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The alluring value of simplicity in executing change

Female IT service manager with VR head and handset at front of image with two male colleagues at the back or the room

What makes some change initiatives bloom while others wither and die?

A 2013 study of pilot programmes by the National Academy of Sciences found that few effective pilot programmes remain effective at larger scales. The reasons may lie in both our natural resistance to new and uncertain things and brain preference for simplicity.

Our bodies are built to preserve a constant state, called homeostasis. This constancy is disrupted by change, causing either resistance (status quo) or change (through inertia). Leaders can effectively disrupt homeostasis and drive change by integrating three brain hacks: affective forecasting, nudge theory, and the no-returns policy into “at-scale” pilot programmes.

Affective forecasting is our attempt to predict today how we might feel about something in the future. We are not good at this, as anyone who books a future 5 am flight understands all too well the night before departure. By announcing a change today that starts on a future date, leaders can obtain agreement for change by providing plenty of transition time.

Change is unsettling because people often don’t feel they have a choice. Nudge theory is about carefully architecting choices that are in the best interest of the organization and the individual, allowing behaviour change with minimal effort.

Blending affective forecasting and nudge theory with a “no-returns policy” (our tendency to feel better about a purchasing decision when we cannot return it), drives faster adjustment to the change because there is no going back.

Typical pilot programmes reduce risks by involving small numbers of people. While useful in situations where the cost to implement is high, results may or may not be generalizable at full scale due to contextual or individual response variations or the complexities that arise with modifications necessary to achieve full scale.

At scale pilot programmes allow larger populations to participate and may improve success. Here’s a simple example of an at-scale programme that utilizes the three hacks:

Staff voted to adopt an organization-wide blue jean Friday philosophy. While most departments already allowed it, one large department was not allowed to participate. Executive leadership felt that department heads should have the final say and needed to be convinced of the need for change.

Some executives thought that adoption of this philosophy was a slippery slope that could potentially damage the organization’s image and someone suggested adopting a formal dress code policy. Others argued that many organizations were already offering this as a no-cost morale booster. After three months, there was still no agreement.

Enter the brain hacks. A pilot programme was proposed to align the organization with other, similar organizations (nudge/social norms). It was not mandatory (nudge/opt out). It would start in 30 days (affective forecasting) and last through the end of the fiscal year.

No significant challenges were identified during the pilot period, and blue jean Fridays became the new norm (no returns).

Any one of these hacks will help leaders overcome inertia and improve the adoption and utilization of change efforts. Combining them puts flowers on the vine

Susan L. Franzen is Assistant Vice Chancellor for Organizational Effectiveness at The University of Texas System, and Managing Partner for PatternShifts, LLC.

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