The Change Equation

Stuart Elliot, on why making change happen involves both hearts and minds.

This week I did an internet search for Why change programs fail and found 457,000 results. When I searched for Why change programs succeed, it produced a thousand times as many results – 426 million to be exact.

Do these search results mean that there have been a thousand times as many successful change programs as there were disappointments? No chance. I’d guess the disappointments outnumber total successes. Failures don’t get talked about as much. Perhaps the causes of failure are too hard to pin down. Or too embarrassing to admit.

People and organizations are naturally resistant to change. In 1977, organizational theorists, Richard Beckhard and Rubin T. Harris summarized what had to be in place to overcome that resistance:

Dissatisfaction x Desirability x Practicality > Resistance to Change

Beckhard & Harris were pointing out that humans won’t change until we get a strong enough combination of being unhappy with the status quo, wanting the proposed, solution, and believing in whatever plan is in place to take us there.

The three connect via multiplication. If one of them is at zero, the whole left side of the calculation is at zero, and change doesn’t have a chance.

Can the laws of physics be applied to beliefs and feelings?

This all sounds neat, analytical and quantifiable. Companies in the business of being analytical for their clients will have a culture that thinks ‘unhappy’, ‘wanting’, and ‘believing in’ can be analyzed and systematically improved.

But unhappy, wanting, and believing in are feelings. The laws of physics don’t apply to beliefs and feelings.

From time to time someone will criticize my lofty goals. Apparently, there’s no place for such foolishness in the grim reality of aging assets and scarce resources. I love the challenge of changing this belief.

I agree that when an important change succeeds, it measurably moves the needle in terms of dollars and KPIs. That’s the effect, but I don’t believe the KPIs are the cause.

How to make change happen

To get the change in the indicator, people have to change. And changes within people involve both hearts and minds, and lofty goals and hard metrics.

Two humans can view the same facts and draw opposite conclusions. Unhappy, wanting, and believing in are filters on what we see. If I’m happy with the status quo and you aren’t, which of us sees a need for change?

You can change me, but you need to start by showing me a goal so compelling that it makes me unhappy with my current reality. Then help me understand the plan to get there. And the benefits I’ll experience both on the journey and once we’ve arrived.