About change, lightbulbs and boiling frogs Print
Friday, 16 April 2010 02:00
“How many psycho-analysts does it take to change a light bulb?”
“One, but then the light bulb must want to change!”
By Pieter Hugo

You may have heard the story of the frog and boiling water: put a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out.  However, if you put the frog in while the water is cool and slowly bring it to the boil, the frog will not jump out, but will eventually cook.  A gruesome image, but it does explain why, even when a business becomes toxic and unproductive, we keep on doing things the same way, expecting endurance to pay off and the outcome to be different.

Changing the way things are done and adopting new systems or processes always falls foul to this mentality – we constantly fall back to the way we have always done things or try to make the new systems or processes fit our old mindset.  More often than not, the new system will fail, the new process will never reach critical mass and we simply continue floundering in the hot water.

You cannot “sell” people on change – they need to agree with, or understand the need for the change in the first place.  The implementation of change needs to be carefully planned and managed, not just from an infrastructure or physical perspective, but also in terms of the thinking and philosophy that required the change in the first place. Change cannot be imposed, but needs to involve the people who are going to be affected.  If people help develop the solution, they will ultimately be more committed to its success.

Not everyone feels the same way about change – age, personality and people’s strengths and weaknesses all play a role in how we react to change.  The “why” question remains the most important.  If people don’t understand the reason for the change in the first place, the chance of an effective transition is minimal.

Even when everyone agrees on the need to change and what needs to happen, somehow, nothing actually happens.  In his book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, David Maister delves into this issue.  Even when we know we need to lose weight, stop smoking or build better client relations, within a few months of making the decision, we are back where we started.  It is simply easier to do things the way we always have. 

We need to be prepared for delayed gratification – that the positive rewards may only come after a long period of committed discipline to the new regime.  If we do not approach the change process wholeheartedly, going full-bore, we will never reach the end-goal and the better future we foresaw.  When change fails, people become cynical about change – diets that don’t work and alcoholics falling off the wagon.  Businesses have the same distrust of new systems and projects, almost expecting them to fail before they have even begun.

The reality is that the discipline and resolve required to achieve successful change in unpleasant and laborious.  We find it easier to do what our habits dictate.  We need to change behaviour and habits if we want to achieve change.  The estimate is that, to form a new habit takes 90 days, though a pattern will already be established after 30 days.  So, we need to give change a chance.  In the beginning, it may feel unnatural and more complicated than the way we used to do it.   This is where change begins to fail – when the going gets tough, no-one is excited anymore but its not yet a “habit”.  The first 5 steps of John Kotter’s change steps are generally well-managed.  It is the last two that are the crux however in making change stick.

John Kotter’s eight steps of change are summarised as:
  1. Increase urgency – get people moving, inspire them and make goals relevant and achievable.
  2. Build the guiding team – you need the right leadership in place who are committed, have the necessary skills and authority to guide the change.
  3. Get the vision right – know where you are going, have a vision of the future and a simple plan or strategy on how to get there.  Emotional and creative aspects need focus in order to drive service and efficiency.
  4. Communicate for buy-in – collaborate, discuss with as many people as possible, make sure everyone is informed of the essential facts.  Focus on people's needs and make technology work for you, rather than against you, by de-cluttering communication.
  5. Empower action – remove barriers, provide a feedback mechanism and support from leaders.  Recognise and reward progress and achievement of goals.
  6. Create short-term wins – in a long-term project, bite-size goals more easily achieved help to keep the momentum.  The number of initiatives should be manageable and each stage should be completed before embarking on the next.
  7. Don't let up – determination and persistence are required to foster ongoing change.  There needs to be ongoing reporting on progress, highlighting milestones achieved.
  8. Make change stick – the value of the change needs to be reinforced in everything you do.  The change needs to become part of your culture. 

If you have tried implementing new systems or processes into your business and failed, it helps to understand that people are comfortable in the warm water and often don’t realise that the temperature may become harmful, that the business is actually heading for trouble. Before you embark on the system change that is necessary, involve employees in the discussions and decisions to ensure that, everyone understands, from the outset, that the water is starting to boil and that something has to be done about it. Then, close the lid so that jumping back in is not an option.

“The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far
creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.” Albert Einstein