When it comes to corporate change, small steps can work wonders
Change is hard for both individuals and companies, even when the benefits are clear. Whether your goal is corporate digital transformation, or simply signing up for the gym, this is what needs to be done.
Change is hard. I know that personally because I’ve been meaning to sign up for the gym for a year now and just haven’t gotten around to doing it. I am not at the Proof Of Concept stage: the concept has been proven beyond doubt and I know that going to the gym will make my life better and create tangible value for me on many levels. And still, I don’t do it. I’ve been meaning to do it, I’ve been honestly planning to do it, but it just seems to somehow sink to the bottom of my to-do list, day in and day out, against my better judgement.
And I think corporate change works a bit the same way.
I have gone through numerous iterations of running software companies, and was lucky enough to work closely with design partners and prospects that expressed complete support for the solution we were building. They could clearly see the value of using new technology. It would give them the ability to do something significant they couldn’t do before.
When the product is set to go, stakeholders are earnestly excited and optimistic about the results. An account is set. But then a week goes by, and nothing happens. Dialogue is repeated. They are thrilled, this can really change the team’s workflow and KPIs. A week passes, and nothing happens.
You can see where this is going. There’s a conflict between the expressed recognition of value, and an internal resistance to act.
The Energy Paradox
In order to create any kind of change, we need to invest energy. Even if the promised payoffs are greater than the effort required, we’ll often opt to preserve the status quo.
This is due to the fact that humans tend to prefer the devil they know over the devil they don’t, and they have a limited power of imagination. I know that signing up to the gym demands energy and willpower now, but will eventually make me more energetic and will even save me the mental energy I now spend on agonizing over not going to the gym and related consequences. So, I know that I’ll benefit—I just can’t imagine it. I can feel the energy that changing my routine to accommodate the gym demands now, but I can’t feel the benefits that exercising will bring me later.
The same goes for individuals in their professional capacity, and for organizations. Understanding how the organization and the team will benefit from a new technology is not the same as actually experiencing it. And since the benefits are intangible, it’s hard to muster the energy needed to facilitate the change.
Individuals—and enterprises—vary in their response to the change imperative. Individuals run the gamut between change-happy and change-averse. Some of us are simply more adept at handling the emotions and the real-world consequences that change brings about. Organizations are anything between very conservative and highly progressive in respect to change. This can be related to the industry the business is operating in, the age of the company, the internal brand values, and the founders’ and c-level’s tendency and style.
However, another important variable is the area in which change is to be enacted. Even within an individual’s or a company’s general mindset towards change, there are areas that are more prone or more resistant to progress and development. So for organizations, for example, production workflows can be very flexible, while the product itself is reluctant to change. For individuals, the same duality is manifest when, for example, relocating over continents can be a no brainer, while signing up for regular workouts across the street is a perpetual struggle.
Overcoming the Resistance
Sometimes change doesn’t happen for objective reasons. Everyone is pressed for time, and you may have other priorities that need to be worked around to make place for change. But if these are all taken care of and still nothing happens, there are probably other factors at work. Knowing your company’s or your own general attitude towards change is important, but probably not enough to get you out of the rut. If you really want to move forward, these are the steps you need to take:
Acknowledge you’re resisting change. Procrastinating change can take many forms that give it the aura of rational choice: the timing isn’t optimal, you don’t have the bandwidth, it’s too risky. Facing the fact that you’re irrationally resisting something that will most likely impact you favorably reframes the situation and allows you to deal with the root cause of the problem.
Identify the underlying fear. Now that you know what you’re up against, ask yourself why. In your professional capacity, are you worried about the impact on your team? If you’re a couch potato, are you afraid of coming face to face with the physical enormity of the task? There may be multiple attributes at play here, related to areas such as a lack of agility, a fear of exposure or failure, or a tendency to overthink the mission. Taking the time to examine them sincerely will help you break through the vague cloud of “this is just not happening” into concrete reasons that you can then deal with concretely.
Actively imagine the value this change will bring. Imagining the hardships is always a breeze. Imagining the payoffs is the hard part. That’s because humans are inclined towards the negative and the morose (for example, we give on average three times more weight to negative feedback compared to positive feedback.) That’s why you’ll need to actively, methodologically, imagine the value you’re expecting to gain. Actually close your eyes and walk through it, or vividly write it down, not in bullets, but as a narrative (which is more cognitively influential).
Think in small steps. Finally, take a small step. Just do one thing. The ancient Chinese weren’t signing up for either new software or new exercise regimes, but were still able to note by the 4th century B.C. that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” If you wait until you have all the steps figured out, or if you start out with a complete overhaul of your existing mode of operation, chances are you’ll hit a wall and your premonitions will indeed come true. But if you do just one small thing, and then another small thing, and after that yet another smallish thing, you will suddenly notice that change is underway, that you’re already benefiting from it, and that you have no idea why you’ve been putting it off for so long.
While the general gist of progress and improvement is almost a human—and a business—imperative, not everyone attends to it in the same way and with the same zeal. Leaps and bounds are great for some people in some situations. But if you feel a paralysis setting in just from the mere notion of the big jump, trust that you can achieve exactly the same goal at your own pace. Taking the first step is all you need to do. We don’t all need to be high divers. Some of us can be just as content with a good set of sit-ups.
A version of this post was previously published on Business.com.