The challenge with change

The Keys to successful change at work: 1. Involve those affected, 2. Have a clear purpose, 3. Listen to concerns. Why do so few follow this?There are three keys to successful change at work: Involve those affected, have a clear purpose and listen to concerns. Why do so few follow this advice?

The Keys to successful change at work: 1. Involve those affected, 2. Have a clear purpose, 3. Listen to concerns. Why do so few follow this?

Dany DeGrave asks a simple question: There are three keys to successful change at work: Involve those affected, have a clear purpose and listen to concerns. Why do so few follow this advice?

The answer: Human nature.

We seem to be hard-wired to be selfish to some degree (whether we acknowledge the trait or not). Even the kindest most altruistic person still needs some protection for their ego. You know that old cliche ‘the sanest people are the ones we lock up in mental institutions’. I think there’s more than a shred of truth to it. We have filters to cope with what would otherwise be an overwhelming reality that we face on a daily basis, living on a rock orbiting a star that happens to have an atmosphere that is (for the time being) suitable to live in. It’s all a bit bonkers when you mull it over. Hence the need for sanity-protection filters.

But those filters come with a cost…

Let’s look at how they affect the three keys to a successful change project:

1. Involve those affected


There are a couple of traps for this key. The first is assuming that those affected want to be involved. Quite often, the opposite is the case. When you can see you will be negatively affected by a change, your natural instinct will be to resist it, even if you may benefit in the long term. Trying to involve people who do not want to participate can be exhausting. Even more so when faced with people who are actively trying to disrupt your efforts.

The second issue is that change always creates winners and losers. And we rarely look after the losers as well as we could or should. We rarely understand fully the consequences of our actions. Not least because unintended consequences have a habit of appearing and disrupting the most carefully made plans. A simple comment made with the best of intent can be perceived badly by the recipient. You cannot control that reaction, nor can you fully anticipate the reaction in advance.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. When planning a change, carefully consider how best you can involve those affected. What can be done to ease the transition. How will you handle the disruptors. What are you prepared to do to compensate those who will be worse off in the new world.

2. Have a clear purpose

Close up of men's rowing team

Having a clear purpose is easy. But it is rarely without politics. Personal agendas and objectives influence organisational decisions, for better or worse. Your individual purpose may be very different to somebody else’s and that will create tension and conflict.

To have a unifying clear purpose requires strong leadership. The reality often seen within many organisations today is that we have an abundance of MBA-level management capabilities for running ‘business as usual’ but are woefully lacking the leadership skills and courage needed to steer the business in a different direction. If it is your change project at stake, don’t rely on bottom-up adoption or viral messaging. It certainly helps but make sure the leadership from the top-down is supportive. Managers must be able to clearly and consistently communicate the message. And their actions must demonstrate their support for the initiative.

One of the quickest (and most common) ways to kill enterprise social initiatives is to allow managers to behave in ways that are the direct opposite of creating a transparent information-sharing and decision-making culture.

3. Listen to concerns


Listening to concerns is more than just hearing them. It means understanding and empathising with viewpoints that you personally may disagree with. That’s not easy. Particularly when it’s a perfectly valid concern that may completely derail your project or challenge that clear purpose you’ve just worked so hard to establish. Most normal human beings have some degree of sensitivity. And that means we are very quick to build emotional attachments to even the most inanimate of objects.

Daniel Kahneman demonstrated this bias in his best-selling book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ calling it the endowment effect – the tendency for our brains to overvalue something we own or have a stake in. He demonstrated by giving half a class of undergraduate students a mug with the university crest on it. He gave the other half of the class six dollars and invited the students to trade. Those with the mugs asked for more than $5 on average to sell it. Those without the mug offered an average of $2.50 to buy it. Different perspectives meant hardly anybody traded.

When you have a vested interest – an emotional attachment – to your project, it is incredibly hard to listen to concerns fairly. One of the most effective solutions to overcome this bias is to have an independent panel involved to review progress and objectives. But even then, it will be difficult for the project team to accept any recommendations that go against what they believe to be the absolutely right thing to do. This is most visible when governments announce actions that will cost money and possibly even lives. Once the decision has been made and the clear purpose articulated, any independent review that attempts to challenge the decision can expect to be undermined and its credibility challenged.

So there you have it, three simple keys to change that share the same big challenge when it comes to following them: Us. Human fallibility. But life would be boring on this orbiting rock if we were all the same… leave that to the computers 😉


This article was originally published on