Many of us in the field of change management have heard recently, or have said ourselves “we are living in a VUCA world these days…” Where VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In my current role supporting a department and it’s leaders through a variety of complex changes, I definitely understand why we are saying this. The question for me has become “so what? How does knowing that help people?” and “how do I really support a bunch of overwhelmed, overworked people who want to be adding value but aren’t clear how, as we continually throw more change at them?”
I don’t have all the answers… sorry. I have however identified some helpful ideas that help me know what people need to hear as we cycle through the rollercoaster of change. These ideas also help me stay grounded and resilient through it all, as change managers and change leaders, we aren’t really allowed to throw our hands up and say “this is too hard! You people are being too difficult and I don’t think we can do this!”… Although we may think it from time to time… We need to smile, acknowledge that, yes this is another challenge or another setback to the original plan, but we will figure out a solution and get through it.
Idea 1: Understanding why people are so difficult when it comes to change.
In all my experience with change projects, the new way of working or the new tool is adding some sort of value to the way work gets done: more efficient processes, more consistent deliverables, better reporting, increased engagement, etc. The standard approach is to think, “once people know the new way to do this or how to use that tool, they will do it, we just need to train them”. The reality is that behaviour change, as we all know, is more than knowing how to do it the new way, it’s letting go of the way we do it now, or think about it now, and committing to the new reality. This is the Desire piece of the ADKAR model, the desire to adopt the change.
People don’t fail to adopt change because they are not smart enough to use a new template or click this button, not that one… they don’t adopt change because they don’t want to and they are not motivated to. There are many factors that come into play here, but a fundamental reason goes back to how our brain works and how our brains process change.
I’ll take you back to an earlier time (about 70,000 years ago), when our cognitive ability advanced dramatically, allowing humans to be the dominant species on earth we are today. During this evolution of the brain, humans adopted ways of thinking, or heuristics that helped them understand the world in a way that contributed to our increased ability to acquire food and resources so our population could grow and be successful. One of these dominant heuristics helped us create a sense of stability, while the world around us was constantly changing (turns out the world has always been a VUCA world).
In order for humans to thrive, we need to keep our systems and emotions within a tight range of functioning (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). You might have heard of this in biology class as homeostasis – we are always seeking to return to a sense of balance. Why this is relevant to change management is that, when the mind and body are seeking balance, the changes we throw into that system, creating a disruption of that balance, are processed as a threat. The brain works hard to ignore the constantly changing inner and outer world to create a feeling of stability, and our change efforts keep presenting that this is wrong and our sense of stability is false. No wonder we don’t want to change.
So what? This knowledge helps me have more empathy for the experience of people going through change and creates a more informed set of expectations. Each change is a disruption to people’s sense of stability and balance, and they need time to process what it means to find that new sense of homeostasis. It also helps me know what people can handle and I’m therefore less frustrated when working through resistance (I might still get a bit frustrated!). The reality is that, to the brain, change is a dirty word and it requires a lot of energy for each of us to process the threat, figure out a response, and then find balance given this new information. Change is exhausting. So when leading people through change, we must ask: “If we are asking them to put energy into working through this, what are we giving back to them? How are we allowing them space to really work through this and not just adding more?” Without putting energy back into the system, we are just draining our people and pushing them to burn out.
Idea 2: Moving one 1,000 lb stone is harder than moving 1,000 1 lb stones.
As I introduce change to my team, I have been trying to leverage the concept of shifting habits. There has been a lot of work done around how to leverage habits when changing people’s behaviours. The books you may have seen are The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg or more recently, Atomic Habits, by James Clear. The main message is that by making small changes over time, in the direction of building a new habit that supports more positive behaviours, people build new patterns and start operating in a new way. It is less about big changes and more about accumulating small changes.
If we add this to my point above, it is incredibly draining for people to make big changes, and much easier for them to get overwhelmed and frustrated and give up or burn out. If we can break the change into small, bite size pieces that build over time, the change is more manageable and more likely to be successful.
Does this seem familiar to any of you?…
I get the standard response “I am too busy” on a daily basis. I try and articulate how “effort spent coaching your staff now, will reduce the need for you to be so heavily involved in the work later and having to fix so many mistakes, you’ll get time back, allowing you to find more space to get your own work done and operate more strategically”… but this is often received with blank stares… “didn’t Tanis hear me? I am too busy.” In order to make change doable for people, we need to make it scalable, and show how just one small shift, applied on a regular basis, can add up to a big improvements.
So what? People often get that, if they adopt a new way of working, there will be benefits, but who has time for that? If we can chunk behaviour change into bite size pieces, people can work it into their already full schedules, requiring less energy from them. This also is less threatening; small change is easier to process vs big dramatic shifts. In the habit approach, there are three main statements we need to think about: When this happens (the trigger for the old behaviour)… Instead of (the old behaviour)… I will (insert new behaviour)… This simple frame can hold an immense power when supporting people through change, making our change efforts more successful.
So we all agree change is hard. There is a lot of change happening all the time and people are overwhelmed. This reality is not changing anytime soon and only getting more complicated. People become drained by always changing and adapting to new ways of working, and our dance cards are already full, adding more is not well received.
The good news for change professionals is that we will always have work! I am kidding… sort of. But seriously, the more talk about the impact of change we are hearing, means that the awareness is increasing. Organizations are realizing the value of supporting their people through change more than ever. More research is coming out helping us understand the impacts of change and what to do about it. It is a challenge to keep up, but we are all in this effort together, and the leaders we support and work with have a growing sense of their role in change and change sponsorship.
The work is still not easy and frustrating at times, but the more I understand how change works, and how people work, the more I can accept the challenges and spend my energy finding solutions. It is a good place to be, on the forefront of big change; it’s always evolving and never boring. Good luck out there!
Professional Development Advisor, BC Hydro
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.