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Business Change: The secret ingredient that makes all the difference

The digital age has stimulated a seismic shift in the way we work. And it hasn’t finished yet. PwC’s recent Workforce of the Future report claims that the pace of change is accelerating. After surveying 10,000 professionals the management consultancy concluded:

We are living through a fundamental transformation in the way we work. Automation and ‘thinking machines’ are replacing human tasks and jobs, and changing the skills that organisations are looking for in their people. These momentous changes raise huge organisational, talent and HR challenges – at a time when business leaders are already wrestling with unprecedented risks, disruption and political and societal upheaval.

In this environment, the ability to change is set to become a fundamental aspect of ‘business-as-usual’. Yet research on change performance continues to show that business transformation can feel like the equivalent of pushing water uphill.

On the other hand, some organisations manage to change rapidly and continuously. It appears to take much less effort. They have a sense of energy and purpose that seems to make the process enjoyable.

How do they achieve this?

Create emotional commitment first

In short, everyone is engaged at an emotional level. When we all feel passionate about the outcome, the change process becomes easier. Find a way to have everyone want the same thing and energies are directed towards overcoming challenges, rather than trying to avoid change happening.

The language of change

We find in the business environment that there’s one common problem when initiating and communicating change. It’s a tendency to focus only on the facts and figures (the ‘what and how’) with little or no attention given to the ‘why’.

Approaching change in this way seems logical but it doesn’t motivate. It only appeals to our rational neocortex, whereas motivation comes from our emotion centre in the limbic part of the brain. Consider how we make many of the most expensive purchases such as houses and cars: there is always an interplay between objective and subjective factors.

The Heath brothers’ book: Switch – how to change things when change is hard illustrates this nicely. An ‘elephant and rider’ analogy is used to represent the relationship between our emotional side (the elephant) and rational side (the rider). If we are not convinced emotionally then the rational perspective won’t take us anywhere.

Change is uncomfortable, even painful. We all avoid it unless we feel the current situation is even more painful, or the destination is so compelling that we want it now! Ambivalence just won’t cut it.

In our experience, failing to appeal emotionally will, at some point, cause a change programme to simply run out of steam. Maybe it’s slightly harder than expected, costing more, taking longer, maybe there is a change in leadership. Large global projects have been abandoned halfway, even though they were so obviously the right answer and right on strategy (so much so that they were restarted later).

Starting with the ‘big why’

If we’re to put ourselves through the discomfort of change we need to feel it’s worth the extra effort for us personally first of all, then for the organisation. Yes, in that order. Otherwise, emotions will overwhelm rational thought every time. The elephant is far bigger than the rider.

From the perspective of those who will make the change, it’s worth considering the following questions at the outset:

  1. Why should I change (or, why is ‘do nothing’ not an option)?
  2. Why do it now (vs wait till next year, next budget etc.)?
  3. Why is the direction we are proposing the right answer (vs other options)?

This will at least get everyone focusing along the right lines. Changes that appeal at an emotional level first, then a rational level second, have a greater chance of success.

Change can be difficult, but it’s a whole lot easier when everyone feels emotionally committed to making it happen.