ll set the vision and stay out of the details. It’s true that a compelling vision is critical. But it’s not enough. Big-picture, hands-off leadership isn’t likely to work in a change situation, because the hardest part of change — the paralyzing part — is precisely in the details.

Ambiguity is the enemy. Any successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. In short, to make a switch, you need to script the critical moves.

In a pioneering study of organizational change, described in the book The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal, they found that, across the spectrum, almost everyone set goals: 89 percent of the top third and 86 percent of the bottom third. But the more successful change transformations were more likely to set behavioral goals: 89 percent of the top third versus only 33 percent of the bottom third. To create movement, you’ve got to be specific and be concrete.

We all hear a lot of “common sense” wisdom about change: People don’t like to change; people resist change; people are set in their ways; people are stubborn.

Clarity dissolves resistance.

Point to the Destination

A destination postcard — a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible.

We’ve seen the importance of pursuing bright spots, and we’ve discussed ways of instructing the Rider how to behave, but we haven’t answered a very basic question: Where are we headed in the end? What’s the destination?

In the 1980s, a major study of corporate change efforts found that financial goals inspired successful change less well than did more emotional goals, such as the goal to provide better service to customers or to make more useful products.

Destination postcards do double duty: They show the Rider where you’re headed, and they show the Elephant why the journey is worthwhile. Destination postcards — pictures of a future that hard work can make possible — can be incredibly inspiring.

We’re all loophole-exploiting lawyers when it comes to our own self-control. What is essential, though, is to marry your long-term goal with short-term critical moves.

You have to back up your destination postcard with a good behavioral script. That’s a recipe for success. What you don’t need to do is anticipate every turn in the road between today and the destination. It’s not that plotting the whole journey is undesirable; it’s that it’s impossible. To think that you can plot a turn-by-turn map to the end, like a leader’s version of Mapquest, is almost certainly hubris. When you’re at the beginning, don’t obsess about the middle, because the middle is going to look different once you get there. Just look for a strong beginning and a strong ending and get moving.

On the plus side of the ledger, the Rider is a visionary. He’s willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs (which is why he fights so often with the Elephant, who generally prefers immediate gratification). He’s a clever tactician, too — give him a map and he’ll follow it perfectly. But we’ve also seen plenty of evidence of the Rider’s flaws — his limited reserves of strength, his paralysis in the face of ambiguity and choice, and his relentless focus on problems rather than solutions. Here’s the good news: The Rider’s strengths are substantial, and his flaws can be mitigated.

Motivate the Elephant

Find the Feeling

In The Heart of Change, John Kotter and Dan Cohen report on a study they conducted with the help of a team at Deloitte Consulting.

Summarizing the data, Kotter and Cohen said that in most change situations, managers initially focus on strategy, structure, culture, or systems, which leads them to miss the most important issue: …the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens in highly successful situations mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.

When change works, it’s because leaders are speaking to the Elephant as well as to the Rider.

Kotter and Cohen note that analytical tools work best when “parameters are known, assumptions are minimal, and the future is not fuzzy.” But big change situations don’t look like that.

Kotter and Cohen observed that, in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.

At Microsoft, for instance, one test of a new feature showed that six out of ten users couldn’t figure out how to use it. When the test lab shared the data with the developers, their reaction was, “Where’d you find six dumb people?”

We’re all lousy self-evaluators.

We’ve all heard the studies showing that the vast majority of us consider ourselves above-average drivers. In the psychology literature, this belief is known as a positive illusion.

Positive illusions pose an enormous problem with regard to change. Before people can change, before they can move in a new direction, they’ve got to have their bearings. But positive illusions make it hard for us to orient ourselves — to get a clear picture of where we are and how we’re doing.

It’s emotion that motivates the Elephant. In fighting for change, we’ve got to find the feeling.

We often hear that people change only when a crisis compels them to, which implies that we need to create a sense of fear or anxiety or doom.

If you need quick and specific action, then negative emotions might help. But most of the time when change is needed, it’s not a stone-in-the-shoe situation.

The psychologist Barbara Fredrickson wrote a provocative paper called “What Good Are Positive Emotions?”

As Fredrickson suggested in her title, positive emotions are a bit of a puzzle. Unlike negative emotions, they don’t seem engineered to produce particular actions, such as punching or fleeing or avoiding.

Fredrickson argues that, in contrast with the narrowing effects of the negative emotions, positive emotions are designed to “broaden and build” our repertoire of thoughts and actions.

Shrink the Change

That sense of progress is critical, because the Elephant in us is easily demoralized. It’s easily spooked, easily derailed, and for that reason, it needs reassurance, even for the very first step of the journey.

A business cliché commands us to “raise the bar.” But that’s exactly the wrong instinct if you want to motivate a reluctant Elephant. You need to lower the bar. Picture taking a high-jump bar and lowering it so far that it can be stepped over. If you want a reluctant Elephant to get moving, you need to shrink the change.

If people are facing a daunting task, and their instinct is to avoid it, you’ve got to break down the task. Shrink the change. Make the change small enough that they can’t help but score a victory.

One way to shrink change, then, is to limit the investment you’re asking for — only 5 minutes of housecleaning, only one small debt. Another way to shrink change is to think of small wins — milestones that are within reach.

When you engineer early successes, what you’re really doing is engineering hope. Hope is precious to a change effort. It’s Elephant fuel. Once people are on the path and making progress, it’s important to make their advances visible. When you set small, visible goals, and people achieve them, they start to get it into their heads that they can succeed. They break the habit of losing and begin to get into the habit of winning.

No one can guarantee a small win. Lots of things are out of our control. But the goal is to be wise about the things that are under our control. And one thing we can control is how we define the ultimate victory and the small victories that lead up to it.

You want to select small wins that have two traits: They’re meaningful. They’re “within immediate reach”.

The Elephant has no trouble conquering these micro-milestones, and as it does, something else happens. With each step, the Elephant feels less scared and less reluctant, because things are working. With each step, the Elephant starts feeling the change. A journey that started with dread is evolving, slowly, toward a feeling of confidence and pride. And at the same time the change is shrinking, the Elephant is growing.

James March, a professor of political science at Stanford University. March says that when people make choices, they tend to rely on one of two basic models of decision making: the consequences model or the identity model. The consequences model is familiar to students of economics. It assumes that when we have a decision to make, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. It’s a rational, analytical approach.

Grow Your People

In the identity model of decision making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Notice what’s missing: any calculation of costs and benefits. The identity model explains the way most people vote, which contradicts our notion of the “self-interested voter.”

Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure.

Identity is going to play a role in nearly every change situation. Even yours. When you think about the people whose behavior needs to change, ask yourself whether they would agree with this statement: “I aspire to be the kind of person who would make this change.” If their answer is yes, that’s an enormous factor in your favor. If their answer is no, then you’ll have to work hard to show them that they should aspire to a different self-image.

To see what this means in a business context, consider a firm that invented an identity that subsequently became the engine of its success. The firm is Brasilata — it’s a US $ 170 million manufacturing firm in Brazil that produces various kinds of steel cans. A new identity was the core of the program. Employees of Brasilata became known as “inventors,” and when new employees joined the firm, they were asked to sign an “innovation contract.” In 2008, employees submitted 134,846 ideas — an average of 145.2 ideas per inventor! Another unexpected idea was jointly suggested by two employees: Eliminate our jobs; they’re not necessary anymore. The idea was accepted, but the company found a new place for the employees.

James March’s three identity questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?

There is a problem, though. A new identity can take root quickly, but living up to it is awfully hard.

Here’s the thing: When you fight to make your switch, especially one that involves a new identity, is going to involve failure. And the Elephant really, really hates to fail. This presents a difficulty for you when you are trying to change or when you’re trying to lead change. You know that you or your audience will fail, and you know that the failure will trigger the “flight” instinct.

You need to create the expectation of failure — not the failure of the mission itself, but failure en route.

People who have a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are basically static. If you are someone with a fixed mindset, you tend to avoid challenges, because if you fail, you fear that others will see your failure as an indication of your true ability and see you as a loser.

In contrast, people who have a growth mindset believe that abilities are like muscles.

Fixed versus growth: Which are you?

People with a growth mindset — those who stretch themselves, take risks, accept feedback, and take the long-term view — can’t help but progress in their lives and careers.

In the business world, we implicitly reject the growth mindset. Businesspeople think in terms of two stages: You plan, and then you execute. There’s no “learning stage” or “practice stage” in the middle.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter observes in studying large organizations, “Everything can look like a failure in the middle.”

One of IDEO’s designers even sketched out a “project mood chart” that predicts how people will feel at different phases of a project. It’s a U-shaped curve with a peak of positive emotion, labeled “hope,” at the beginning, and a second peak of positive emotion, labeled “confidence,” at the end. In between the two peaks is a negative emotional valley labeled “insight.”

When a team embarks on a new project, team members are filled with hope and optimism. The project often feels like a failure in the middle. And they come to realize, we’ve cracked this problem. That’s when the team reaches the peak of confidence.

We will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down — but throughout, we’ll get better, and we’ll succeed in the end.

Failing is often the best way to learn, and because of that, early failure is a kind of necessary investment.

The central challenge of change is keeping the Elephant moving forward. Whereas the Rider needs direction, the Elephant needs motivation. And we’ve seen that motivation comes from feeling — knowledge isn’t enough to motivate change. But motivation also comes from confidence. The Elephant has to believe that it’s capable of conquering the change. And there are two routes to building people’s confidence so that they feel “big” relative to their challenge. You can shrink the change or grow your people (or, preferably, both).

Shape the Path

Tweak the Environment

We are frequently blind to the power of situations.

Stanford psychologist Lee Ross – people have a systematic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. He called this deep-rooted tendency the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.

If you want people to change, you can provide clear direction (Rider) or boost their motivation and determination (Elephant). Alternatively, you can simply make the journey easier. You can shape the Path.

What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. And no matter what your role is, you’ve got some control over the situation.

Tweaking the environment is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.

You know you’ve got a smart solution when everyone hates it and it still works — and in fact works so well that people’s hate turns to enthusiasm.

With some simple tweaks to the environment, suddenly the right behaviors emerged. It wasn’t the people who changed; it was the situation. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

We all play these games with ourselves, trying to nudge ourselves to do the right thing. Self-manipulation works.

Rackspace wasn’t always so customer-friendly. In 1999, Rackspace didn’t think much about customer service. Company founder Graham Weston said that in the early days, Rackspace had a “denial of service” business model. Customer-service interactions were viewed as costs to be minimized — the more roadblocks that could be erected to keep the phone from ringing, the better the profits would be.

Simple tweaks of the Path can lead to dramatic changes in behavior.

Build Habits

People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture — to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in.

One of the subtle ways in which our environment acts on us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits.

Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University. He and colleague Veronika Brandstatter found that action triggers are quite effective in motivating action.

Action triggers won’t get you (or anyone else) to do something you truly don’t want to do. Action triggers have unexpected value. Gollwitzer says that when people predecide, they “pass the control of their behavior on to the environment.” Gollwitzer says that action triggers “protect goals from tempting distractions, bad habits, or competing goals.”

Action triggers simply have to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt people’s normal stream of consciousness.

Gollwitzer has shown that action triggers are most useful in the most difficult situations — the ones that are most draining to the Rider’s self-control. Gollwitzer says that, in essence, what action triggers do is create an “instant habit.” Habits are behavioral autopilot.

Instant habits. This is a rare point of intersection between the aspirations of self-help and the reality of science.

Habits are behavioral autopilot, and that’s why they’re such a critical tool for leaders. Leaders who can instill habits that reinforce their teams’ goals are essentially making progress for free. They’ve changed behavior in a way that doesn’t draw down the Rider’s reserves of self-control.

Checklists educate people about what’s best, showing them the ironclad right way to do something. Has your business ever made a big mistake because it failed to consider all the right information? A checklist might have helped. Checklists simply make big screwups less likely.

How can you create an environment that would make it easier for you, or your team, to change? We’ve seen that supportive habits — like holding stand-up meetings or eating two daily bowls of soup — can help, and so can action triggers that allow you to preload difficult decisions. Even a simple checklist can make a difference.

Rally the Herd

THINK OF THE last time you were in a situation where you weren’t totally sure how to behave.

What did you do to try to fit in? You watched other people, of course. In ambiguous situations, we all look to others for cues about how to behave.

Why do groups fail to respond as well as individuals? In ambiguous situations, people look to others for cues about how to interpret the event. It’s clear that we imitate the behaviors of others, whether consciously or not. We are especially keen to see what they’re doing when the situation is unfamiliar or ambiguous. And change situations are, by definition, unfamiliar!

When you’re leading an Elephant on an unfamiliar path, chances are it’s going to follow the herd. So how do you create a herd?

Former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner said, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game.”

If you want to change the culture of your organization, you’ve got to get the reformers together. They need a free space. They need time to coordinate outside the gaze of the resisters.

Keep the Switch Going

So, yes, a long journey starts with a single step, but a single step doesn’t guarantee the long journey. How do you keep those steps coming?

You’ve directed the Rider, you’ve motivated the Elephant, you’ve shaped the Path — and now your team is moving, or you’re moving. When you spot movement, you’ve got to reinforce it.

Reinforcement is the secret to getting past the first step of your long journey and on to the second, third, and hundredth steps. And that’s a problem, because most of us are terrible reinforcers. Change isn’t an event; it’s a process. Once the change started, it seemed to feed on itself. We’ve seen this snowballing effect many times.

Cognitive dissonance works in your favor. People don’t like to act in one way and think in another. Although inertia may be a formidable opponent in the early goings of your switch, at some point inertia will shift from resisting change to supporting it.

Overcoming Obstacles

  • Here we list twelve common problems that people encounter as they fight for change:
  • People don’t see the need to change.
  • I’m having the “not invented here” problem: People resist my idea because they say “We’ve never done it like that before.”
  • We should be doing something, but we’re getting bogged down in analysis.
  • The environment has shifted, and we need to overcome our old patterns of behavior.
  • People simply aren’t motivated to change.
  • I’ll change tomorrow.
  • People keep saying, “It will never work.”
  • I know what I should be doing, but I’m not doing it.
  • You don’t know my people. They absolutely hate change.
  • People were excited at first, but then we hit some rough patches and lost momentum.
  • It’s just too much.
  • Everyone seems to agree that we need to change, but nothing’s happening.
You may also like
Howard Schultz: Onward
Jonah Berger: The Catalyst; How to Change Anyone’s Mind
Baba Prasad: Nimble; Make Yourself and Your Company Resilient in the Age of Constant Change
Thomas H. Davenport: The AI advantage, How to Put the Artificial Intelligence Revolution to Work

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