Change – our constant companion…

We are very used to hearing that change is a constant in business nowadays. As most of the work that I do is about change on some level then it is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

As individuals we change constantly – cells in our bodies are replaced on a cyclical basis, we react and respond to events around us that bring about a change in how we behave or sometimes what we believe.

Conscious change is not easy. If you think about trying to change an old habit or develop a new habit both can be really challenging and often we need support to find a way to make the changes.

There is some pretty shocking research about people with heart conditions who were advised to make lifestyle changes for health reasons. The shocking part is that only one in seven actually made the prescribed changes despite knowing their lives depend on this.

This led to some fascinating research by Kegan & Lahey published in their book, Immunity to Change. There’s a brilliant video summary – ‘an evening with Robert Kegan and immunity to change’. The key principle here is that our existing behaviour or habit often is underpinned by very strong reasons. Critically we are not always aware of what these reasons are so when we try to change we fail because the original reasons override any new motivation.

So change at an individual level is challenging.

Now think about relationships in your life, friends, partners and family for example. All of these relationships are changing constantly too as we are affected by experiences so too are our relationships – and this is a massive simplification as it is anything but a simple cause and effect dynamic going on. We know that maintaining any meaningful relationship over time takes work and effort. It definitely isn’t easy either.

So we know all of this complexity about people and change. Yet when it comes to organisational change there seems to be a belief that you can drive change in a way that is akin to fixing a machine that isn’t working quite they way it should be.

Organisations may take a logical/cognitive approach where someone or a group of people present the change and explain all the good reasons why it is needed. The expectation here is that because it has been explained the necessary change will happen. It really doesn’t. There is a big flaw in this approach as any presentation however inspiring is a tell. The presenter is telling the audience what to do and we know from the research mentioned above this doesn’t work. Actually we don’t need the research to back this up – just ask yourself when was the last time you changed your behaviour simply because someone told you to?

Communication around change can be truly excellent, well thought through and engaging and still it doesn’t land. Each of us makes meaning from what we hear, read or see. For us to choose to do something differently we need time to make meaning and make a commitment at both an intellectual level and at an emotional level. Simply – we have to want to do it. Even then we will probably need support as we work to change.

This support is a very important aspect and can be tricky to get right as there can be many and varied factors that can influence the outcome. A simple example can illustrate this. Greater collaborative working is often a change that leaders are seeking as they recognise that no one person can know all there is to know in the business. A very sound logical reason for change. So why is it that people don’t just change? There can be a lot of reasons – maybe there is a bonus scheme that is based upon individual targets or perhaps the predominant management style within the organisation has been telling people the answers and what to do. This may make people wary of taking action that hasn’t been instructed. Possibly the leader him/herself is unaware how much their own behaviour impacts on change. An example here is coaching that really isn’t coaching – just a nice way of telling people what to do.

I believe working to create change requires an approach that works with the whole system – and the levels within it: e.g. individual, relationships, groups and organisation, recognising that in each case it is a complex living system where cause and effect is not linear or direct. There definitely isn’t one single method that brings about change; it is not something that can be done to any individual, group or organisation – it comes from within and sometimes small changes can have big impact.

For me there are two quotes that I believe support this:

“Be the change you want to see in the world” Mahatma Gandhi

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel” Maya Angelou

What are your thoughts?