The four rules for successful change management

Change is truly constant. No business and no person remains the same. Because we are all constantly engaged in a complex dance of evolution as an adaptive response to the changes we feel happening around us it seems strange that we have so many “change management” courses. Even stranger, for people whose entire life is spent living in constant change we seem to be really bad at actually dealing with it.

When research shows that the failure rate for organizational change projects has ranged at a staggering 60% - 70% since the 70s the implication is that we are approaching change entirely wrong.

Here’s why: Cost.

Fundamentally change is a redirection of mental, physical and psychological resources to do things differently. Whether this happens at the level of the individual or the organization the dynamic is the same. Processes that are in place and already working will have to be modified, assessed and refined or worse, abandoned, redrawn and implemented from scratch in order for the same individual or organization to reach towards a future outcome.

Because there is a cost to everything such radical change requires an additional cognitive, physical and psychological load to be shouldered. That precisely is the problem. A person contemplating the need to rethink their self-indulgent lifestyle, change their eating habits and exercise so they can get healthier and fitter knows fully well that this entirely logical and it is a change that will increase the likelihood of enjoying better quality of life in the future. Similarly, a company that undertakes organizational change knows that it’s the smart thing to do in order to remain viable long term. These are demands made by the future upon our present. Individuals and companies feel these all the time. And both resist them, equally.

There is nothing wrong with the capability for logical thought of either entity. The problem is the cost. Always the cost. Getting fit is hard work. We know we shall get tired. We know we won’t be able to have chocolate cake whenever we feel like it. We know we shall experience intense discomfort in our attempt to raise the performance bar of our bodies. We know it’s going to hurt. Similarly, a company knows it will face disruption. It knows tempers will flare. Costs will be incurred. Political in-fighting will kick off and careers will be made and burnt. A company (and everyone inside it) knows change will hurt.

By focusing at the magnitude of the change required we’re like the person standing at the foot of the mountain. We feel small, weak, inadequate. The mountain stands tall, immovable and unforgiving. We are aware only of the potential pain lying ahead and the distinct possibility of failure.

Baby Steps

The thing is we’ve been there before and there’s a model we can apply that is an infallible as it is methodical. Usain Bolt didn’t start breaking records and winning events as soon as he could run and even as clear a prodigy as he is, took time to develop physically as he worked his way up from youth to junior to senior athlete. Similarly, none of us one day, stood up from a crawling position and started to run.

Running is an ability so taken for granted that there is a pair of running shoes at the back of the closet of the majority of people. Universally, there is no healthy adult who cannot simply get up and run. And yet, such a biomechanically complex movement, when it comes to performing it properly, with a clear intent to achieve a specific outcome (get faster, lose weight, be fitter, increase endurance, etc) requires us to acquire specific knowledge of technique and get some training in. We all manage to do it.

Change is no different. It needs to be broken down into discreet, manageable events that set us up for success, much the way taking our first steps as toddlers leads us to develop the complex yet universal ability to run.

Some change management gurus suggest that the factors involved should be Duration, Integrity, Commitment and Effort. Others suggest ways in which change can be turned into a manageable process subject to accountability, transparency and assessment. They’re all right but none of that will get us any further than the logic of something that needs to be done because the future demands it.

So, like toddlers learning to walk before we can manage to run, here’s how we can best tackle it so that change becomes manageable every single time.

Making long term change happen incrementally

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The Blueprint for Successful Change Management

Just like toddlers standing up and taking their first steps successful change management has its own four-step structure:

  • Set incremental goals. Go to the next logical thing based not on what is necessary but on what your strengths, skills and abilities allow you to. It will still be challenging and it will stretch you but it’s manageable and with a little effort it can be mastered.
  • Celebrate every success. Make each success part of your present. Own it. Contextualize it in terms of what you want to achieve long term and where you want to go, but nevertheless feel pride in what you did and develop a sense of real capability in achieving positive outcomes.
  • Formalize it. Make incremental progress and improvement part of your identity. Don’t “achieve and forget”. Each success becomes the building block of who you are. Each failure becomes a hard-earned lesson on how to come back stronger and better.
  • Apply it. Managing change, just like learning to walk and (later) to run requires constant practice and reinforcement. To do it successfully you need to make it part of your DNA instead of a ‘grand plan’ or a ‘major project’.

The army uses this four-step process to turn ordinary men and women into highly-efficient, very well trained individuals capable of performing at incredibly high levels even when under immense pressure. Similarly, elite athletes use the exact same process to learn how to perform seemingly incredible feats. The same principles applies to Go masters and world class Chess players. None of them start out looking at the very distant goal and trying to manage it all in one go. Neither should you.

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