by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development
Lead International USA
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Several years ago I wrote an article based on Pfeffer and Sutton’s book, The Knowing-Doing Gap. The book accurately captures management’s biggest problem – getting people to actually do what they already know to do. While there are several significant knowledge problems yet to be solved, like perpetual energy and climate control that would make life radically better, those are not the daily challenges facing most managers. Most training and consulting solutions do a good job of knowledge transfer. Part of this is because the individuals and organizations already possess most of the needed knowledge early in the process. The frustration is that despite everyone’s ability to pass the written portion of the driving test, drivers still can’t successfully navigate the car out of the parking lot.

This frustration has led to a number of books and articles on behavioral change. Many of the authors have drawn their conclusions from the same academic and case studies. One that caught my attention was Influencers by the team at Vital Smarts. The subtitle, “The Power to Change Anything,” seemed to be a classic example of over promising.  However, the authors lay out a very logical presentation of the factors that make the most differences. After reading through their successful examples, the reader does find hope that if you follow their prescription, change will happen. Of course, therein lies the paradox of writing a book about behavioral change. The book gives you the required information but whether the reader implements it is largely out of the authors’ hands.

Fortunately, most of normal psychology is easily understood since, as normal people, we can easily relate to what is normal behavior. Research shows that people ask two basic questions before engaging in any change activity:

Is the change worth it?

Can I do this new behavior?

A negative response to either one dooms the change effort from the beginning. So, any change strategy needs to address both motivation (is it worth it?) and ability (can I do it?).

The authors of Influencer rightly recognize that most of the time, we attempt to address these two questions with verbal persuasion. Unfortunately, this is usually the least effective in overcoming resistance. Like a tennis match, our defensive colleagues simply volley back with their own neat justifications of why the status quo is superior. The key is to help people see where their information is inaccurate and incomplete. This usually requires people to actually receive the information differently and to experience a new reality.

The change experience has to focus on behaviors and, more importantly, on the “vital few.” The “Influencer” strategy starts with a search for those key behaviors and then builds a multi pronged program that addresses both motivation and ability. One proven key behavior search approach is to look for the “positive deviant.” Who are the people in the organization or community who are achieving the desired results and why? What are the vital behaviors they practice and how do we make those the norms and not the exception? The authors argue that to make that happen requires a thoughtful plan that touches on six different areas of influence that combine personal and social components.

The natural place to start this process is with personal motivation. The authors of Influencer lean heavily on the use of intrinsic rewards and the importance of helping people see that change will require a long and sometimes difficult journey. Because of this, people need to find a way to experience the benefits even if it is vicariously. One of the best ways to do this is through stories that feature characters that struggle through issues and reach the desired benefit. TV and radio programming have influenced community change efforts by creating heroic characters that mirrored common people in the community who were able to transform themselves. Each of the examples in the book highlighted the importance of not trying to impose change but rather letting people choose change.

Equally important in the motivation process is social influences or, as the authors describe it, “harnessing the power of peer pressure.” Enlisting “opinion leaders” is critical in the process. Change management is not about winning a simple majority. Change happens most frequently when the “early adopters” of change are socially connected and well respected.

Both personal and social motivation are fueled and sustained by structural motivation.  This involves designing rewards and accountability into the change process. The authors correctly note that in a well balanced change effort, the focus on rewards comes third in the process. If you have provided the proper motivation on the personal and social dimension, then you can naturally emphasize the intrinsic rewards of change. Organizations that start out trying to “buy” the change with promises of extrinsic rewards, generally start a cycle where every step towards change becomes an expensive proposition.

The authors also start the search for answering the question, “Can I do this new behavior” by looking at personal ability. Through the concept of “deliberate practice,” individuals can break down the needed behaviors into smaller components allowing them to master each task or activity. Repeated practice of new and difficult skills is seldom fun. However, a step by step approach allows the individual to see progress towards the goal and make corrective actions in a productive way. Without this intentionality, it is easy to accept defeat early in the process.

Similar to the power of social motivation, social ability focuses on the multiplier effect of engaging the collective strength of the group. Creating a sense of mutual accountability is critical to obtaining everyone’s best efforts. Many change efforts fail because of the devastating effect when some members of the group choose not to participate fully. Usually change efforts are not able to build in a large margin of error, so receiving a half hearted effort from part of the team during a critical period dooms the whole enterprise. Successful change efforts have to focus on effective team building behaviors along side the required new individual behaviors.

The final influencer, “structural ability” illustrates how leaders can effectively shape the environment to make the change easier. This can include the physical layout, the presentation of information, and the tools and technology. In times of change, people are looking for consistency of words and actions. The environmental factors can either provide the glue that pulls everything together or create the “disconnect” that has everyone focused on what’s missing instead of what is present.

As with most of today’s management writings, the authors have not offered a radical explanation or solution to the challenge of change management. We all recognize that the problems and the solutions come down to human behavior which does not always fit into a standardized description. However, they have highlighted an approach that allows leaders to reduce the confusion and diffusion of change efforts by focusing on a few vital behaviors. Once those are known, the change effort drives all its energy towards increasing the motivation and developing the capabilities to make those behaviors the desired norm. Hopefully, with this more strategic approach to change, the members of the organization will be spend more of their energy devoted to changing their behavior and less energy trying to guess what is management’s “real agenda” with their latest change program.

©2011 Lead International