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3 Things To Think About During Change

05 March 2018

I’ve been “doing change” a while now. Haven’t we all?

Once upon a time I was seduced by the idea that change is all about changing thinking. Before that, I loved all the cool things that aimed at getting people revved up and feeling good; vision, mission, values, parties!

I had my “tools age” too, where I got my geek on and learned everything I could about Statistical Process Control, Lean, System Dynamics and the rest. Everything I did had a framework and a method. There were lots of badges and certificates. I was a full on nerd… and there’s a bit of me that still is.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that change is never all about one thing. Rather, it’s about how we bring many things together. Doubtless that means more than just 3 things but today I thought I’d share the 3 that I find myself paying most frequent attention to.

Fig. 1 - Three Things To Think About During Change

What We Think: The Cognitive Domain - thinking, beliefs, mindset, world view, frame of reference, etc.

John Locke said that “madness is valid reasoning from flawed assumptions” and Einstein is forever being quoted as a reminder that we can’t solve today’s problems with the same thinking that created them. When we change, unless we are ready to examine our perspectives and assumptions, we risk polishing away at doing the same things better when:

  • that may be doing the wrong thing righter.
  • there may be greater leverage in doing better things.

Neither is a benign state of affairs but nor is the assumption that all change is fundamentally a “thinking thing”. Any change has a context and what matters is fitting the approach we take to the issues we face, as Fig. 2 describes:

Fig. 2 - Shaping The Change Approach To Context

When what we do is effective but inefficient, the focus of change is legitimately how to do things better - no fundamental change in thinking required. Polishing how today’s work is done is all that's needed. More than that is to over-engineer the approach. 

However, when what we do today is ineffective, turning the handle faster only accelerates the rate at which problems are created. In those circumstances there is a pressing need to do better things - to think differently.

Before making change it is therefore useful to understand the nature of the issues we face - to take the time to have a look, giving us the opportunity to check our assumptions and beliefs, even if only to validate them.

What We Feel: The Affective Domain - feelings, needs, identity, belonging, etc.

Being human means we are more than just the sum of our beliefs. We are all a little bit art and a little bit science. The mix may vary but none of us is reducible to just 1’s and 0’s so if we want to effect change we need to be prepared to deal in things like emotions too.

This is where being too stuck on how people think can become unhelpful. It can leave us providing a counsel of technical perfection to people who long since left to do whatever meets their needs. While we staunchly defend our right to be right, we may be ignoring the more important requirement to be helpful.

So while we can separate the technical and the social aspects of change in theory - in the same way that we can distinguish between what it’s like to throw a brick or throw a bird (credit to Paul Plsek for that metaphor) - in practice, we do better to see them as inextricable from each other. This means tapping into people's "why", not just focusing on the "what" or "how" of change.

When we do this, being “the right thing to do” relies on it being effective (see Fig. 2) and on it being something that people are ready to give a go.

NB See The Implementation Myth for more on this.

What We Can Do: The Psycho-Motor Domain - capability, technical skill, knowledge and know-how, etc.

Our appetite for change and what we think makes sense to do are as much influenced by what we consider ourselves able to do - or what we find easy to do - as any other factor. In this sense, what we think and how we feel don’t exist in separate vacuums; they constantly interact with each other and with our sense of what's possible.

In an organisation I worked with but won’t name, people gave me a great example from their every day experience. They told me that they routinely recorded certain customer information into a spreadsheet in white font on a white background. Why? Because they had been told that they weren’t meant to hold this information but they knew that without it their jobs would be many, many times more difficult. Keep the information. Make it invisible.

Our ability to do things - what we find easy and what we find hard - directly affects what we do, what we we think is a reasonable way to work and what we feel is acceptable; even in the face of pretty severe sanctions like what a regulator might do if they knew about that spreadsheet!

BJ Fog touches on this in his work describing the motivation wave; his way of mapping the natural rhythm of having periods of peak motivation and periods where we can't much be bothered.

Fog explains that, rather than acting on motivation itself (trying to keep everyone at peak motivation all of the time through carrot and stick incentives) a more effective strategy is to make doing things easier; to surf the motivation wave rather than to change it. To remove friction.

Removing friction can happen in loads of ways. We can time action to coincide with periods of peak motivation. We can break big tasks into little ones. We can build our skills, change our structures, amend our policies and streamline our processes. All of the ways in which we can make things easier are there to be explored and offer a means to shifting thinking, emotions and behaviour by removing the friction that locks today's patterns in place.

Closing The Loop

These 3 things - What We Think, What We Feel and What We Can Do - are tied to each other in ways that mean, for most change efforts, all are necessary and none sufficient on their own:

  • Taking the time to check our assumptions and beliefs is essential but not enough.
  • Attending to each others needs (and strengths) is critical but only part of the story.
  • Removing causes of friction that limit engagement and our sense of what's possible (or more simply, our decisions about what's worth our time) is awesome but just one leg of the stool.

Practical Stuff

From all of this, when I now approach change, I find it useful to look through the lens these three things provide. To do that, I’ve found the Easier Inc. Model for Coproduction to be a useful guide (Fig. 3).

For me, this model helps to keep efforts simple, focused and practical so that change surfs BJ Fog’s motivation wave rather than sinking under without trace. It also provides the opportunity for people to check their assumptions and beliefs while attending to each others needs and strengths.

Fig. 3 - The Easier Inc. Model for Coproduction

If you like the look of the model, you can find out more here, leave a comment for reply below or drop me a line at I promise that I’ll take the time to understand your query and won’t give you the hard sell.

Thanks for reading!


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