The Irrational Side of Change Management
Most change programs fail, but the odds of success can be greatly improved by taking into account these counterintuitive insights about how employees interpret their environment and choose to act.
October 2014 | by Robert Harris
In 1996, John Kotter published Leading Change. Considered by many to be the seminal work in the field of change management, Kotter’s research revealed that only thirty percent of change programs succeed. Since the book’s release, literally thousands of books and journal articles have been published on the topic, and courses dedicated to managing change are now part of many major MBA programs.
Change-management literature emphasizes the importance of building the skills and talent needed for the desired change. Though hard to argue with, in practice there are two insights that demand attention in order to succeed.
1. Employees are what they think, feel, and believe in. As managers attempt to drive performance by changing the way employees behave, they all too often neglect the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that, in turn, drive behavior. Consider a bank that through a benchmarking exercise discovered that its sales per banker were lagging behind those of the competition. After finding that bankers spent too little time with customers and too much time on paperwork, the bank set about reengineering the loan-origination process in order to maximize customer-facing time. Unfortunately, six months later, the levels of improvement were far lower than envisioned.
A further investigation, with an eye to the bankers’ mind-sets rather than their behaviors, revealed that they simply found customer interactions uncomfortable and therefore preferred paperwork. This feeling was driven by a combination of introverted personalities, poor interpersonal skills, and a feeling of inferiority when dealing with customers who (by and large) have more money and education than the bankers do. Finally, most bankers were loath to think of themselves as salespeople—a notion they perceived as better suited to employees on used-car lots than in bank branches.
Armed with these root-cause insights, training for bankers was expanded to include elements related to personality types, emotional intelligence, and vocational identity (recasting “sales” as the more noble pursuit of “helping customers discover and fulfill their unarticulated needs”). This enhancement not only put the program back on track within six months but also ultimately delivered sustainable sales lifts in excess of original targets.
2. Good intentions aren’t enough. Good skill-building programs usually take into account that people learn better by doing than by listening. These programs are replete with interactive simulations and role plays, and commitments are made by participants regarding what they will “practice” back in the workplace. But come Monday morning, very few keep their commitments.
This lack of follow-through is usually not due to ill intent: it is because nothing formal has been done to lower the barriers to practicing new skills. The time and energy required to do something additional, or even to do something in a new way, simply don’t exist in the busy day-to-day schedules of most employees. This failure to create the space for practice back in the workplace dooms most training programs to deliver returns that are far below their potential.
We advocate a number of enhancements to traditional training approaches in order to hardwire day-to-day practice into capability-building processes. First, training should not be a one-off event. Instead, a “field and forum” approach should be taken, in which classroom training is spread over a series of learning forums and fieldwork is assigned in between. Second, we suggest creating fieldwork assignments that link directly to the day jobs of participants, requiring them to put into practice new mind-sets and skills in ways that are hardwired into their responsibilities. These assignments should have quantifiable, outcome-based measures that indicate levels of competence gained and certification that recognizes and rewards the skills attained.
In the same way that the field of economics has been transformed by an understanding of uniquely human social, cognitive, and emotional biases, so too is the practice of change management in need of a transformation through an improved understanding of how humans interpret their environment and choose to act. While sustained impact can be measured only over numbers of years, our early results when applying these insights give us the confidence to broadly share our thinking.
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