Tackle the Pain of Business Change

by Andi Simon, Ph.D.

Forget what they say about love. It’s change that hurts.

Corporate leaders say it is the biggest challenge they’re facing today. Constant change makes it difficult to remain relevant and to create value for customers. What is worse is that most people don’t know how to manage the changes they believe are essential for their business to thrive.

Whether it’s introducing a state-of-the-art computer program or transitioning a company to a wholly new and innovative way of working, learning something new is painful. The brain creates chemical reaction that says, “This hurts. Stop all that new work.” 

Humans have a problem. We get really good at what we know and do. The habits take over. We look in the mirror and see ourselves as the “right way to do things.” Instead of enjoying the challenges that come with trying something new, we resist. We immediately see the new as something that doesn’t fit our brain map of reality and “delete” it — before we even know what it is. 

To be sure, our brains are elastic and can, in fact, adapt. It’s not a smooth, easy or comfortable process. It is like learning a new sporting game or a role in a play. It takes rehearsal time, mentoring and applause. 

Every small change has an impact on the culture of the larger organization. Moreover, that culture becomes the essence of who people are and what they value and do — it is not the clothes they are wearing. It’s harder to change who you are then what you wear!

What to do during fast-changing times?

When change is essential and the corporate culture has to evolve, getting employees on board can be a challenge. However, if company leaders can provide purpose to the changes — by showing how they’ll improve business and create stability after the transition — they have a better shot at a quicker buy-in. Explaining “why” is extremely important, but not sufficient.

We developed a ChangeMap™ process to lay out a path for leaders to tackle change systematically. Think of it as a Google map — you need to know where you are going, and the map will help you get there.

Here are three first steps to think about:

Make the undesirable desirable. Corporate leaders should realize they are asking people to do something that, at the moment, appears to be counter to what they would think is the “right” or the ‘best” way to do something. 

Perhaps the goal is for them to work in self-managed teams without a manager to solve problems. Or management needs more ideas coming from the field staff, but they lack confidence that their ideas will be respected and that they won’t be at risk. Maybe the business has introduced a new online system, and the old computers are going away. 

Whatever it is, corporate leaders need to think about how they are going to explain to their folks “why” they are doing this and “why” the employees must change — now, and not someday in the future. The employees are going to think this is undesirable. Leadership needs to flip it to something essential.

Visualize the “new.” The brain must “see” and “feel” the new; it’s not enough for employees to just hear about it or be shown a graph or chart about how much better it will be.  

The best way to get them to experience or picture this is to have them create a story or a visualization of what it will be like when the new replaces the old. They will need a shared story that they can begin to live and that others share. And the corporate leaders should let employees be part of creating this.

Small wins, and a lot of them. Then the company leadership should get employees to set up small wins where both can experience the new way of doing something together. Small wins start the change process without huge risks. 

It’s important to have some metrics to evaluate the new, adjust it, and do it again. 

As corporate leaders begin to map out the business’s changes, it’s also important those leaders not forget there is a need to build the skills of the staff or they will continue to abort the changes and return to the prior habits that they knew so well. People do find change painful. Just as a person would not go out to a golf tournament on his or her second day of playing golf; employees faced with changes in their workplace need some practice time, too.  

Andi Simon, Ph.D., author of award-winning book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, is a corporate anthropologist. She is the founder and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants, designed more than a decade ago to help companies use the tools of anthropology to better adapt to changing times.

Dr. Simon is a public speaker and an Innovation Games® facilitator and trainer. She served as a tenured professor of Anthropology and American studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey and was a visiting professor teaching entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Simon has appeared on “Good Morning America” and has been featured in the Washington Post, Business Week and was a contributor to Forbes.com, Huffington Post and Fierce Health. Her global podcast can be heard at andisimon.com/podcast.

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