Why change is difficult and what to do about it

Change is difficult, that’s what we often hear, and yet the pace of change is unrelenting.

 

Let’s start by looking at why change is difficult.

All change involves people and their habits . We build habits over time and these change our attitudes and behaviours. It is possible to change these and to develop new habits, however, it is not easy because habits become embedded. This is particularly strong when we look at cultures in organisations and the habits that have developed within them. Habits show up when we try and answer the question, ‘what is the way we do this in my organisation?’ For example, it could be a simple action taken on a daily basis such as how the leader addresses everyone first thing in a morning.

How often have we heard  the response, ‘we have done this before and it hasn’t worked’ when a change initiative is introduced. Yes, this could be due to a general reluctance to change. However, it can also be due to other factors.  Often people do not see the need to change and are therefore not engaged in the change process, or, the change may not have been addressing the ‘real’ problem.

So, what can help overcome resistance to change?

A way to address these concerns is to treat the change as a messy problem. That is a problem with many dimensions to it and which does not have one clear solution. This is particularly appropriate when change is required around people and their actions. I would suggest therefore that any change program start with a creative problem solving process. This ensures a thorough investigation into the reason why change is needed; that is, asking the question, what is the problem to be resolved by change?

By introducing a creative problem-solving process involving those affected by the change, there is more likely to be a higher rate of engagement in the change. When you engage people and they can understand the need for change, they are much more likely to work to make the change happen rather than resist it.

Engaging people in the change process

Engaging people requires a participative leadership model. To rely on deciding strategy at the top and disseminating it downwards does not engage them. Leaders need to involve people in the process of why the change is needed and what it will look like. It is a top down and bottom up approach.

An excellent example of engaging people in change can be seen in the change process facilitated by Marjorie Parker and detailed in her book ‘Creating Shared Vision‘. The leader created a vision for the culture change that was needed. This was shared throughout the organisation. Each department  interpreting the vision in order to make the changes needed.

A process I undertook when leading a culture change programme involved something similar. We started by involving everyone in identifying the problem, then creating a vision for what it would look like when the problem is resolved. The gap between the current situation and the future vison was identified by teams of people working together. Then behaviours were identified which were needed  to get from the present situation to future vision.

When individual behaviours are identified in the process of change, it breaks the process down into manageable parts. A great overview of change and the importance of behaviours in the change process can be seen here in the interview with Edgar Schein, one of the gurus of culture change.

Change is difficult, it is also a long process and can take years, particularly if it involves culture change. Therefore it is important to keep people energised and engaged throughout the whole process. In the example above, we had regular small collaborative meetings in the different areas where change was needed, and there was constant follow up on the actions required. It was important to keep the momentum and energy up.

Summarising the key points:

  • Change is hard, habits are enduring, and there will be resistance to change.
  • Engage people in order to overcome resistance to change; in the analysis of the problem, and the steps to change.
  • Provide or co-design a compelling vision of the new post-change situation to engage people.
  • A participative and collaborative leadership style is needed to engage people in change initiatives.
  • Working at the level of behaviours makes the change process more tangible.
  • Change takes time and energy and requires resilience of all involved.

Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached women and men in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley. 

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