Cracking the myths of change management: part 2

So. Now that we know from part 1 that rather than managing change, we manage the conditions that make it possible for a person to change, that change deliverables are not even worth the electronic glyphs that capture them if they are not activated and evolved over time, and that sustainable change and business results require an actual cadence and infrastructure.

Let’s tackle three more myths that present one of those itches that you just cannot seem to scratch no matter how hard you try.

Change management myth number 4: “It’s all about embracing change.”

The only embracing I want to do in this lifetime is with the love of my life, my twin sons (now turned 18 and ready to take on the world), and my very best friends who are used to being bear-hugged by yours truly.

As human beings, we are hard-wired not towards change, but towards structure, predictability (read Jean Piaget on cognitive development) and to think in terms of worst-case scenarios. The latter is related to some very primal type of processing which kicks in to protect you against all eventualities. If that is a given, then change is not necessarily the thing we feel inclined to run towards like a bunch of happy-go-lucky lemmings.

So what is it that we need to embrace to be able to deal with change? How about the fact that we are human beings, not human doings (thank you, Dr. Wayne Dyer, for that inestimable quote). Going through change, dealing with change inevitably includes struggle, some confusion, learning, sometimes a sense of loss and sometimes even a sense of gain! Embracing the fact that it is a process with its own ups and downs, through which each person makes an individual journey – now that creates breathing space and room for dialogue and support.

What we can also embrace is the possibility of showing consistent and principled behavior no matter how much our circumstances or working conditions change – to listen respectfully, with empathy to our colleagues; to follow up on our promises of support, to apologize for the times we fail, to celebrate even the small victories.

Simple and consistent human courtesy and humane behavior; these are the mainstays that provide the stability, the predictability we so crave in our natural state. Oh yes, and consider this, and say it to yourself and to others often: why do we never have time to get it right, but somehow we always have time to do it over?

Embracing change is about accepting what is needed in human terms to transform: time, connectedness, trust, regular feedback, feeling safe enough to fail small and then succeed big, and being utterly convinced that everyone has everyone else’s back. Now that is something to put your arms around.

Change management myth number 5: “If we hit the numbers then the change is successful and sustainable.”

Let me open this one with a story about an airbase where I worked as a change consultant at the beginning of my career. An old technical sergeant told me over a cold beer that in the past, pilots were very good at hitting their numbers: you see, a big part of their evaluation depended on the number of missions for which they were able to take off on time.

So. It was not unusual for a pilot and his technician to finagle a spare part out of the plane standing next to his own in order make sure he took off on time himself! The result is that one pilot was the model of punctuality, while the other had his plane grounded for a month because part of it had gone missing!

Things changed very much once the air base transformed its overall ways of working and adopted one common measure of success (total number of missions taking off on time) and regularly reviewed the behavior in supply, logistics, tech, flight etc. that underpinned the results in order to ensure sustainability.

And therein lies the rub: in order for change to mean sustainable business results, hitting the numbers is just not enough. We’ve also got to ‘hit’ (encourage, review, maintain, sustain) the behaviors, ways of working, concrete discipline that is required to come up with those results time and again. Otherwise we just run the risk of having a one-off result, a tick in the box which starts fading the moment it has been put in there.

Change management myth number 6: “If I manage to work in a different way once and make it work, then that is all I need to be changed permanently.”

I wish change were that easy. However, in this case, our brains tend to conspire against us in the beginning. Using a new routine, trying out a new behavior or way of working, actually results in a new physical connection between certain synapses in our brains.

Our tried and trusted ways of working, our very habits, are simply hardwired into our personal wetware if you will. In the beginning stages of a change, the synaptic connections representing our old ways of working are strong and thick – set to last. Then, the more we behave in the new way, repeat and evolve the new way of working, the less strong those old connections become as they fall into disuse…but don’t kid yourself, they are still there!

On the other hand, the new synaptic connections related to our new way of working grow strong and fit as our try-outs become tried and trusted, and eventually develop into a new habit. Interestingly enough, when things heat up and we get stressed out, we tend to revert to the old connections we made in our brains (old behavior)…so beware!

The implication here is that a good change management approach foresees what is necessary three to six months after the transformation has been completed – settling in peer-to-peer reviews, knowledge and best practice sharing, communities of practice, various reinforcing and supporting mechanisms, which actually make it easy to work in a new way.

Repetition and reflection are the essence for ensuring that there is discipline in our transformed ways of working and interacting, which in turn makes the change last.


An earlier version of this article is published on LinkedIn.

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