How to change things when change is hard

Chip Heath, New York Times Bestselling Author of Switch and Made to Stick, has made a name for himself as an expert on change, and when he spoke to attendees at the 2021 Nintex Process Excellence Summit recently, he posed an interesting question:

“Suppose someone came to you and said, ‘We have a new plan for your business, and you’re going to love it. You’re going to take on a new co-decision maker and from now on you’re not going to make any major decisions without consulting your co-leader.

“‘We’re going to completely revamp your finances, and you’re going to move into a new corporate headquarters where you have half the space that you used to have because you’re going to share absolutely everything with someone else.’ Who would tackle that change challenge?”

Sound like marriage to you? Well, despite the sense of horror many executives might feel at such a proposition, Heath pointed out that when you search the internet for images of weddings, almost everyone is smiling in them. Apparently, that kind of change doesn’t have to be hard or scary.

Watch the video of our recent 2021 Nintex Process Excellence Summit “Create a Culture. Power the Process” to hear the full recording of Chip Heath’s session.

“There are times that we embrace change,” Heath says, “even though change is hard, way harder than anything we face in our workplace context.”

That’s not to say that change is fundamentally easy, either. But we can learn some lessons from those times when change is something we embrace with a smile and apply it to those situations when we want to grimace instead.

Don’t choose sides

We are often at war with ourselves when we face change, Heath explains. Part of us wants the change, and part doesn’t – or doesn’t want to go through the process, at least.

It’s a battle between our analytical and emotional minds – the side of us that plans change, and the side that has to implement it. Heath draws on the work of Jonathan Haidt, a professor and social psychologist who coined the metaphor of a rider steering an elephant.

“He’s the only one that gets the relative weight classes right for these two sides of our brain,” Heath says. While the rider, our analytical mind, tries to drive us in one direction, our emotional self has significantly more mass and can often override those instructions.

That’s not always a negative though, Heath explains. “The emotional elephant isn’t always the bad guy. Everything that’s ever changed for the better in your organization has happened because somebody had an elephant reaction and said, ‘That’s wrong.’”

Sometimes the ‘rider’ part of our mind can overanalyze, and we end up spinning our wheels, where a gut reaction would serve us better.

Neither side is necessarily a hero or villain. The key to effective change is aligning those two sides of our thinking. And that strategy starts with directing the rider.

Direct the rider

Heath is very clear that directing the rider doesn’t mean trying to argue our analytical mind around. That’s the side of us that loves to rationalize and will tie us up indefinitely in justifications and alternatives.

“The rider loves to debate, ‘Should we stay or should we go?’” he says. Instead, we need to harness that analytical power by establishing a destination and letting our ‘rider’ side focus on how we are going to get there.

One of the strategies Heath outlined was ‘finding the bright spots.’

Rather than focusing our analytical mind on the problems we’re trying to solve, he suggests looking for those things that are already going right and considering for potential solutions from there.

Heath gave the example of Jerry Sternin’s work with Save the Children in Vietnam. Rather than trying to solve generations-old malnutrition issues, Sternin studied the few families whose children weren’t exhibiting significant health issues and found key differences in their diets. By bringing other families alongside them, those alternative approaches were learned, then taken back to other villages where they were passed on.

Within six months, 65 percent of the children in the project were showing better, sustained nourishment, and ultimately 2.2 million people were impacted by the program. It started by focusing their ‘rider’ mind on the bright spots – potential solutions in the field.

Motivate the elephant

The other side of the equation, according to Heath, is motivating the ‘elephant.’

“Most journeys of change take a while,” he says, “and no journey of change is going to last very long without the strength and passion and energy of that elephant side of ourselves.”

Heath cites the public health warnings on cigarette packets as an example of appealing to the ‘rider’ when the ‘elephant’ is driving the decision making. Instead, he advises, help people understand the need for change in a more tangible way.

Heath quotes the story of an operations manager who saw a problem with his organization’s procurement system. Rather than prepare a presentation to management, he collected a sample of every one of the 424 different types of gloves the company was buying regularly and had executives come and view the pile on a boardroom table.

The leadership team quickly recognized the problem and started coming up with solutions – solutions which reached far beyond just buying gloves. Heath’s conclusion was to engage the ‘elephant’ because, most of the time when change is effective it’s because someone has seen something that makes them feel something, and want to change.

“Your role, if you’re going to lead change,” Heath says, “is to find that feeling. To simplify things enough to make the need for change so visual and tangible that people can see it and feel it.”

Chip Heath is adamant that change can be tackled — even difficult change — if we align our analytical and emotional drives. If people can smile in their wedding photographs, there’s a good chance that you can tackle change in your organization and come out smiling, too.

We touched on many of these topics during our Nintex Process Excellence Summit. Please sign up to watch the session on-demand if you’re interested in learning more.

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about process management and operational excellence, consider setting up a demo with us.

 

 

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