The April 2009 McKinsey Quarterly has an article that got my blood boiling by just reading the title, The irrational side of change management. Fortunately, the article by Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller isn't quite so inflammatory once you actually read it. (Full text currently available at Scribd)
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.
The "irrational" in the title has to do with the "counterintuitive" in the summary. When management designs a change initiative, it makes sense to them, so they don't understand why others resist. In my naive view of this problem, management haven't bothered to seek out the reasons why the change might be interesting (or not) to the rest of the organization. Even better: the people in the organization should be involved in designing the change, rather than having something handed to them.
The article covers these elements and several others as it goes through a basic process for change management that McKinsey developed and published in 2003, and then expands into the "counterintuitive insights" mentioned in the summary. (Bold items are the elements of the basic process from McKinsey. Text is summary of their counterintuitive thinking and my own comments.)
Build a compelling story. Don't just make the story about what's wrong and the benefits that accrue to the business with the change. Make the connections for the line workers and managers that have to play by the new rules. Ask them to help develop the reasoning behind the changes.
Role modeling. "Be the change you want to see in the world," said Ghandi (p.s. I used that quote in my high school graduation speech a couple decades ago.). This is great, but many people don't know what they need to change to (or why they need to change in the first place). So, asking key leaders to become role models needs follow-up with clear direction on how their responsibilities tie to the new way of being in the organization. As the article says, many people often don't see where they fit into the change. And I have seen this with clients in the past: getting the front line to do something different is the only thing they understand. Which leads to the next topic.
Reinforcing mechanisms. Clearly there needs to be reinforcement, but the less familiar elements here are what appear to be counterintuitive. Scientists already know that monetary rewards don't work, but this still isn't the common practice in business. There are stories upon stories where measures / processes are put into place that appear to be logical but that drive the wrong behaviors - often due to perceptions more than realities. If managers ignore these perceptions as "irrational," then they will always miss the results they desire.
Capability building. Of course, people need training. A key element that is often missed is that when they get back to the "real world," they will also need time to reinforce the new ways of doing things. If they are already overloaded when a change initiative comes down the halls, a question I like to ask is, "What will they stop doing?" What can we take off their plates, so they can focus on the new way of working? This is a key element of change programs. If you are going to change the business processes, then there had better be old work that stops or significantly changes so that the new work can happen.
So, in the end. It isn't that people irrationally resist change. It is that we need to spend more time understanding the impact on people as well as the business.
[Photo: "Spare Change Pancakes" by Jeff Cushner.]