Changing When Change is Hard

Man with wings
Mike Timo | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images
Man with wings


It's a word not many people like to hear, either in their personal or their professional lives.

Usually it means breaking from the usual, comfortable, established way of doing things and striking out for new territory, be it physical, mental, or emotional.

Little wonder, then, that humans—creatures of habit—can be so opposed to it.

And that effecting it at an institutional level can be next to impossible.

That was the subject of a presentation given by Chip Heath at the recent World Innovation Forum in New York. Heath, Stanford Professor of Organizational Behavior, is a specialist in effecting change, and offered a striking analogy for how organizations can approach it.

The trick, according to Heath, is to get people invested in change. While they may not like it if it's presented as change, he points out that people make significant changes all the time—like getting married, or having children—and often end up enjoying the results.

He suggests that people trying to change are like riders in charge of an elephant they're trying to get to a specific destination. Each of the elements in the analogy represents a different facet of the human brain: the rider being the rational, analytical side, the elephant being the emotional, "feeling" side that can overwhelm the rider at any point (think of the appeal of cookies when you're dieting), while the path is simply the route to the change you'd like to see.

None of the ideas in the presentation were exactly new to anyone who follows Heath's work: they're at the core of his recent book Switch (co-authored with his brother and helpfully sub-titled How to Change Things When Change is Hard), while the presentation has been given—and covered—at other events as well.

While the idea of humans being a mass of conflicting forces is a fascinating one, where Heath was at his most illuminating, and most practical, was in suggesting how we can overcome those conflicts and actually make change happen.

The key, it would appear, is to keep it simple—and specific. On that note, he had some very specific advice for any leader seeking to effect change or promote a culture of innovation. While he made many, I've culled three main points from his presentation:

Find the Bright Spots

No matter the situation at your company, something will be going well. Even if your firm is one the verge of bankruptcy, there will be something or someone within it that's excellent. Heath suggests studying those things—whether they're people or processes—and finding out what it is that they do differently. By identifying and fostering those things—no matter how small—you can make a significant difference. To illuminate this point, he gave an example of an organization that was given six months to make a difference to malnourishment among children in Vietnam. Rather than focusing on a grand-scale solution, the leader of the organization went to villages and sought out the "bright spots"—the least malnourished children in each place. He then had the mothers of those children teach others their practices, and began making a significant difference without a single extra resource.

Scripting a move

Which of the following statements is likely to produce most focused ideas from employees?

"Let's innovate our way out of this."
"Let's achieve a 20 percent reduction in waste by 2015."

It should be obvious that it's the latter, right?

The reason is that people respond better when they have a clear idea of a destination in mind. When they have carte blanche to do anything they want, results tend to stall. The reason: "too much choice is paralyzing," according to Heath, and creates a situation where people don't know which way to turn. Thus, in many cases "what looks like resistance to change is cluelessness."

Shrinking the Change

There's nothing worse than feeling overwhelmed by a problem that's too big. The role of a good leader in effecting change, then, is as much about figuring out how to reduce the scale of it for employees—breaking it into smaller chunks that they can tackle incrementally. Heath's example came from his own life: as someone who couldn't motivate himself to help out with cleaning at home, he accepted a challenge to do so for just 15 minutes at a time. What he found was that, once he started, he didn't want to stop until the job was done.

As mentioned above, most of this—like the best advice—is pretty simple stuff, at least in theory. Putting it into practice, however, is another thing entirely.

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Phil Stott is a staff writer at in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.

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