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"It's time to change how we manage change." Jerald Jellison, Managing the Dynamics of Change

Nitin Nohria and Michael Beer write in Harvard Business Review: "The brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail." It is clearly time that we change how we manage change. The why is obvious: a 30% success rate is unacceptable - and untenable. The how is more difficult: how can you modify your approach and lead your people through change successfully?

Influencing People to Change

In Managing the Dynamics of Change, renowned workplace psychologist Jerald Jellison introduces the J Curve concept, which approximates the trajectory of most major changes. People go through distinct stages, beginning with the plateau. This is where your team is before a change is launched, safe and comfortable in their established routines.

By the time you announce a change initiative to your team, you're at Stage 4 or 5. Jellison writes, "[Y]our sights are no doubt set at the top of the mountain, where soaring profits lead to exceptional performance." Meanwhile, you're people are looking at the edge of an "emotional cliff" that's getting closer and closer.

Ladies and Gentleman, the Generic Change Speech

Realizing that you're at a different stage is important because it informs your approach. You can't just say, "I have a great idea. We're making X change. Go to it!" Sure, you've already jumped off that cliff. But your people haven't, and it's frightening. You have to move them from where they are to where you are - and that's when leaders tend to trot out the "Generic Change Speech."

They talk about the vision, about the reason for change, about the plan. They solicit commitment and promise support. "Finally, the speech ends with a rousing 'Vote of Confidence and Encouragement' and possibly with music and baseball caps emblazoned with a new slogan." And with a 70% chance of failure...

People react to these types of speeches in one of three ways:

  • Sounds great! Let's do it! These people are the minority!
  • I'll just wait and see. These folks say they support the change - but their actions show they don't. They may just do what they've always done or implement new methods in a way that guarantees failure.
  • Nope. Not gonna happen. No way. Vocal resisters see the cliff and want nothing to do with jumping.

Which group do you try to influence? You address the squeaky wheel, the vocal resisters, right? Most leaders do, spending 80% of their time trying to convince them - or shut them up. This, as Jellison points out, is a mistake.

Instead, spend that time on the people who are eager to make the change work, leveraging their support and enthusiasm. You'll be able to rack up some early wins with their help, and their influence will get more of the "wait and sees" on your side as well. They may even quiet the resisters once they prove that the change is working - and generating benefits.

Handling the Nay-Sayers

So what about those vocal opponents? Ignore them? No, they won't go away! A better approach is to work on activation, or the process of changing beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Jellison proposes eight steps to get even the resisters moving in the same direction:

  1. Break the change down into small steps. This is far more easily, and palatably, digested. Swap lofty high-level views of the change for "ground-level language" and clear, precise directions.
  2. Front-load the rewards. When people are dealing with fear and anxiety, take every opportunity to identify progress and reward it.
  3. Normalize mistakes. Errors are inevitable during change (and most other times!). Some people may resist change because they fear making mistakes. Make sure everyone knows that not only are errors going to happen, they are going to be positive learning opportunities.
  4. Provide guidance and training. Give people the skills and tools they need to succeed; this empowers them to learn and grow rather than fear and agonize when faced with change.
  5. Encourage involvement. As much as possible, give folks ownership of certain aspects of the change. For instance, they may define the small steps they can take to implement a new system.
  6. Sympathize with negative feelings. Sometimes, people just want to vent. Listen, sympathize. At the least, you'll disarm them; the best, you'll secure their support and buy-in.
  7. Make it easy to get started. Ensure the first steps are easy to help team members get those early wins. They'll gain momentum with subsequent steps.
  8. Stay committed. You must be unwavering in your implementation. Stopping after you start is often worse than not starting at all.

Activation is a "bottom-up" approach. Jellison explains, "In a sense, activation begins with the feet, while persuasion starts with the head. Activation uses behavior to change hearts and minds, while persuasion attempts to change hearts and minds in the hope that the desired behavior will follow." With resisters, you have to get the feet moving. The mind will follow.

The brutal fact is that 70% of change initiatives fail. The reality is that you can defy these odds with a sound, systematic, and sympathetic approach to change management. Trade your Generic Change Speech in for Jellison's J Curve and activation methods, and you're well on your way.


Larry Hart

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