What Do We Know About Change?

[This is a follow up to my post last week.]

Even if we understand that what seems like resistance to change is more nuanced and complicated, many of us are directly or implicitly being asked to lead the changes in places of work. In that sense, we are “change agents” to use a well-established phrase.

Consider the number of times each day, both on the job and outside, that we hear the word “change” and the necessity for leaders to help their organizations change in the face of all sorts of challenges.

There has been a slew of popular business books providing guidance to would-be change agents. Several consultants and business gurus have developed their own model of the change process, usually outlining some necessary progression and steps that they have observed will lead to success.

Curiously, the same few anecdotes seem to pop up in a number of these, like burning platforms or the boardroom display of gloves.

While these authors mean well and have tried to be good reporters of what they have observed, change agents often find that, in practice, the suggestions in these books and articles are at best a starting point and don’t quite match the situation they face.

Part of the problem is that there has been too little rigorous behavioral work about how and why people change. (In fairness, some authors, like the Heath brothers, at least try to apply behavioral concepts in their recommendations on how to lead change.)

And on a practical level, many change agents find it difficult to figure out the tactics they need to use to improve the chances that the desired change will occur. In this post, I’m suggesting that we first need to understand the unique and sometimes unexpected ways that the human brain processes information and thus how we need to communicate.

(These are often called cognitive biases, but that is a pejorative phrase that might put you in the wrong mindset. It’s not a good idea starting an effort to convince people to join you in changing an organization by assuming that they are somehow irrational.)

As just one example, some of the most interesting work along these lines was that done by the Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky.

They found in their research that people exaggerate potential losses beyond reality – often times incorrectly guessing that what they control (like driving a car) is less risky than what they don’t control (being a passenger in an airplane).

Moreover, a person’s sense of loss is greater if what might be lost has been owned or used for a long time (aka entitlements). Regret and other emotions can also enhance this sense of loss.

The estimate of losses and gains is also affected by a person’s reference point, which can be shifted by even random effects. The classic example of the impact of a reference point is how people react differently to being told either that they have a 10% chance of dying or a 90% chance of living through a major disease. The probabilities are the same, of course.

In general, they found that there is an aversion to losses which outweighs possible gains, even if the gains might be worth more.  

This makes it sound like change is very difficult, since many people often perceive proposed changes as having big risks.

But there is more to the story. Indeed, Kahneman found that there is no across-the-board aversion to change or even merely to risk. Indeed people might make a more risky choice when all options are bad.

As one summary states:

“When faced with a risky prospect, people will be: (1) risk-seeking over low-probability gains, (2) risk-averse over high-probability gains, (3) risk-averse over low-probability losses, and (4) risk-seeking over high-probability losses.”

In just this brief summary, there is some obvious guidance for change agents:

  • Reduce people’s estimate of their potential loss. For example, the new system won’t cost 25% more than the old one, but it will just be an extra nickel each time it is used.
  • Increase the perceived value of the change and/or the perceived likelihood of success – positive vivid images help to overcome lower probability estimates of the chances of success; negative vivid images help to magnify the probability of loss.
  • Help people redefine the perception of loss by shifting their frame of reference, which determines their starting point.
  • Reduce the overall size of the risks, which means it is best to introduce small innovations, piled on each other.  Behavioral scientists have also observed the irrational fear of loss versus the possibility of benefit is reduced when a person has had experience with the trade-off. A series of small innovations will help people to gain that experience and you will also find out which of your great ideas really are good. Since any innovation is an experiment, there’s no guarantee of success. Some will fail, but if the ideas are good and competent people are implementing the changes, you’ll succeed sufficiently more often than you fail so that the overall impact is positive.
  • Work to convince people that their certainty of loss is only a possibility. People react differently to being told something is a sure thing, than a 90% probability.
  • Since risk taking is no longer avoided among bad choices, show that the obvious loss of change is less than a bigger possible loss of not changing.

I’ve just touched the surface here. There other findings of behavioral and social science research that can also enable change agents to get a firmer grasp on the reality of the situation facing them and suggest things they might do to become more successful.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Five Books To Help Us Think About Our Times

I’ve been quiet on the blog for the last few weeks during the summer doldrums and vacations – a great time to catch up on reading books, including some that were published a while ago.  

Here are quick highlights of some of my more interesting summer reading.

1. Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century by Cathy N. Davidson (2011)

This book describes how we should be thinking about life in the 21st century.  In many instances, Davidson completely upends well established patterns of the industrial era.  She is well known in academic circles as a neuroscientist and former dean at Duke University, where she introduced the widespread use of technology among students.  The book covers a variety of topics, including education, work and aging. 

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

Kahneman, Princeton Psychology Professor and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, has pulled together the basic knowledge in cognitive science and how people actually make decisions.  If you want to catch up on what’s happened in behavioral science since you left college, this is the book for you.  It draws out some of the implications in a variety of contexts.  (Later, I’ll be posting a blog on the implications for public officials who want to gain acceptance for innovations.)

3.  When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication In The Late Nineteenth Century by Carolyn Marvin (1988)

If you believe what you read and watch on the news media, we live in an age unparalleled rapid change in which technology causes people to become detached from each other by technology among other awful new phenomena.  Marvin takes us on a history of technologies, like the telegraph and telephone, which we now take for granted but once were new.  The same kind of observations we get today about the Internet were foreshadowed long ago.  (Later, I’ll post a separate blog with some wonderfully juicy quotes along these lines.)

4.  Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford (2011)

With so many people saying they are innovative, Harford shows how those people will not succeed at innovation unless they develop some patience, even an appetite, for the failures that often precede success.  He provides fascinating examples.

5.  Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution by Jack Rakove (1997)

In this year’s unusual election of ideological contrasts, there has been an underlying (and often visible) debate about the views of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the constitution.  Rakove’s book provides the details of their debates and their own ambiguous feelings about many of the decisions which we now treat as is handed down in stone by the supreme being. 

These were politicians with great insight into political behavior and how it might be shaped.  Their concerns were well-founded, since some of what they worried could happen has happened.  But, in part, they were reacting to experiences in the 18th century that we do not share today. 

It also revealed the Founding Fathers’ concerns about those who sought some clear original meaning in what they wrote – and when their short term political objectives encouraged them to make the same kind of arguments about original meaning that politicians today make.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis