Human insights that support change (Part I)

In April 2009, an article called The Irrational Side of Change Management (Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller in McKinsey Quarterly) said that most of the well-grounded change management prescription (e.g. Kotter’s list in 1996) had not managed to make change sustainable nor successful because it ignored the irrational side of human nature. Specifically, they quoted the four common recommendations about dealing with human engagement: – (1) a compelling story; (2) role modelling; (3) reinforcing mechanisms; and (4) capability building programmes as, while they are both rational and intuitively appealing, they disregard certain, sometimes irrational elements of human nature. In fact, they asserted, following these formulas is precisely where things can go wrong in change, because they do not take in the “irrational side of human nature”!

The gist of their premise is sound, as they called to the reader’s attention that it is vital not to ignore the psychology of people in change. Nonetheless, the nine insights they shared on the irrational human nature are far from “irrational”; in fact they are simply the core characteristics of what make us human. Respecting that human nature and using applied behaviour science methodology to support change is in fact the CORE of any OD Change principle.

In Part I of this short post, I am picking from the McKinsey article three key aspects of our human nature to address that leaders need to pay attention to during change, and without shame I’d like to breathe my OD bias into it. In Part II, I will deal with another three aspects.

1. Every individual is different and they all have different motivation when it comes to work and change issues. We all have our own sense of agency, working for our future. 

Researchers like Danah Zohar (Rewiring the Corporate Brain: Using the New Science to Rethink How We Structure and Lead Organizations, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1997) have shown that what the top people like to communicate does not tap into roughly 80% of the staff’s primary motivators for putting extra energy into the change programme.

Change leaders need to know the range of key motivators when they craft communication. In order to know the range of key motivators, change leaders need to be curious about what makes people e.g. the staff and managers tick regarding the change and how those views and motivators evolve and shift during change. This is especially crucial when an organisation have decided to use stories and narratives to communicate.

The attraction – for communication professionals – to use narratives and stories is often on the method itself, but it is not the method that will move people; it is the who (who put the story together) and the how (how different people get involved to build the content of the story) that convey the range of key motivators for people. A recent conversation with a kind colleague who adheres to the typical project management change approach revealed that storytelling from his perspective is indeed a key methodology to move people. When I asked who he would ask to involve in the story crafting, he said “Of course, the top leadership teams” but “we must then tweak that version when we send the story to different stakeholders.” The point he made shows that he is not working with predictable human nature — that everyone is diverse, has different perspectives about their personal meaning in the change, and as key players in the future of their organisation, they also love to be heard and have others validate their view – whether those others agree with them or not.

For example, in one of my client organisations, some staff are much less concerned about having their operation cost cut by 20% than about lowering their frustration level by having a clearer role and less duplication in their day to day work. Another group want to see that the change will help them to have more say about making quicker decisions and avoid waiting for multi-layers of decision making that delay their ability to close the case and better serve customers. Only if leadership or communication people ask will they get different stories – and it is the multi-faceted story lines that will give the change team data to work through their change approaches to secure engagement. This leads to the next insight about human nature.

2. People support what they help to co-create (Weisbord and Janoff, 1995) 

It is not too difficult to imagine most of our staff like to have some autonomy and say about the work, the work environment, the conditions under which they do their best work. So if the organisations know the general direction it needs to go, there is plenty of room to engage those who have to implement the change to have a say about the whats, the hows, the how fast, and the interrelationship between different parts of change. The process can involve the change team drafting the rough outline and then asking people to respond/add/subtract…etc. Or give people the parameters, the non-negotiable deliverables and then let them co-construct what they think is doable. No matter the circumstances, it is true that between a small elite team sorting everything out and then rolling out the change vs the change team mapping the parameters, the direction and the non-negotiable givens and then involving those who have to live with and implement the change to have a say to construct the future way of living and to write their own change journey – the co-construction approach will result in deeper engagement during the implementation stage, and hence less vulnerability to the stormy journey ahead.

To illustrate this, the McKinsey article quoted an interesting experiment where half the participants were randomly assigned a lottery ticket number while the others were asked to write down any number they would like on a blank ticket. When the researcher offered to buy back the tickets from their holders just before the draw, they found that they had to pay at least five times more to those who came up with their own lottery number. What this experiment revealed is the basic, age-old truth that when we choose a destiny for ourselves, we are far more engaged and committed to hold on until the end and to the outcome (in this experiment, by a factor of five to one). Any other way to do change underestimates the power of the sense of agency we humans have, Again, if we just respect human nature as there is nothing irrational about it, we will get different results in ownership and commitment.

3. Energy is just as important as rational drivers. A strength-based approach works faster and stays longer than a pure deficiency approach.

Writers in the past always focused on the criticalness of burning platforms and the business case appealing to the rational side of the human brain. The logic of change and a clear business case, especially when someone needs to calculate whether there are sufficient factors to usher in the change, are important, but this approach has to stay in the back room most of the time, in the safe hands of the economist, the strategist and those highly left brain leaders. But when it comes to engaging and inspiring the people to come with the change, we need different language and appeal.

What happens in the front room needs to be more of the possibility, strength-based nature – helping people to focus on what they have done well before; what assets they have; what opportunities are facing them; what rich history they have; what future challenges they face that if they can overcome, will help to restore the former glory, and what possibilities they have to up a couple of notches in their competitiveness….etc. It is those possibilities that will get people to use their self-directed energy to move from complacency to action. By focusing the strengths we already have, people have more confidence to attempt the future without too much fear, hence are able to move faster forward. It is also hard to imagine people will massively resist and oppose this approach as within our human nature lies the desire we all have to contribute and to be successful. Energy, passion, and commitment all involve people wanting to express their significance through work.

You may ask, what about the true weaknesses? The strength-based school of thought would say they are not to be ignored, but when the system learns to multiple their strengths, the weaknesses will be rendered irrelevant (Peter Drucker), or when people are highly engaged to contribute and multiply success, they will want to deal with the deficient areas, as they now see them as a barrier to their dreams of success.

The need to feel significant – the ability to contribute, the need to have dreams, and passion, the need to express them at work, etc, will make differences in their own environment and are basic desires of us being human – is there anything irrational about this?