The secret formula for successful change

In order to flourish, people and organisations must change and adapt. Beckhard and Gleicher’s change formula not only helps you plan for successful change, but provides a way to diagnose the source of resistance during a change process.

The change formula is: D × V × F > R
D is the level of dissatisfaction with the current state
V is vision for the future
F is the understanding of achievable first steps toward the vision
R is resistance to the change

Change requires us to get out of our comfort zone which means there is inevitably some level of resistance. In order to see progress, the product of dissatisfaction with the present, vision for the future and clarity about the next actions must be greater than the resistance. If D, V or F is zero (or close to it), the product will be less than the resistance and no change will occur.

I like this model for two reasons. Firstly, it’s simple enough to recall and apply when you face resistance. Secondly it incorporates the two questions you must answer to move any project forward — “what are we trying to achieve here?” (vision) and “what’s the next action?” (first steps).

Though I’m framing this in the context of organisational change, it can be just as relevant to your personal life. Let’s look at some tactics to turn these variables to your advantage:

1. Create dissatisfaction with the current reality

If everyone is content with the status quo, there’s little motivation for change. People are more open to change when they are very dissatisfied with the current state. Managers must explain why the current situation cannot continue and increase dissatisfaction with the status quo by:

  • explaining the potential consequences of strategic pressures. Create context for your team by explaining how the external environment might affect them. What changes in the legal, economic, technological and competitive landscapes are challenging your organisation? What are the consequences of the possible future scenarios?
  • understanding how your customers view your organisation. Both the products / services and the customer experience are important. Explaining the gap between customer expectations and what you deliver can increase dissatisfaction and awareness of the need to change.
  • reviewing targets. Consistently hitting targets reinforces the status quo. Consider stretching existing targets or introducing new ones to reinforce the changed expectations.
  • modifying reward systems. Reward systems which aren’t aligned with the new vision undermine change. Watch for situations where the current environment delivers intrinsic rewards which aren’t available in the future state.

2. Explain the vision for the future

The clearer and more compelling the future vision, the more likely that people will embrace it. This future state connects to the present by addressing strategic pressures and the customer’s pain points which are causing dissatisfaction.

Explaining the “why” of the change carries more credibility when the message is delivered from the top of the organisation. When it comes to translating the vision into the impact on a team, the direct supervisor is the most believable source. Managers are in the best position to put the change into context and identify specific consequences for their team and its members.

People absorb information at different rates, so don’t assume the job is done after one discussion. You’ll need to share the message multiple times using different channels and give your staff opportunities to discuss the consequences for them.

3. Clarify first steps

Even if people are sufficiently dissatisfied with the current situation and buy into the future vision, without clarity about the next actions nothing much will change. The first steps can be different for each person so individual conversations might be needed. Explain how these actions will bring the vision closer to reality.

4. Reduce resistance

The last tactic is to reduce resistance. Remind your team of previous successful experiences with change to build their confidence and assist them to move forward. Involve advocates who are further along the journey to help those just starting the process. Create stability by drawing attention to what will remain the same. Even in the midst of a large change program there will be many things that continue unchanged.

Example — planning communication about disruptive change

Information technology specialists invest years of learning and practice to become experts at configuring, operating and troubleshooting technology platforms. I expected resistance when I told our application administrators we would be replacing the email and collaboration environment we’d fine-tuned over the last 10 years with a cloud-based alternative.

Excavators demolishing a concrete structure

Photo credit: WSDOT via photopin cc

This meant huge change for my team. Experts in a familiar and comfortable environment were asked to become novices in a foreign, and initially frustrating system. They had to dismantle a system they’d invested thousands of hours in building and replace it with a technology they were yet to fully grasp. They were asked to relinquish control and trust an external service provider to carry out crucial tasks. Lurking under the surface were their own doubts and fears about job security and their ability to make the transition.

I used the change formula as a framework for the message I wanted to convey to my team. This isn’t the complete story, but I’ve included a few of the key points as an example of how it can help in planning communication.

Create dissatisfaction

There were plenty of sources of dissatisfaction. This was really just a matter of collating existing data and recounting frustrations that had already been expressed. In the presentation I:

  • referred to several years of customer survey data showing pain points that we could not resolve (difficulty collaborating with external partners, an unintuitive user interface, and a steep learning curve);
  • reminded staff about the never-ending maintenance tasks which no one liked but were an unavoidable part of running an on-premise platform;
  • referenced constantly growing workloads and a probability only slightly greater than zero that the team would ever get any bigger.

Something was going to break. It was just a question of whether the system or the people went first.

Explain the vision

This part focused on resolving the existing sources of dissatisfaction. I enlisted the IT Director to give extra credibility to the vision. The key messages were:

  • cloud solutions addressed the issues we could do nothing about in the existing scenario;
  • the team could support a larger client base without increasing head count by automating repetitive work and shifting activities to an external service provider.

Clarify the first steps

Although we knew the strategy, we were still a long way from selecting a product which made it tricky to provide specific first steps. The message was:

  • for now it’s business as usual;
  • I invited the team to share useful findings with me to feed into the evaluation process since I knew they would do their own research anyway;
  • I invited team members to come and talk to me about the impacts on them, concerns and opportunities after they had time for the news to sink in.

Reduce resistance

While the focus was mostly on the left hand side of the equation, I tried to reduce resistance by:

  • emphasising that the team would still be doing many of the same activities — just in a different environment;
  • reminding the team about other significant changes they had successfully made.

The hardest part about this (or any) change was the period of uncertainty between knowing the change was coming and the decision about the new direction. People felt lost until the decision was finalised but once they knew where the goalposts were, everyone got on with the job.

Some of my team wanted to continue to develop their skills with the original technology and two people moved to roles in other organisations where this was possible. This was a perfectly valid course of action which created opportunities to bring new people in. Those that worked through the change have become experts in a new technology platform.

Big changes are usually uncomfortable and unsettling. The change formula helped me to successfully introduce major change which has benefited the organisation even beyond my vision of what might be possible.

Question: What tactics have worked well for you in leading change?

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1 Response

  1. April 15, 2014

    […] originally made notes about the “why” for this project as part of the message to stakeholders about the change. This summary helped the team focus on the ultimate outcome when we became discouraged by delays […]

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