Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for May 2013

Change: What do we want? When do we want it?

leave a comment »

Why is change so difficult? We don’t do it very well that is for sure. In spite of a whole industry that has sprung up called change management, the way change is implemented in organizations is very often one of the lowest scoring responses you see on employee surveys. Along with a low score on the way change is handled overall, roundly criticized also is the sufficiency of resources being devoted to successful implementation of the change, as well as doing sufficient planning around the implementation of the change. Another part of the answer is that there are so many moving parts when it comes to change, and many of those parts are unseen and unknown.

For instance, I recall a friend telling me about a change he was helping to implement in the US military. It involved some new software that would speed things up and provide better information to decision makers. The installation was going very well and the benefits were obvious to everyone, except to the secretary of a general who was going to have to learn a new way to do her job. She did not want to do that, and she was in a position where she could sabotaged the system, not damaging it per se, but making sure that it produced less accurate results more slowly than the current way she did her work. The system was never implemented.

Change of course is constant. Nothing is for sure except change. It is the state of the world. So if it occurs so regularly and we have so much practice at it, why do we do it so poorly? I would lump the difficulties around change implementation into 2 big buckets.

  1. Structural Blockages – things that have to do with poor execution of a change such as poor planning, resources devoted to change, not fully understanding the implications of what the change will impact, poor design of new systems, poor communications and training on the change etc.
  2. Human Blockages – things having to do with our very nature as humans, our limitations and how we react to changes in our environment.

Structural blockages are relatively easy to overcome, if you have the resources to do so. Human blockages, which are often not considered in change management, are much more difficult to compensate for or overcome for it can be very difficult to unwind a few million years of evolutionary tendency. Some of these human blockages arise from fear, some from inertia and some from bias.

One of our human biases for instance is to search for and give credence to only information that supports our already held positions and to reject information that undermines them. Supporters of this position or that will gleefully hold up a case study, with an “n” of 1 or 2 and say “see, I was right all along”, and they will ignore those hundreds of times or the overwhelming majorities of times when their position was refuted by the experience of others or by hard, scientifically grounded, data. This method is often intentionally used by those arguing for a position and along with the sister method of the slippery-slope argument nonsensical positions are taken. This is over-generalization at its worst.

I am reminded of a story about a blade of grass on a golf course. The odds of any one particular blade of grass being struck by a golf ball are very low, but the odds of a blade of grass being struck are 100%. It all has to do with how you frame the questions and how you go searching for answers. And humans are very very good at finding the answers that they want to find.

One piece of research asked those with a certain position on a hotly debated social issue whether they, if presented with irrefutable evidence that the basic premise of their position was wrong, would change their minds. While the group thought that others should change their opposing position to mirror their own, if presented with evidence that they were in error, the members of this opposing position could not bring themselves to say that they would change their position if irrefutable evidence against their point of view was given.  In other words, I’ll accept the science if it supports my point of view, but will not accept it if it does not support my point of view.

Another aspect of change that makes change so difficult is that it requires an expenditure of energy, and organizations want to operate with the lowest expenditure of energy possible. As I have written elsewhere, in Organizational Entropy, organizations build systems and bureaucracy to reduce the amount of energy they need to expend. That type of energy is represented by all different types of resources such as finances, time, effort and talent. In the balancing dance between maximizing current performance of an organization and building its future potential, future potential represents a greater degree of change and a larger expenditure of organizational energy and resources and so there is a natural push against change and for the status-quo that must be overcome.

One of my earliest vivid memories is one where my older sisters took me to march in a Vietnam protest. It must have been 1967-1968 and I don’t recall it all that well as I would have been 7 or 8 years old. But I do recall the turbulence that society went through as the war was played out nightly on the evening news and the difficulty of getting change to occur with respect to that war. The difficulties we have with change play out in our organizations, in our politics and in our society at large. And I am not so sure our ability at creating, accepting or implementing change is going to get better any time soon.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Link to People and Strategy Journal article, “Why Employee Engagement is not Strategic”.

leave a comment »

Scott Brooks and I recently published this article which we thought you would enjoy. Jeff….pdf


%d bloggers like this: