May 28, 2024

Embracing Change in a Fast Moving World

Embracing Change in a Fast Moving World

In today's fast changing business environment, organisations face two growing challenges: Helping staff adapt to new technologies and practices, and operating in increasingly complex eco-systems with different cultures and ways of working. Both represent steps into the unknown and require significant behavioural changes. Unfortunately, as we know, people find uncertainty and change challenging.

But why is change so difficult? Why do so many change initiatives fail, even when following tried and tested methods? Contrary to popular opinion, people are not fundamentally anti-change. We are simply hardwired to be alert to the potential risks which accompany uncertainty. Problems arise because change programmes tend to focus on the symptoms, rather than tackling the cause. Overt resistance to change, lack of enthusiasm and inertia are symptoms, not causes. They are common cognitive biases, but they are not innate features of human nature. The same is true of failure to stick to new ways of working, it is a symptom, not a cause.

When people engage with change, success feeds off itself

The most common reason change initiatives fail is a lack of engagement with the new product or process. There is a simple model which explains the likelihood of success or failure; the Engagement-Results Cycle. Engagement with a new product or practice drives better results and improved results drive greater engagement. The concept of positive affirmation as a behavioural reinforcer is well recognised, but it can also work the other way round; lack of engagement means results don’t come and when there are no tangible results, engagement wanes.

The Engagement - Results Cycle

But what hinders engagement? There are three distinct engagement problems:

  • Lack of engagement, whereby people simply do not engage at all with a new product or process. Worse, they may even actively resist the change.
  • Passive engagement, where people engage superficially but do not actively engage with the product or process, other than paying lip-service.
  • Biased engagement, in which people engage selectively, either to support their own cause or to try and undermine the change.

These problems span the whole life-cycle of a project or a transformation. In the early stages we predominantly see lack of engagement and passive engagement. In the operational phase we tend to see more passive and biased engagement. Passive engagement is the real project killer because it is harder to detect than the other types. People can sustain verbal support for an initiative without actually engaging with it for a long time, whereas active resistance tends to surface quickly.

But what are the root causes of these engagement issues? The answer is not straightforward. They are myriad and they vary across organisations and even between individuals. They may include fear of failure and loss-aversion; lack of psychological safety; information overload or lack of clarity; social and group norms; status and authority effects; existing operational and bureaucratic obstacles and many more. Because these are so varied, diagnosing the exact root cause of lack of effective engagement is a critical part of the transformation process.

Four Steps to Effective Change

To help manage successful transformations, MindAlpha has developed a simple four step process, with an accompanying set of diagnostics and solutions to guide organisations from the initial preparation stage through to leveraging change as a performance tool:

  1. Ensure Readiness.
  2. Overcome Resistance.
  3. Create Stickiness.
  4. Encourage Excellence.

Readiness: The foundation of successful transformation

Ensuring readiness involves more than the traditional approach of messaging around the need for change. It involves creating self-awareness among individuals of their personal abilities and their behavioural preferences around engaging with change; contextual awareness around the degree of uncertainty and risk which will be encountered; and systemic awareness relating to the interconnectedness which may influence other parts of the organisation or project.

MindAlpha has a set of tools designed to prepare organisations for transformation, including a readiness diagnostic, psychometric profiling tools and a systemic modelling capability. There are also some highly sophisticated AI based tools which can give an instantaneous read on organisational readiness at the contextual and systemic levels.

Overcoming Resistance: Tackling Fear and Confusion

Resistance to change generally stems from one of two areas; fear or confusion. This should not be a great surprise. Psychologists and behaviouralists have known for years how fear and uncertainty trigger a stress response, characterised as “freeze, flight or fight”. Every show of resistance to change is a manifestation of one of these.

Both fear and confusion can have many deeper root causes, but in general they can both be categorised into one of two buckets. On the fear side, there is fear of failure, which relates to not being able to adapt to new practices, and there is loss-aversion, which stems from a fear of losing one’s identity or status in an organisation due to new ways of working. On the confusion side, most of the issues come down to lack of clarity in instructions or expectations, or information overload from the sheer volume of data.

Overcoming these challenges requires a considerable investment in training and support, however, the problem is often not as bad as it seems. We often hear clients say “good luck with overcoming resistance. There’s not much you can do about it, it’s human nature”. And yet we often find it to be the easiest of the four phases to execute. The fear and confusion which trigger resistance to change usually result from not having properly carried out the readiness phase. When the ground has been prepared and gaps in awareness addressed, resistance to change melts away.

Stickiness: Making New Habits Stick

Even after successfully overcoming resistance, the real challenge lies in making change stick. Too many change interventions are based around quick fix, one-shot actions. Lasting change requires new habits to be embedded into the organisational culture. There are a number of ways to achieve this. Physical tools such as creating simple protocols to place the new practices at the heart of processes, and setting operational defaults, have proven effective at triggering desired behaviours. Checklists can also remind people to engage. Economic interventions such as incentives can also help.

For lasting change, however, we need to shift attitudes and this requires a behavioural and psychological toolkit. There are several methods we can use to create stronger habits and the ones we choose will depend on the context. However, we have found three types of tool to be particularly effective:

1.      Commitments create an ego-based attachment to the practice.

2.      Social-norm based interventions tap into the human need for affiliation.

3.      Careful environmental design can prime or nudge people’s choices and actions.

Excellence: Encouraging  Innovation and Experimentation

The final step in the framework is to create excellence in the new operation, this takes organisational transformation to the next level. By encouraging innovation and experimentation with new technologies, platforms, or processes we can create a significant increase in motivation to engage with the new norms.

Fostering a culture of innovation requires the destigmatisation of failure. This does not mean taking errors lightly, it means creating an environment in which people are encouraged to engage in considered experimentation with new practices or products and in which intelligent experimentation is celebrated, even if when it leads to failure.

Amy Edmondson, the creator of the concept of psychological safety, has an excellent framework for categorising failure and understanding how to deal with it. Her latest book “The Right Kind of Wrong” is essential reading for anyone leading change. Edmondson highlights three types of failure; basic error, complex error, and intelligent error. Complex errors, which generally come from systemic interdependences, and intelligent errors which come from experimentation, are a vital source of learning. Stigmatising mistakes will push them underground which prevents the organisation from developing. Even basic errors, which come from a single execution error or a failure to follow procedure, should be regarded as a learning opportunity, even if the primary objective in dealing with these is to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen twice.

The Competitive Advantage in Embracing Change

Effective organisational transformations demand a holistic approach. Our simple framework of: ensuring READINESS, OVERCOMING RESISTANCE, ensuring STICKINESS, and creating EXCELLENCE, provides a comprehensive roadmap for organisations to navigate the complexities of change.

By creating awareness, addressing the resistance which stems from uncertainty, fear or confusion, ensuring practices are adopted and become habitual, and encouraging excellence through experimentation and innovation, organisations can not only adapt to change, they can turn it into a competitive advantage, allowing them create a culture of learning and improvement which will help them thrive in an environment of continuous change.

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