Change Management: Physics or Psychics?

A lot change  management is framed, implicitly, as physics. There is resistance, which needs to be overcome. Applying force to the situation (urgency, fear of what happens if we don’t change, excitement about what happens if we do) overcomes that  resistance. This is well exemplifed in John Kotter’s work.

This makes perfect sense if you are moving heavy furniture around in your house. The theory however runs into difficulty when we attempt to generalise from objects to people. Change causes fear, which causes resistance. If we try to overcome that resistance with more fear, then we set up a powerful vicious circle. It’s psychology, not physics, that operates here.

Consider a different approach, which works with the grain of human nature, not against it. Most people most of the time don’t like change which they don’t control, and would prefer to keep things as they are.  Here are two examples of the “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” approach.

One was the recently appointed head of an organisation with a lengthy history but which was in complete disarray. Radical change was clearly needed, but he realised that “radical” and “change” were the two words he most needed to avoid. Instead, he did all he needed to do under the banner of “longevity” – what do we need to do to ensure the longevity of the organisation, and the longevity of the careers of the people working there? The result was huge change with minimal resistance.

The second was the CEO who asked the question “how much do we need to grow for the organisation to remain sustainable?” The answer turned out to be (as I am sure he knew from the start) that it needed to double in size while abandoning a part of the business which had been central to its identity for decades. Again, very major change with minor resistance.

The models we use tend to create self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect change to be a battle then it will be, just as if you go out on a Saturday night looking for a fight you will usually find one. I don’t think that’s what you want, is it? Try a little subtlety instead.

Acknowledgement: “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” is a line from a novel, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It’s about a decadent and decaying aristocratic regime threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution, so you may or may find it relevant to your own situation. The quote, however, applies very widely. And it is an excellent novel.