by Dan S. Cohen

Change Management: Emotions Count

Dec 01, 20059 mins
IT Leadership

Everyone wants to know why so many IT projects fail to produce the business transformation they’re expected to. The reason we found after years of studying large-scale change may surprise you. Our research, based on interviews with hundreds of executives in Fortune 1000–type companies around the world, revealed that it is not the complexity of the technology, a lack of buy-in from top management, high cost or the failure to create shareholder value that derails new projects. Instead, the single biggest challenge in any transformation project is simply getting people to change their behavior.

We also discovered that when people do change their behavior, it’s rarely because they are offered a logical analysis that shifts their thinking but because they are shown a compelling truth that influences their feelings. Emotions are what trigger action—impelling people to behave in the often radically different and difficult ways that substantial change demands. We have found that at the heart of every successful change effort lies a three-part process: 1. seeing what the problems are; 2. feeling an urgency to solve them; and 3. being emotionally compelled to act.

Too Much Thinking Going On

Recent meetings we’ve had with more than 5,100 businesspeople around the world—including many IT leaders and professionals—underscore the importance of emotions in effecting change. When talking about their most successful projects, the vast majority of respondents said they were “feeling something” as opposed to “thinking about something” during the process. Steve Jobs’ success at Apple illustrates the effectiveness of reframing a message that is simple, positive and emotional. When he returned to the company as interim CEO in 1997, Jobs recast Apple’s image as a marginalized player in the battle for market share serving an elite hive of creative innovators who dared to “think different.”

Yet many of today’s business leaders, and CIOs in particular, find it difficult to change employee behavior, because they rely on the entrenched analysis-think-change pattern. This is the model that most of us learned in business school—data about the problem is gathered and analyzed, and logical arguments are presented via reports and lectures; people change their thinking based on these “hard facts,” which motivate them to take action. CIOs, typically steeped in analytical training, are even more apt to follow this pattern and overlook the emotional element of change. Although analyzing and thinking are important, we found that seeing and feeling must be present in order to impel people to change their behaviors.

Setting the Stage

Our research revealed that there are three basic phases to the change process. The first, the preparation phase, typically involves heightening the sense of urgency, generating a clear and achievable vision, and creating guiding teams. Like powerful fuel, these activities compel people to take action. One of the most effective ways to initiate change is to use compelling, eye-catching, dramatic situations to get people to see what the problems are and to feel an urgent need to resolve them. For example, one IT team at an energy company put on a play that demonstrated the effects of inefficient manual processes versus those of a proposed real-time system. The play highlighted the frustration that occurred when balls were dropped, such as when someone took a power generator out of the maintenance facility but forgot to record it, creating an unpleasant surprise a few days later for the next person who needed one and could not find one. In comparison, a real-time system would have circumvented this problem by sending an automatic purchase order to the supplier for another power generator.

At another company, an executive placed stacks and stacks of overpriced supplies on a boardroom table to highlight inefficiencies in the purchasing process so that top leadership could see the consequences of what they were allowing to occur in the field. Yet another “blew up” a posh executive suite and replaced it with offices that encourage collaboration and conversation.

These types of actions evoke a visceral response that short-circuits the emotions that block change (complacency, fear and anger) and enhances those that support it (urgency, optimism and faith). Although logic is important for establishing the business case for change, it does not carry the same motivational clout as emotionally charged ideas.

Creating Buy-In

In addition to demonstrating compelling concepts, successful leaders also assemble teams of people who are powerful enough to guide large-scale, organizational change. These teams are charged with creating a clear and practical direction for the transformation. Once again, these activities are most effective when people are able to see the possibilities and connect with them on an emotional level. For instance, a CIO at a major food company went beyond simply talking to employees about what a new ERP system could do and how it would integrate with different areas of the business. He made the system tangible by assembling teams from each business process and giving them pieces of colored string that represented parts of the system configuration. The teams connected their strings to each other’s in spots where an integration point took place. The resulting multicolored Web demonstrated how the whole business was interconnected and how finance served as the backbone for all of the other parts—procurement, human resources, production planning and so on. In this way, the CIO established a clear vision of an efficient enterprisewide system, while simultaneously communicating why collaboration and integration were so critical.

Empowering Employees

Once people are ready and willing to move, the second phase of the change process builds momentum by enabling and empowering the whole organization. During this phase, effective leaders continue to influence people’s feelings by communicating with their stakeholders for buy-in, enabling the workforce and generating short-term wins.

Our research revealed that the most effective leaders secure support for the vision and strategies by communicating via simple, candid and heartfelt messages that address people’s emotions. Also, they communicate widely through multiple channels, ensuring that they reach all levels of the organization with a consistent message.

Show and Tell

We also found that successful leaders remove the barriers to change—whether that means removing a disempowering boss, fixing inadequate information and information systems, or boosting employees’ self-confidence. For example, one information technology company we interviewed was embarking on an enterprisewide service improvement initiative. Because the initiative was so large, it would involve substantial process change as well as organizational restructuring. Naturally, employees were anxious about how this project would affect them. Would they lose their jobs? Would they be asked to perform different functions? Was the initiative feasible or would it result in chaos?

To quell anxiety and boost confidence, the new CEO called all 200 employees into a meeting in which he spoke about a similar initiative he had undertaken at another company. During the presentation, he displayed charts that clearly illustrated how similar process changes in his old company had made the organization more efficient. He even showed videos of people at his former company talking about their hopes and vision for the future before the change and then their exuberance actually living the vision in the new organization. Perhaps most important, he answered employees’ questions candidly and reassured them that change of this magnitude had happened before and had succeeded without people losing their jobs. Because the CEO had been there and because he had genuine concern for their feelings, the employees bought into the change.

Sustaining Change

The last phase—implementing and sustaining the transformation—focuses primarily on the change aspect of the see-feel-change pattern. In the best cases, change leaders don’t let up; they monitor, measure and reinforce behavioral change until the transformation becomes a reality. Furthermore, they make change stick by nurturing new behaviors so that they become the way things are done in the organization. For example, a business unit CEO at a manufacturing company had a clear and comprehensive vision of what a new real-time ERP system could do. To him, the goal was not just to implement the system but also to maximize its value by getting everyone to use it as an everyday business tool for managing supply chain and production processes.

To ensure that his vision became a reality, he first learned how to use the system himself so that he could understand its full capabilities. Also, he gauged buy-in by asking his plant managers questions that could be answered only by using the new system. What he found was a mix: 30 percent of the managers were using the new system fully; 40 percent were using it piecemeal; and 30 percent weren’t using it at all. To address this situation, he asked the field leaders who were using the system to focus on getting the partial users up to speed. He then worked to bring the nonusers on board by making it clear that his expectation was that this is the way things are done now at the plants. For instance, he’d call and ask questions, such as: “Why is inventory growing the way it is? Why do we have overruns on these products? I saw that XYZ didn’t ship. What’s going on?” Most of the reluctant managers ultimately accepted the system; a few holdouts left the company. Although the CIO was responsible for ensuring that the system worked, tenacious leadership from the business unit CEO was necessary to get leaders to use the system.

The Secret to Leadership Success

For CIOs who have to convince business executives of the value of new technologies, the see-feel-change pattern is especially critical. To be successful, they must demonstrate the technology’s value as well as quantify it in a business case. Conducting practical demos and giving people hands-on opportunities to experience the technology are two powerful ways to get business executives to see and feel the need for change. While analyzing and reporting may come naturally to IT professionals, learning to rely more on show and less on tell is the single most important thing they can do to improve their change leadership abilities.