by Morag Barrett

Organizational change is hard but it doesn’t have to be

Jun 28, 2016
IT LeadershipIT SkillsIT Strategy

Change is the one constant in all our lives, professional and personal. However while most of us know we should be doing, there is often a disconnect in what we actually choose to do, whether you are leading a major corporate change or a personal change.

I’m currently working with a client to build a basic change management capability in their leadership team. Until now the company has been very entrepreneurial, small and nimble. If someone shouted “turn left” the organization turned left. However they have now grown to a size where this ad hoc approach is no longer effective.

When I interviewed the leadership team to better understand their challenges they acknowledged that things had become chaotic, change “escaped” rather than being “released.” As a result change felt uncoordinated (several examples of several people working on a change effort without awareness of each others efforts) and as a result new processes and systems didn’t stick. There was no clear process or accountability for how change was managed or to ensure there was follow through.

Maybe you recognize these symptoms in your organization.

It seems to me that this team, as with many, was approaching the need for change from a purely logical, analytical perspective. When a few leaders perceived a need for change they assumed that this need was obvious to all, and therefore everyone would be on board and embrace the change. 

If only it were that simple. 

Unfortunately experience has shown me that this isn’t the case. Effective change follows two paths, the logical analytic path that engages the brain and the emotional path that engages the heart, and it is the emotional path that rules the day. If you overlook it’s importance or neglect it all together, I can guarantee you will have a change flop and be disappointed with your results and with others.

This dual path applies whether you are working on a major corporate change or a personal change.

I worked with one company that was on a major acquisition spree, they purchased 7 companies in 5 years. A mammoth task and change program by anyone’s standards. My team and I were brought in when the politics, silos and turf wars threatened Armageddon and the end of the organization as they knew it. A little later than we would’ve liked, but better late than never!

In this particular example much time and effort had been invested in ensuring the technology, systems and processes were integrated. In many ways the acquisitions had been successful in that there was one accounting system, one customer relationship management system, one expense reimbursement system. Payroll was being maintained, benefits packages had been aligned. 

Unfortunately, on the other path, little care and consideration had been given to the people integration. How these new colleagues would work together, the values, the behaviors and teamwork required to implement the new technology, systems or processes. Instead there was an overt battle between the “winners and losers,” debate about who had acquired who. Battle lines were drawn and it was rapidly heading downhill from there.

The learning is that you ignore the emotional path at your peril.

What’s your experience of change?

Think about your own experience of change. What’s the most significant behavioral change you’ve made as an adult?

  • For some, it’s quitting smoking or drinking, or making healthy changes in eating and exercising.
  • For others, it’s becoming a better listener, a more effective manager, or a more attentive partner or spouse.

No matter what changes you’ve made, whether physical, social or work-related, almost everyone agrees that lasting change is hard. It requires determination, motivation, vigilance, persistence and long-term commitment.

Many of my clients come to me highly motivated to make changes. Yet even with high motivation, support and ideal conditions, it’s still hard to break bad habits.

I know from personal experience how hard it can be to change habits, I am still an aspiring athlete rather than a perspiring athlete! To help me to change my fitness level I worked with a personal coach, it was great, she held me accountable for completing my workout and pushing myself. I was in good shape, I knew how to use the machines at the gym, and decided I was ready to “go it alone.” It was like I had flicked a switch, unfortunately not for the better. When I stopped working out with my personal coach, I stopped working out.

It’s said that it takes six attempts for most smokers who say they’d like to quit to try and succeed. It looks like I may have the same stop-start-stop challenge when it comes to exercise (just in case you are concerned about my couch-potato tendencies I have been working out twice a week for the last 6 weeks…)

If change is hard, and long lasting behavioral change is harder what can you do?

Here’s a quick tip to break a habit and start effecting long-term change. When you feel yourself falling into old habits, pause, take a long, deep breath, count to six, and then exhale slowly. This allows you to step back from reactive habits and initiate a new, healthier response to any situation. A six-second breath is a way to pause, gain awareness, gather energy, and choose how you will proceed. And that’s the secret, you need to respond through choice not react through habit.

Knowing isn’t doing

The guidelines for changing habits are pretty simple:

  • If you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories than you burn up, and do it over a length of time until you reach your goal weight.
  • If you want to quit smoking, pick a quit date, get rid of cigarettes and smoking triggers, and don’t smoke no matter what, until the urges stop and the chemicals are out of your system.
  • If you want to improve your public speaking skills, then video yourself, get feedback from others, practice and volunteer for speaking opportunities.
  • To get fit, go to a gym or learn a sport, practice every day, get some coaching or training, and track your progress over a length of time. (Maybe I’ll see you there!)

None of these programs are complicated. We all know what we should do, and often the answer isn’t rocket science. But simplicity doesn’t necessarily beget easy. All of us resist change; we’re susceptible to fallibility when making plans and sticking to them. If we understand human nature enough, we should be able to anticipate resistance and circumvent unhealthy reactions that sabotage our efforts. But that doesn’t always happen.

Next time I’ll share recommendations for sustaining change. Bridging the knowing-doing gap. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. How have you successfully made behavioral changes and stuck with them? Share your comments below.