Although any major change demands that an organization overhaul its systems and procedures, leaders are often frustrated when altering the way things are done does not produce the desired outcome. They work hard to institute new programs and policies only to be disappointed when nothing actually changes.
Professor John D. Adams helps us understand some of the “soft” barriers to change: beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and norms that pull us back to the status quo even when other change infrastructure is built. He also helps us chart a path toward change by developing a critical mass of supporters for the desired change.
To start, consider this short video by Derek Sivers (not Adams) about how movements for change develop.
The big takeaway, or one of them at least, is that change leadership is only half of the story. A movement for change requires followers, which is where the challenge of creating change lies. Although followers just magically appear in this video, when it comes to changing an institution, they rarely show up and commit to the change without considerable effort on our part.
Adams offers us some insight into three major barriers to effectively cultivating enough followers to get your change off the ground:
1) The auto-pilot mindset: We all operate out of habits that are no-longer conscious to us; they are simply how we do things. “To illustrate…quickly fold your arms. Now, reverse the way they are folded, placing your other arm on top and note how this feels. Most of you will experience the second way of folding your arms as being awkward or uncomfortable. […] This illustrates how our habit patterns work. We don’t have to think about how we fold our arms, and when we do consciously choose to fold them in the reverse way, it just doesn’t feel right.” Adams reminds us that this is why, even when we agree that a change must be made, we often don’t follow through with a new way of doing things. He gives the example of a company where everyone agreed that more positive feedback from managers to employees was needed. The managers and employees both thought this would create a better work place. But did this agreement lead to changed behavior? Nope. Each time a manager attempted to praise employees, he or she did so awkwardly. The employees did not feel like the praise was genuine. No good came of the interaction, so managers quickly slipped back into their old routine of no positive feedback.
How do we overcome our own auto-pilot tendencies? “If we are to disrupt the automatic pilot mindsets and create desirable new patterns of operations, we must reward the desired changes, formalize them in our everyday lives [through deliberate structures], and create ways to monitor and reinforce them.”
2) Bias toward training: Many organizations (schools among them) rely on “training activities as the primary vehicle for attempting major organizational changes or productivity improvements. In many organizations, training comprises virtually the entire development program.” Of course, training is essential for change – all stakeholders must understand how the organization is changing and how their role must change with it. They need to gain the knowledge and skills to transform their work. However, the training does not accomplish the change — it simply lays the groundwork for new ways of doing. Confusing the training with the change is a common mistake.
How do we overcome this? For every initiative they feel the need to “train” people for, leaders must have clear goals for the training and even clearer structures and procedures in place to ensure that the training translates into altered work patterns. The training is not the goal. The goal is the goal. Don’t be fooled that putting a training on the calendar will ensure the base of followers you seek.
3) Absence of support for novelty management: Change automatically brings with it a level of uncertainty that causes anxiety for many members of an organization. Even those who understand the need for change may cling to the status quo when feelings of distress hit. The novelty of a change — its “surprise, unfamiliarity, uncertainty” — can cause us to seek the familiarity of old ways and defend them even when it is not logical to do so. Many leaders forget to support people through the emotional challenges that novelty can bring.
How do we overcome this? Leaders must “minimize surprises” and “develop mechanisms for clarifying and familiarizing employees with a new way of operating.” People will need new information, a chance to learn new skills, time to develop attitudes and values that support the change, and rewards for adopting the change. Being deliberate and patient in these areas will help speed the change along.
Another major mistake change leaders often make is focusing on everyone and everything all at once. We bring every member of the organization together and tell them it’s time to change, thinking that it’s important to “all be on the same page.” And it is important for all stakeholders to have a clear understanding of where the organization is going and what to expect from the change. However, most change does not happen all at once. All members of a community are not convinced and equipped for change in one fell swoop.
How do we go about converting others to our cause, then?
Perhaps the most important message Adams offers is this: PREACH TO YOUR CHOIR. Although the phrase “suggest[s] that an activity is a waste of time,” it is actually “the most important mechanism for creating a critical mass of people who are solidly behind a change program and who will ensure that the change process becomes self-sustaining.” It may seem logical to start your change initiative by winning over the “skeptics” or working to convince those who are most resistant, but the easiest path is to start with those who are willing to get on board immediately. Don’t take them for granted; stay focused on them to build momentum.
Preaching to your choir, and keeping the choir motivated and invested in the change goes much further than confronting resisters, no matter how influential or high-ranking those resisters are. Plus, it’s far more pleasant. : )
Questions to consider:
1) Have you ever experienced the pitfalls of the auto-pilot mindset, over-reliance on training, or failing to manage the novelty of a change? Why are these pitfalls so difficult to avoid? How can we overcome them?
2) How do we find our choir? If we don’t hold formal leadership positions, how do we preach to our choir without being perceived negatively by those who do have formal leadership positions? What eventually happens to “hard-core resisters”?
3) Most of Adams’ ideas speak to the business world. To what extent do his ideas hold true in educational institutions? What added variables and complications do we need to consider in in the context of schooling?
4) What can we learn from the crazy dancing guy and Derek Sivers’ thoughts on leading, following, and risk-taking?