The late British novelist Arnold Bennett penned, “Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawback and discomfort.” I can only imagine what he’d say now, given society’s incredible pace of change. Despite the drawbacks and discomforts, change is good and a culture that embraces this motto can go further and faster than one that does not.
It’s important for me to qualify my remarks by noting that change for the sake of change is not particularly good. For example, I have seen many IT executives make changes for the sake of their own legacy, or to simply look like they’re doing something important. That type of change usually leads to failure because change requires perseverance, and people have a hard time rallying behind (and staying focused on) an effort with ambiguous benefits. Similarly, efforts that don’t tie directly to business goals and the company’s mission tend to fail because people (especially CEOs) want to work towards something tangible.
As Bennett noted, change has both drawbacks and discomfort. While volumes of work exist on the psychology of change, most people can relate to a simple truth: some people love it, and some people don’t. People tend to exhibit consistent characteristics and personalities, which I categorize (from a non-psychological view) thusly:
- Change Seekers – this type is constantly looking for change. They’re an ally except when they get impatient or bored. Since they want change, adoption happens for them very quickly, but since they crave change, they create it even when it’s not necessary.
- Change Embracers – the positive types that see most change as a good thing and help facilitate change.
- Pessimists – this type challenges change but in the face of clear benefit(s), has no problem embracing it. They just don’t embrace change by default.
- The Wall – they resist change for the sake of resisting change. They sometimes quit rather than change.
Understanding these types of personalities can help you work with them to facilitate change. For example, the change seeker makes for a great beta tester, the embracer is good for constructive criticism, the pessimist is good to bounce ideas off of, and the wall…well, the wall is the wall.
More importantly, adopting your style to the type of change personality you’re dealing with yields less stress and resistance during change, which in turn leads to better adoption and success.
I once led a collaboration project and didn’t consider others’ perception of change. Since I tried to apply the change with a broad brush, most people (i.e., everyone except the type of people who are like me) didn’t understand the change and refused to accept it. The result? I wasted six months re-doing the change, catering messages, and training to the change personality types.
Technology makes this problem worse because non-technical people are not nearly as excited about new technology as their IT counterparts. With this chasm comes a need for a different approach to change that focuses on two core principles:
- Respect the fact that users may not care about the new shiny object.
- All change affects work lives, so treat it as if you’re painting their living room – and tread carefully.
To handle the first situation, emphasize the business benefit of the change, not the coolness factor. Remember, they don’t care about cool; they’re wondering how to do their jobs better. The benefits are twofold: first, users will respond to the business context because they care about it (resulting in better adoption). Second, you get to be certain you actually solved a problem users are having.
The second situation requires careful planning, including pre-announcements, formal education, and grass-roots campaigning to prepare and continue the dialog for users. Change, no matter how seemingly trivial, affects work lives and therefore cannot be taken for granted. Be respectful of those work lives.
Another factor – especially now – is the generational elements affecting users’ mental models for change. Change used to be measured in 18-24 month windows (i.e., major changes took that long to happen – see Microsoft Windows). Thus, more experienced generations deal with change more slowly.
Now, change happens almost daily, meaning younger people tend to see change as implicitly normal. Neither mental model is wrong; in fact, it’s a mistake to think either is wrong. For those who struggle with rapid change, ease into it. Don’t introduce rapid change; introduce gradual change at first, shortening the window of change over time. Eventually, change is embraced more easily. For those who like change more frequently, be sure to follow their reactions carefully. Not resisting is different than consent.
There are certainly more elements to change (e.g., formalized change management), but these core ideas help to guide the rest. If you consider all the human factors of change, you can create a level of engagement that ultimately makes projects more successful.
Regardless of the nature of change, the personality types, or the generations involved, there is one inexorable truth about it: “We change, whether we like it or not.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson.)
And change is good.
Special thanks to David Stamatis and Lauren Gadoua for their contributions to this post.