Have you ever had change initiatives or projects that never seem to go anywhere? Apparently great ideas where nothing meaningful happens? You may even have had lots of meetings, spent money on project management and other skills and yet there is no discernible progress or it’s taking way too long.
This is a common complaint, especially in large organisations, and often has a relatively simple cause.
We all need a reason to change, something that motivates us right now. We’re programmed for instant gratification, so we tend to think short term and will also put our safety and security above all else. Change involves working against those natural tendencies, thinking beyond what’s right in front of us. It involves accepting a level of risk and being fully committed, especially when things get tough or don’t go as expected. Why would we do that?
In an organisational context the same thing applies but now to a group instead. Each person in that group will be asking themselves why they should change. They will consider it from their own perspective and will be asking themselves why changing is better than staying put and dealing what is right in front of them today. Change resistance comes from failing to have good answers to those questions. And the trouble is that resistance is often hard to see clearly.
Creating a strong desire to change, whether as an individual or a group, is critical. It’s an emotional process and so it needs emotional stimuli to make it happen. Think about how Greta Thunberg’s actions and the BBC Blue Planet video on plastic inspired people and created mass movements. Consider how the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech moved so many people to want something different. These come from an emotional place not a rational one. During 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic created one of the biggest and fastest global movements ever, with almost everyone on the planet embracing some form of restrictions. In this case, we believed that staying as we were was likely to be catastrophic and the danger was imminent. The emotional desire to change is the fuel that powers it. If it’s missing then it will be very hard, if not impossible, to make any meaningful progress.
Think about the major changes you have made in your life such as moving house, changing jobs and having children. The desire to change would have been compelling enough to accept short term sacrifice and some level of risk and uncertainty. This desire comes from a realisation that:
- Staying as we are is not a good option
- What we are moving towards is sufficiently compelling and worth reaching for
- We need to start now
Change literature points the same way. John kotter’s first three steps are about energising. Chip and Dan Heath talk about motivating the Elephant. Lewin calls this unfreezing. It’s about getting to a common recognition that staying as we are is not an option. It’s an area that organisations regularly pay too little attention to and yet it’s the fuel that powers change.
Change is a personal process and we make our own decisions about whether to change or resist, sometimes without being fully aware of it. When encouraging others to change, especially in large groups, we need to keep in mind that we can never make someone change, they can only ever change themselves. And they will only do that if they have a reason they believe in. In other words, real change comes from within.