Two things that will ruin your organizational change from the start

BrokenCar

Without these two things, your organizational change is set up to fail before it even begins. First, the initiative needs clear and compelling business reasons. Second, the results of the initiative need to be articulated in a clear and compelling vision. When executive sponsors have defined, agreed upon, and bought into the business reasons and vision for a change, you can then begin to build awareness, buy-in, and change capabilities among stakeholders. With compelling business reasons and a clear vision for the change, you are ready to start your change initiative on the right path towards success. Without them, however, you can ruin your change right from the beginning.

Unfortunately, too many change initiatives do NOT begin with a clearly defined business case and vision. Instead, they begin with vague statements that don’t adequately capture or convey what the change is all about. Unclear initiatives don’t necessarily happen because the executive sponsor doesn’t know what he (or she) wants, but because he has not yet defined or articulated what he wants with enough clarity that it can be understood by others. Consider, for example, if I asked you to plant a tree in my yard. What will you plant? Immediately, you have an image of a tree in your mind—perhaps a pine tree, a walnut tree, or a maple tree. In my mind, however, I was thinking of a palm tree. If we had settled on “plant a tree in my yard” as the goal for the project, I may have ended up with some other tree that I didn’t want or need. Without clarity in the beginning, “plant a tree in my yard” change initiatives can end up costing a lot in the end. Tim Creasey calls these costs the REs of poorly managed change:Redesign, Rethink, Rework, Revise, et cetera.

Change experts agree that successful change initiatives begin with a clear and compelling reason for the change, coupled with a clear and inspiring vision of the future. For example, Kotter advocates creating a sense of urgency as a reason to change (Step 1) and forming a strategic vision and initiatives (Step 3). Prosci advocates building Awareness (the first A in its ADKAR model) of the business reasons for the change. And, in its Standard for Change Management, the Association of Change Management Professionals says that practitioners should define the change (5.1.1), determine why the change is required (5.1.2), and develop a clear vision of the future state (5.1.3). In short, change managers need to ensure that the initiative is built on the strong foundation of a clear case and vision, right from the beginning.

So, how do you actually do this?

Recommendations

Below are some recommendations to help you define business reasons and vision statements that are useful and effective when implementing an organizational change. These recommendations will help you set your change initiative on the right course, right from the beginning.

1.      Limit your change reasons and vision statements to 2 to 3. Franklin Coveycaptures the importance of simplicity in its concept of Wildly Important Goals (WIGs). Stated simply, you can achieve more by focusing on less. The more goals you have, the less likely you are to achieve any of them; conversely, the fewer goals you have, the more likely you are to achieve all of them.

Limiting the reasons and vision statements to 2 to 3 creates a few benefits. First, limits focus the conversation on the most important reasons for the change and what leaders specifically expect because of the change. Often, leaders have identified the change as directionally-good in general terms, but have not had an opportunity to discuss, define, and prioritize the specifics with other leaders. Second, a limited number of reasons and statements will be easier for others to understand, remember, and support. Finally, clear limits for the scope of the change give project stakeholders clear guidelines for activities and goals that contribute meaningfully to the project, and those that do not. Activities that don’t belong can more easily be kept out of the project.

What I say: “What are the two or three most important business reasons for making this change?”

(Note that there are generally two types of reasons: (1) a business problem that needs to be fixed or (2) a business opportunity that needs to be leveraged).

2.      When possible, identify the data that supports the business reasons. When an executive makes a general statement about the business reasons for a change, try to discover the observations that are driving the statement. Look for observable evidences or proof. In other words, “show me the numbers.” Observable, measurable criteria from the beginning of a change initiative makes sure the change is justified and supported by data (which can contribute to a leader’s gut-feeling decision), and simplifies how you monitor and evaluate the success of the change later.

What I say: “What have you seen in the organization that led you to decide we need to make this change? What data can we look at to support your observations?”

3.      Use clear, unambiguous, specific language. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’ t understand it yourself.” Stacey Barr, a performance measurement expert, recommends that organizations start their performance improvement journey by being very clear and specific. According to Barr, statements should (1) not use “weasel words,” or fluffy, corporate, buzzwords that lack clarity or substance (e.g., “empower, optimize, and capitalize on innovative disruptions where the internet of things converges with human dynamics”) and (2) not mix multiple ideas into one sentence (e.g., “unbundling the multi-barreled items”); instead, break the ideas out into their own statements. These guidelines apply equally well to business case reasons and project vision statements.

As a guiding principle, continually ask yourself, “Can we make this statement any simpler or easier to understand?” I have noticed that, many times, I try to say things in a fancy way, but end up struggling to say them at all. However, if I ask myself or others, “What are you trying to say?”, and then just say it, I end up with a statement that is much clearer to understand.

What I say: “I’ve got a very bright 10-year-old son. How would you explain the reasons and goals of this change to him?”

4.      Write the business reasons and vision with the understanding that they will guide the talking points for all subsequent communications. Take time to get the business reasons and vision right. These ideas and words should become the foundation of messages that are consistently and constantly repeated throughout and after the change. Every slide deck, every email, every speech, and every handout should tie back to, reinforce, and promote some aspect of the business reasons and vision.

What I say: “These reasons and vision statements will be the foundation of all our communications. Do they adequately capture the most important messages we want to consistently share?”

(Note that not all messages need to be emphasized with all audiences. Strategy often comes into play when determining which messages need to be emphasized with which audiences).

5.      Don’t underestimate the time this can take! According to Leonardo da Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” I have found that simple, effective business reasons and visions take time. Don’t rush it! Generally, I spend at least 2 to 3 meetings with executive leaders creating, discussing, refining, and approving the reasons and vision for the change. Guiding these conversations requires a specialized skill set of listening, summarizing, questioning, resolving conflicts, and building consensus. In these matters, simplicity is hard work. But, again, given that these statements will guide the rest of the project, every minute spent up front with these statements will save hours, days, and months of confusion and frustration on the back-end.

(Note that, although I try to get it as right as possible the first time around, I often let project sponsors know that they can always raise an additional item when they see the need).

Application

Below are a few questions to consider about the business reasons and vision of the change initiatives you are working on.

1.      How clear are the reasons for the change? Would a 10-year-old understand them?

2.      Are leaders consistent in how they explain the reasons for the change to others? What about when they explain the vision for the change?

3.      What data or observations support the business reasons for the change?

4.      How well do you incorporate the business reasons and vision in your communications and collateral?

The single greatest contributor to the success of a change initiative

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The Story

Within eight minutes, two years of work came to a halt.

The organization had been working for months on a significant process change that involved a few executives and many middle managers. Various task teams had contributed to hours upon hours of meetings and analysis, requests for proposals, and a rigorous selection process for a tool to address the process change. The group had come together for what was supposed to be a rubber-stamp, go-ahead approval by the CEO. The collective assumption was that everyone, including the CEO, was informed, on board, and supportive of the change. Project leaders presented the change, the background, the solution, and what had been done to fix it.

And then the CEO spoke. He asked a few questions about how the proposed changes would align with other businesses the company worked with.

The answers weren’t clear. The nuts and bolts that held the project together started clanking and rattling. Various executives and managers began defending their positions, while others (including some who had been involved on task teams throughout the process) seemed to quickly sway from confidence over to the CEO’s apparent caution. Within a few minutes, the nuts and bolts of the project were popping off at the seams.

The CEO then delivered the final blow: “It doesn’t seem like we are settled with this direction. Let’s hold off.”

And, with that, all the nuts and bolts were scattered over the floor, and the project went back to square one. Because the executive sponsor was not adequately involved or informed throughout the project, the initiative was halted.

The Solution: The Primary Sponsor

Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t isolated. Multiple organizational change efforts fail. (A commonly quoted statistic is that nearly 70% of all organizational change efforts fail, although some question the validity of that statistic). These failures are generally attributed to a handful of reasons, including poor communication about the change, failure to engage end users, or—as in this case—failure to identify and adequately engage the primary sponsor.

According to Prosci’s 2014 research of change management across 822 organizations, the single greatest contributor to the success of a change effort is active and visible executive sponsorship. This same finding has been replicated over eight previous studies conducted by Prosci. The role of the executive sponsor should not be under-estimated in a change initiative.

Recommendations

Below, I offer a few recommendations to ensure the executive sponsor can contribute meaningfully to the success of your change efforts.

  1. Identify the executive sponsor early on. As soon as a project begins, identify who the executive sponsor is. Where possible, identify a single individual who is willing to attach his or her name, time, and resources to the change initiative. Generally, this individual should be adequately empowered to sponsor the change in terms of money, time, and executive decision-making and influence. Note that if an executive sponsor is not willing to attach his or her time, money, or executive influence to the project, it’s likely that something is fundamentally wrong to begin with (and you should probably have a bad feeling about it). Reluctant sponsorship likely reflects the low priority of the project, and consequently lowers the chances of success right out of the gate. If you don’t have genuine sponsorship, consider how well the project aligns with your organizational strategies and priorities. You may need to make force some hard conversations, and propose that the project be (1) given higher priority, (2) placed on hold until it is given a higher priority, (3) ended indefinitely, or (4) moved forward, but with a very clear, agreed-upon statement of the risks of disengaged sponsorship to the project’s success.
  2. Set expectations for the executive sponsor’s participation. Project/change leads should set a clear expectation that the executive sponsor participates actively and visibly throughout, and following, the change. Executive participation should be included in the project/change management plan, with specific activities, purposes, and audiences. Interestingly, active and visible participation is not only for the sole benefit of getting others on board with a change, but is also critical for keeping the sponsor on board. According to persuasion research by Robert Cialdini (see Influence, Chapter 3: Commitment and Consistency), a key factor to build someone’s commitment to a cause is to encourage active, public, and effortful participation in the cause. When we’ve actively and publicly committed to a cause, we feel psychologically compelled to remain consistent and true to that cause (see Festinger’s work on Cognitive Dissonance). The net result of the executive sponsor’s participation is that it builds greater commitment and buy-in to the initiative for both others in the organization and the executive him or herself.
  3. Make it easy for the sponsor to be active and visible throughout the change initiative. Project/change leads should provide as much support to the executive sponsor as possible, particularly in matters of communication. Project/change leads should provide proposals for emails, talking points, summary documents, presentations, et cetera for each planned sponsor event. Note that, according to Prosci, the executive sponsor’s messages should focus on the strategic value of the change initiative, while mid-level managers and direct supervisors focus more on the personal, day-to-day implications of the change.
  4. Keep the executive sponsor in the loop. Involve the sponsor in conversations about the business reason and benefits of the change initiative. Provide regular updates to the executive sponsor about the initiative roll-out. Executive sponsors should not be surprised or blind-sided with new or unfavorable developments. Inform the executive sponsor as soon as possible about any negative risks or new opportunities that develop as the change rolls out. Also, get regular feedback to ensure the project continues to align to the executive sponsor’s expectations.
  5. Thank, encourage, and praise the executive sponsor often. Executive sponsors are typically very busy people who trust and rely on those around them to help them succeed. In many instances, project or change management leads need to coach upwards with executive sponsors, who may not be well-versed in the change management discipline. Genuinely thanking, encouraging, and praising the executive sponsor for his or her ongoing participation will promote further participation, lead to more understanding and buy-in of change management as a discipline, and model change behaviors for the executive to follow as he or she leads others in the change.

Evaluation

Take a few moments to evaluate the strength of executive sponsorship on your change projects by considering the following questions:

  1. Have you identified a single executive sponsor for your change?
  2. Is your executive sponsor adequately empowered to support the change in terms of costs, time, resources, and decision-making?
  3. How well can your executive sponsor articulate the change and the reason for the change?
  4. How bought-in to the change is your executive sponsor?
  5. Have you included the executive sponsor as a regular contributor in your communication plan?
  6. What plans do you have to regularly update your executive sponsor about the project roll-out?
  7. How will you get ongoing feedback from the executive sponsor?

Getting Started with Organizational Change Management: A Simple, Practical Model

In-N-Out Burger has established its reputation as a hamburger shop with a limited selection of customer-proven menu items. Instead of expanding its options with complicated menus, choices, and “have it your way” selections, they stick to simple basics that customers resonate with. Customers know what to expect, have an easy time getting what they want, and are willing to pay for the repeatable value they receive.

My experience as a change practitioner has shown me that In-N-Out just might be on to something. While increased options and rigor have their place, I have also seen the value of having a simple change management framework that makes a lot of sense, is easy to swallow, and achieves the end goal of accelerating and improving the quality of change initiatives. When individuals and organizations are hesitant about a highly formalized change management program, I use a framework that seems to resonate with most people, and can embed itself well into existing project management and communication practices.

Focus. Commit. Execute. That’s the framework I follow. Here it is, with specific activities in each step of the process.

FocusCommitExecute

It’s based on an internal model in my organization, with some modifications that account for additional industry best-practices. When I need additional tools for higher-risk, more complex initiatives, or when I need highly specific guidelines, I turn to the change management resources I got as a certified Prosci Change Practitioner, relevant materials from my PhD studies regarding organizational change, and other industry resources, including Kotter, Lewin, McKinsey, and others. But, with most of what I do, the simple “Focus, Commit, Execute” framework provides amazing value that is simple to consume, follow, and execute. Below, I describe the key purpose, activities, and tools associated with each step.

Focus

The purpose of the Focus step is to focus on what the change is, what it is intended to accomplish, and how you plan to make it happen. As simple as this step seems, project team members’ perspectives can vary widely about the change. It makes sense…if I tell you to imagine a tree, an image pops into your mind. Your tree image is likely different from my tree image. You might imagine a palm tree, while I imagine a large maple tree. Similarly, perspectives of what an organizational change will be can vary just as widely among team members who are carrying out the change.

Three main activities happen with the Focus step. The outputs of these activities become the foundation of the change effort’s communications. When finished, the summaries of each of the activities should be the elevator-pitch talking points that are reinforced over and over in executive speeches, on company intranet sites, on corporate posters, in company emails, and in every other communication channel selected for the change initiative. Take time to get it right!

Define the Change

First, team members define clearly why the change is happening. This is the business case. While the concept is simple, getting consensus takes a lot of work. Where possible, objective data that supports the need to change is invaluable. In this step, I spend a lot of time driving team members to state 3-5 clear reasons why this change is happening. If the reasons don’t make sense to me, I continue to question them, re-state what I think I’m hearing them say, and then refine the reasons until they do make sense. And, once defined, it’s always helpful to share the reasons with people not associated with the change to get additional feedback, just in case I’ve become too close to the project to provide objective feedback. (At times when it is appropriate to do so, I will tell my wife about some of the projects I am working on. This gives her a better sense of my work, but also gives me a real-life opportunity to see if how I talk about the change makes sense.)

Define the Vision

The second Focus step is for team members to define a clear vision of what they are trying to accomplish with the change. This is the ideal future state. This state should be clear and simple to articulate, and should be based largely on sensory perceptions, or objective criteria that can be observed. The ideal future state might be something we can see, like teams from across the organization meeting more often in collaboration meetings, or a measurable reduction in operational expenses. Or, it might be something we can hear, like more conversations in the hallways, or fewer complaints about a given policy. Again, I recommend only 3-5 clear, key vision statements.

Define the Strategy

The final Focus step is to describe the strategy for achieving the clear vision that was articulated in the previous step. This should be 3-5 high-level steps you will follow to make the vision real. I’ve found that a good default for the strategy is to follow Prosci’s ADKAR model. The first step is to generate Awareness of the need for the change. Second, work on building Desire, or buy-in to the change. Third, help people gain the Knowledge and Ability they will need to make the change through proper training. And fourth, implement processes and structures that will Reinforce the change.

Commit

The second step in the process is to help people commit and buy in to the change. This is where you consider who is leading the change, who you need to recruit to promote the change, and who the change will affect. These are your stakeholders. I approach this step in three parts. While this step can all be done on a single spreadsheet and seems simple, it takes a lot of time and work! If it is painful, you’re probably doing it right.

Identify Stakeholders

First, I identify who my stakeholders are. I usually start at the top of the organization, trying to understand exactly who is asking for this change. This is not always as clear as it seems. Some organizations may have sponsors of a change who are able to recommend a course of action, but not approve it or make the final decision. (Check out Bain and Company’s RAPID model for more information). These set-ups are at risk of being derailed by the highest level of management who can decide to not approve or further fund a particular change. If I can’t get to the highest-level decision maker to assess his or her commitment to the change, I at least want to account for and acknowledge with the team the tremendous risk it represents to the success of the project.

After I’ve established who the key stakeholders are (that is, the ones who can make or break the success of the initiative), I look at the next lower level of management, down through the impacted end users. When I can, I prefer to identify the upper management levels by individual names to reach out to them directly. Their support is critical because of those who will follow them. If managers or individual contributors lower in the organization are too numerous to reasonably manage, I may identify them as a group by role, and try to identify a few influential people within those groups. Some of these key people embedded within the role groups may be on board with the change. But, I may also purposefully engage some of the strong voices who I know are not in support of the change. If I can engage them early on in creating a successful change, and get them bought-in to the change through their participation in it, I avoid a lot of heartburn down the road.

Evaluate Stakeholders

Once the team and I have listed all the stakeholders out on a spreadsheet, we evaluate each stakeholder separately. The goal is to understand where they currently stand with the proposed change, and why the change might be good or bad for them personally. We evaluate each stakeholder’s current state by using Prosci’s ADKAR model, mentioned earlier. In line with Prosci’s approach, each stakeholder is evaluated on a scale of 1 (None) to 5 (High) on their Awareness of the need for the change, Desire to support the change, Knowledge about how to make the change, Ability to actually make the change, and Reinforcement to maintain the change once implemented. In the order of the ADKAR model, the first letter where the individual is rated at a 3 or lower is where the team needs to focus attention for that individual. For example, if an individual scores a 4 on Awareness, but a 2 on Desire, the team knows they need to help that individual build more Desire to participate in the change, and doesn’t move on to helping the individual gain Knowledge until he or she scores a 4 or 5 on Desire.

Along with ADKAR, I work with the team to evaluate the potential pros and cons of the change for each stakeholder. What’s in it for the stakeholder personally? Why might the stakeholder resist the change? I use these reasons to inform communications. By understanding what matters most to the stakeholders, we can use or address it to promote further commitment to the change.

Action Plan for Stakeholders

After we have evaluated each stakeholder, we then determine what the action plan will be to reach out to each stakeholder. For those who are supportive of the change, we may discuss how we can include them to help others on board. If a group in a certain part of the organization wants to participate, but doesn’t know how, we know we need to plan a training opportunity. If some individuals are aware of why we need to make the change, but don’t want to get on board, we can discuss how we can build their desire to support the initiative (for example, a supportive message from a manager or the executive sponsor, or a personal engagement from a respected peer who supports the change).

Importantly, the Commit step should be a living step, meaning that it is not a one-and-done deal. The spreadsheet should be updated regularly to show the outcomes of the action plans. If an individual is now on board with the change, the ADKAR evaluation and next action plan should be updated to reflect that. And, even though a person was on board with the change at one point, don’t neglect to feed their support! Build the commitment of those not on board, while feeding and strengthening the support of those who are.

Execute

As you are building buy-in and commitment, begin planning how you will execute the change. This is done through a change management plan. Think of the change management plan as a combination between the project plan, the communications plan, and change management best practices. The outcome of this step is to have a single, executable plan with activities, dates, details, and specific names of who is responsible for what.

I include the following columns in my spreadsheet.

  • Related Milestones: Any big project deliverables we need to know about for the change. Also, I may account for other significant dates that might impact the roll-out, like holidays, corporate activities, or other change initiatives that may compete for attention.
  • Title/Description: What is the activity
  • Start and Completion Dates
  • Audience: Who will be receiving the communication?
  • Purpose: What is the intent of the communication? I’ve found that the intent, again, generally falls into one of the ADKAR steps.
  • Content: A quick overview of what will be included in the communication. Generally, these incorporate ADKAR steps. For example, I may be creating an email that will be sent from the executive sponsor (Desire) where I want the audience to understand why we are making the change (Awareness), and to invite them to a training (Knowledge and Ability).
  • Medium: What channel will be used for this communication? Email? A face to face meeting? A team meeting? An intranet article?
  • Who Prepares: Who is the person responsible for creating the content/medium?
  • Who Delivers: Who is the person responsible for delivering the content/medium? This step is critical! I will build activities into the plan that encourage participation by the executive sponsor, as well as immediate managers and supervisors. Their active, public, regular, and effortful participation in the change is not only critical for people to get on board (see Prosci Best Practices in Change Management), but also reinforces their own commitment to the change (See the book “Influence, Science and Practice”, Ch. 3, Commitment and Consistency, by Robert Cialdini).
  • Status/Comments: Any additional notes I might need to add.

Once the Change Management Plan is created, it can be executed, similar to a project management or communication plan. In some cases, I will wear my product/project manager hat, and be the driver for ensuring the team follows the Change Management Plan. However, in general, I recommend that another team member be responsible for carrying out execution of the plan. This not only provides more buy-in and regular accountability from the team, but also ensures that I don’t get wrapped up in tactical matters that reduce my ability to support other change management initiatives.

In Summary

That’s it! Focus. Commit. Execute. It’s the framework I follow. As I stated earlier, when I need additional tools for higher-risk, more complex initiatives, or when I need highly specific guidelines, I turn to the change management resources I got as a certified Prosci Change Practitioner, relevant materials from my PhD studies regarding organizational change, and other industry resources, including Kotter, Lewin, McKinsey, and others. But, with most of what I do, the simple “Focus, Commit, Execute” framework provides amazing value that is simple to consume, follow, and execute.

And now, I’m hungry. I want something simple, predictable, and satisfying. For some reason, In-N-Out seems like the perfect place.

When Understanding “Why” Might Not Matter in Change Management

Many models of organizational change management assume that people overcome resistance to change when they are given sufficient information that they use, at some point, to purposefully and deliberately evaluate the change. Once they have carefully examined the change–what’s in it for me, what does the change imply for my work, why is the business doing this, what is the burning platform, what risks will we incur by not doing this–individuals see the merits of the change, which leads to a psychological shift to support the change more openly and willingly. The assumptions of this general pattern of deliberate evaluation can be seen in Kotter’s 8 steps, the Prosci ADKAR model, and Lewin’s Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze model.

However, while information and deliberate evaluation of a change is undoubtedly essential for many individuals, it may not be essential for all individuals. Many individuals, in fact, may be persuaded to adopt the change based on factors that live largely outside of the merits of the change itself. In other words, many people may get on board with a change for reasons that have little to nothing to do with the actual change itself. By acknowledging corporate change as a persuasive endeavor, we can identify new insights from persuasion research to improve how changes are carried out in organizations.

Two Paths to Persuasion

The Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) of persuasion developed by Shelly Chaiken in the mid-1980’s (and the similar Elaboration Likelihood Model by Petty and Cacioppo) proposed that people evaluate persuasive messages through one of two channels. The systematic method for processing persuasive messages involves careful deliberation and thorough evaluation of a message. When an individual has adequate time, capacity, or the pressing need to evaluate a message, they will do so carefully and deliberately. In organizational change, the systematic route of persuasion assumes that an individual learns about a change—from a leader, a white-paper, an intranet article, a video, or an email—and carefully processes the information, followed by making a conscious decision to support or not support the proposed change.

However, when an individual lacks adequate time, capacity, or the need to give careful attention to the message, or if the message lacks perceived relevance, they will rely on cognitive short-cuts to decide how they will respond to a change. These short-cuts, or rules-of-thumb, are called heuristics. The heuristic methodfor processing persuasive messages assumes that individuals are psychologically busy and have a lot of priorities competing for their cognitive attention at any given time—ranging from higher priority business items to relationship matters, to an upcoming vacation, to a broken dishwasher, and so on. To manage the mental demands of life, people will often simplify their mental load by making decisions based on default cognitive short-cuts or rules-of-thumb. While these short-cuts, or heuristics, are not fail-safe, they are generally time-tested and trusted, and have helped them make decisions in the past with a reasonably high success rate. By applying these mental short-cuts, they are able to make multiple decisions at a relatively minor psychological cost, with an acceptable rate of risk that the decision will result in success.

Executive leaders and senior and middle managers, it seems, are particularly inclined to use heuristic processing when they sponsor or consider changes that are not their top priorities. Given their roles, they carry large demands on their shoulders. They are expected to oversee and make decisions for a wide breadth of items of varying complexity. Regardless of their leadership skills or how bright they may be, however, they cannot be experts in every decision laid before them. They are busy people. The depth of attention they are expected or able to give is the attention they cannot reasonably provide. As a result, they may tend to focus on their few priorities, and default to heuristics for everything else.

6 Mental Short-Cuts

In his 2001 book “Influence: Science and Practice,” Robert Cialdini proposed six research-based heuristics people use when they don’t have sufficient time or cognitive resources to carefully evaluate a matter. These six principles of persuasion provide additional considerations for change practitioners. While the key messages around a change must still be managed closely, these peripheral cues and messages can also be leveraged to increase the likelihood of wider change adoption. I summarize Cialdini’s principles in the acronym SPARCLeS.

Social Proof (SP) is the rule-of-thumb whereby people look to others around them to determine how they should respond. It speaks to social rules of conformity and the “safety-in-numbers” theory. This is the logic behind user reviews: “If that many people give it a high rating, it must be a great product.”

In change management, many individuals make a decision to support a change based on what others around them are doing. They look to their teams, a trusted colleague, or peers to make their decisions to support a change. If they haven’t had time to review a change proposal, or were distracted by a pressing issue during a change presentation, they are likely to scan the social environment to see what others are doing—not the merits of the change itself—and then decide accordingly. They take the temperature of the room, and then move forward trusting in “the wisdom of the crowds.”

To leverage the heuristic of social proof, change practitioners can:

  • Use “everybody else is doing it” language when it can be done so ethically and honestly
  • Arrange opportunities for those who are resistant or undecided to meet with multiple change supporters
  • Select and involve influential stakeholders and opinion leaders from all levels of the organization
  • Highlight stories that reflect broad-based acceptance of the change
  • Present data that shows increasing acceptance and adoption

Authority (A) is the rule-of-thumb whereby people are influenced due to the authority of the person sending the message. In 1959, French and Raven identified five types of authority an individual or institution may possess: Attractive authority comes by having personal attributes that draw others to follow; Expert authority comes by perceived subject matter expertise; Reward authority is maintained by being able to give valued resources to others; Coercive authority is maintained by being able to take valued resources from others; and Position authority is granted by virtue of a title. With each type of authority, individuals may be persuaded by the authority backing the message, and not the message itself.

The influence of authority is, at times, disturbingly strong. The Stanley Milgram studies of the 1960’s showed that nearly 2 out of 3 every-day people followed the directions of an authoritative researcher to the point of administering (what they supposed to be) 450-volt lethal shocks to a confederate research participant. Similar deference to authority has been shown to doctors and police officers, and can be seen in the advertising world where actors and athletes sell their star power to promote watches, underwear, athletic apparel, and more.

In change management, authority is typically connected to executive sponsors, direct managers, or industry experts (often times consultants) representing the need to change. While some people will be influenced by what the authority figures actually said, many will be influenced simply because of who said it. “Ifshe said it, it must be a good thing.” People may not understand why a change is happening, but will still go along with it out of obedience to the authority figure.

To leverage the authority heuristic, change practitioners can:

  • Involve executive sponsors regularly and actively
  • Regularly emphasize that executive sponsors support the change
  • Involve direct managers and supervisors
  • Use consultants or other subject matter experts to validate the need for change
  • Identify stakeholders with “star status” or other types of authority among peers to promote the change
  • Bring in respected, authoritative outsiders who will voice support for the change

Reciprocity (R) is grandma’s short-cut rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Social interactions are built largely on this give-and-take, transactional understanding. I do this for you, and you in turn do that for me. People generally don’t want to break this social rule out of fear that they may be labeled a leach, a taker, a moocher, or a selfish freeloader looking out for his own best interest. Because the rule is so well-established in social circles—and the reason it matters to persuasive efforts—it can be evoked even when it wasn’t requested. For example, if a neighbor brings a dessert, individuals often feel obligated to send a dessert in return. One “I love you” prompts another “I love you,” or an awkward moment if it doesn’t follow. Marketers use this principle often: they send “free” personalized address labels; they give free samples, or offer a complimentary meal or hotel stay. If you’ve ever stopped at a traffic light and had a person quickly wash your windows, and then extend their hand to you, you’ve experienced reciprocity. Likewise, if you’ve seen panhandlers’ signs promoting their veteran status, you know what the obligation to reciprocate feels like. Even though you didn’t ask for the service, the expectation behind each of these offers is always to leverage reciprocity and gain something in return.

In change management, reciprocity is leveraged wherever a potential exchange of resources exists, including the commodity of commitment. It’s seen in spoken and unspoken appeals to “support your change, if you’ll support mine.” It’s noticed when change practitioners elicit buy-in to the change (what the organization gets) in exchange for participation in the course of the change (what the individual gets). It’s at the heart of the WIIFM (“what’s in it for me “), where individuals evaluate if what you’ve told me I will get is worth what I will be expected to give in return. And, in basic economic terms, it’s at the core of wages for doing a specific job, whether as incentives (more money if you support this) or punishment (demotion or termination if you don’t support this).

To leverage the heuristic of reciprocity, change practitioners may consider the following:

  • Communicate the WIIFM to employees with specific propositions that will increase the perceived value employees receive for making the change
  • Highlight the total value of employees’ employment, followed by the request to support the change
  • Reward supportive behaviors
  • Involve stakeholders in guiding and developing the change when possible

Commitment (C) is the rule-of-thumb that leverages an individual’s innate desire to behave consistently. In its simplest form, once we have committed to do something, we want to follow through. If we don’t follow through, we experience what Leon Festinger in the mid 1950’s called cognitive dissonance, or a psychological state of discomfort when our actions don’t align with our beliefs. And, if we break our commitments, we experience the social consequence of being labeled flaky, untrustworthy, or undependable. From a persuasive perspective, commitment is leveraged when individuals are first asked to make—or at least be willing to make—an active or public commitment, followed by the request to take action on that commitment. Once an individual has said “yes” to a smaller request, it becomes more difficult to say “no” to subsequent requests related to the same matter.

To leverage the commitment heuristic, change practitioners may consider the following:

  • Seek individuals’ commitment to the change prior to the change actually being made (“If we were to make this change, would you support it?”), rather than waiting to build commitment when the change is in flight.
  • Remind individuals of the organization’s vision and ideals that likely attracted employees in the first place, and then show them how the current change is an extension of those ideals.
  • Encourage key stakeholders and sponsors to actively, visibly, and publicly express their support of the change. In addition to influencing those impacted by the change, this builds their commitment and keeps themengaged in the change.
  • Provide opportunities for those impacted by the change to publicly express their support of the change, such as a quote in a company newsletter or an “I’m All In” campaign.

The fifth heuristic is Liking (L). Its close cousin is similarity. People like others who are like them. And, when they like them, they tend to trust them more and follow their lead. “You’re from Boston? No way, I’m from Boston, too!” “You’re into Star Wars? Me, too.” “You graduated from the University of Texas at Austin! Hook ’em! I love you already!” Liking, which is often achieved through perceived likeness, promotes the belief that if one person is similar in one attribute, they are likely to be similar in other attributes, and are therefore trustworthy. Likability is also influenced by other traits such as physical attractiveness, humor, name similarity, and flattery, even when it is insincere.

In change management, one potential implication of the likability heuristic is to carefully consider who sends the change messages. If I hear from someone in my same role who supports a change, I am much more likely to support the change than if I heard it from someone in another role. Also, I am more likely to support a change if my immediate supervisor—who I hopefully like—also supports the change. Additionally, if the organization has those few people who are broadly seen as “super likable,” their support for the change can also encourage broader support.

To leverage the liking heuristic, change practitioners might consider the following:

  • Identify and encourage support from individuals who share meaningful similarities with those impacted by the change
  • Find “likable” people to support the change
  • Foster likability through openness by encouraging direct managers to express supportive and authentic feelings and thoughts–positive and negative–regarding the change

The final heuristic is Scarcity (S). When people presume that an item or experience is scarce or in short-supply, they tend to want the item or experience much more than when it is readily available. Whether it’s a “limited time only” sale, or “only a few cars remaining at this price,” scarcity drives people to want more of what they potentially can’t have. In the 1960’s, Jack Brehm coined the term “psychological reactance” to describe the experience people have when they can’t have what they want. The more it appears I can’t have it, the more I want it. Similar to the classic Romeo and Juliet / West-Side Story teenage love scenario, that which is forbidden seems most attractive.

In change management, scarcity is leveraged in a few ways. First, scarcity is evident in a “burning platform,” or evaluation of what is at risk of being lost if a change is not made. Most people will fight to preserve or restore their perceived loss of freedom. Essentially, the message is “This change may be hard, but not changing will limit our options even more.” In 1979, Khaneman and Tversky found that, when it comes to persuasive messages, “losses loom larger than gains.” In other words, people are more persuaded by messages that emphasize what they stand to lose than messages that emphasize what they stand to gain. While a strong WIIFM, benefits-centric campaign may attract some commitment to a change, a reminder of what is at risk of being lost can also pack a persuasive punch. This aligns with Kotter’s first step of establishing a sense of urgency with “a frank discussion of potentially unpleasant facts” (Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995, p. 60).

A second application of scarcity in change management is through opportunities to participate in the change in some exclusive fashion. For example, participation on a change steering committee or change team can be perceived as desirable because of the limited number of individuals invited to participate. An invitation to a key resistor to participate on a “carefully selected team” for a change may be accepted because of the scarcity of the opportunity, even when the individual does not like the change. The exclusivity of the opportunity makes it attractive. Also, communications may emphasize a deadline—a scarcity of time—to provide feedback on a change. The perceived lack of time can generate a need to capture the window of opportunity before it’s closed.

To use the scarcity heuristic, change practitioners might consider the following:

  • Identify what is at risk of being lost individually and organizationally if the change is not made, whether it’s an opportunity or an existing benefit
  • Increase involvement of stakeholders by extending invitations to participate in an exclusive, “carefully selected project team”
  • Give dates and deadlines to improve participation in change activities

Summary

Carefully crafted messages and key talking points are critical for a change effort to succeed. When stakeholders and individuals have the time and resources to evaluate the message, they are likely to feel compelled to get on board with the change, assuming that the overall value of the change is greater than its overall cost. However, many individuals—including leaders—may not have the time and resources to carefully evaluate a particular change. In these circumstances, research in persuasion suggests they are likely to default to simple cognitive short-cuts to make their decisions. These heuristics—including Social Proof, Authority, Reciprocity, Commitment, Liking, and Scarcity—will become the primary guidelines that individuals use to decide to support a change effort or not. By leveraging these heuristics, change practitioners can shore up their change efforts, encouraging broader support among individuals who may not carefully consider the merits of the change itself.

 

Welcome to UCMN!

Welcome to the Utah Change Management Network (UCMN, pronounced as individual letters or “U Common”) site. The purpose of UCMN is 1) to elevate the excellence of change management professionals across Utah, USA, and 2) to provide organizations a hub of change management expertise they can engage for consulting services. As professionals build change management capabilities, they

  • Improve the success of organizational initiatives
  • Reduce the time to achieve the stated objectives of organizational initiatives
  • Reduce the costs to achieve the stated objectives of organizational initiatives
  • Create greater organizational “stickiness” and buy-in to organizational initiatives.

As a change management program manager in Utah, I was looking for local opportunities to consult with other professionals who are passionate about organizational change management. What I found, though, was very limited. Few career positions listed in Utah job searches were specifically related to change management, and no organizations seemed to clearly market themselves as change management experts or resources. Seeing the gap, I decided to pursue it on my own.

UCMN will achieve its purpose by creating awareness of its benefits and services, building commitment to the practice of change management, and providing practical, high-value training and consulting to build the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed.

UCMN’s values distinguish it from other organizations. We are

  • Methodology-agnostic: While we recognize the value of various industry models and frameworks, we believe the best approach is simply to find the practices that work best. We believe that solid change management practices are scattered among us, and welcome openness and free-flow exchange of information.
  • Methodology-benders: While we may embrace general frameworks for our work, we recognize that specific projects will require specific tools, which may be gathered from multiple sources (respecting copyright and privacy laws).
  • Stractical: We value change management approaches that are both strategic and tactical, or “stractical.” We believe that solid strategic plans without strong execution are only dreams, and that strong execution without solid strategic plans is wasteful.

About Me

I’m Scott Anderson. I am the Change Management Program Manager for an IT department, and am certified in the Prosci Change Management process. My unique approach to the discipline of change management reflects my educational and professional background. I have a PhD in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, where I focused on persuasion and social influence. Prior to my PhD studies, I worked as a licensed clinical social worker, helping people apply principles of psychology to overcome obstacles and achieve their personal potential. The common thread in my professional and academic passions has been to bring about real change– enabling others to elevate themselves to achieve their greatest potential–through the power of thoughtful communication.