It is interesting that we, as humans, are designed to adapt – that is, to change – yet we seem to find it so difficult. I believe that there are a number of factors that contribute to the seemingly impossible task of supporting people within an organisation to accept and embrace change.

One of the biggest mistakes leaders in organisations make is that they assume that we can motivate people to embrace change by providing lots of communication about it, and by creating new processes and expectations and KPIs to force them to change their thinking and behavioural patterns.

This is a ‘telling’ and ‘push’ approach, and it doesn’t work.

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything – Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.

Leaders have to find a way to change how people think about:

  • The organisation and where it is heading
  • The preference to keep things the way they are (or have always been), and
  • The part they as individuals need to play.

There are a couple of big barriers to this. Firstly, as I mentioned, people don’t like to be told what to do. But more importantly, we are hardwired to fear change. 

The emotional centre within the human brain (the limbic brain) is designed to keep us alive and safe by detecting errors in the environment. It will assume that any perceived ‘danger’ is real until proven otherwise.

There are 2 key ‘solutions’ to this dilemma.

  1. The first is the ability of leaders within an organisation to facilitate insight through powerful conversation.

    Insight is the key to behaviour change. Only when people ‘get it’ do they buy-in to change and find the motivation to make thinking and behavioural adjustments that are otherwise too effortful.

    The ‘aha’ moment is literally a rewiring of the brain’s neural connections, and only when that rewiring occurs will people truly change the way they perceive a situation.

    We have the science now to understand how an insight in the brain occurs, and we can artificially, through questioning techniques, create the environment for individuals to be more likely to have such insights – to do quality and useful thinking that leads to buy-in. Neuroscience is helping us to support the brain to deal with change.

    These techniques can be learned and should form essential development for all leaders who need to influence and facilitate change in their organisation.

  2. The need to support your organisation or team to develop a healthy relationship with failure.

    We learn through trial and error, through failure. No amount of ‘telling’ or even ‘showing’ will prevent a young child from placing their hand on the hot stove, until they do and they ‘learn’ not to do that again!

    Similarly, a small child learning to walk does not get it the first time. Learning the skill of walking is a series of ‘experiments’. Each one elicits a new level of learning until the skill is mastered.

    Yet, we have been role modelled an expectation that we get it right first time. During our schooling, only our achievement is rewarded, not our effort. The problem with this is that the human brain will tend to strongly avoid the social humiliation of failure (even when it is part of a learning journey).

    Huge projects with clear outcomes are scary and in many minds way too effortful and with limited assurance of success. It is easier to be pessimistic. To avoid and push back on change, and to avoid taking responsibility within it.

    So what can you do? I would suggest that you stop ‘planning’ and start running experiments. Take a ‘scientific’ approach to all forward movement (ie change).

    Allow your people to take control of the change process by designing and undertaking a series of experiments. There are no clearly defined outcomes, only a hypothesis to be proven or disproven. Experiments are fun. Even when experiments fail, they can elicit valuable learning. And the absence of performance pressure encourages much more creativity and risk-taking.

The 6 steps to the scientific method are:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do background research
  3. Construct a hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis by doing an experiment
  5. Analyse the results and document the learning
  6. Communicate the results and feed the new learning into the next experiment