Elements of a business change program (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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If you believe people automatically resist change, offer them a new car of their choosing, no strings attached.

That’s a gedankenexperiment – a thought experiment, that is, which I proposed two weeks ago to demonstrate that the hard-wired-resistance-to-change theory of human behavior is simply wrong. If employees don’t object to a free car, then clearly they don’t instinctively resist change.

Analyze why nearly everyone would embrace this change enthusiastically while resisting, say, an ERP implementation, and you’ll understand how to lead organizational change.

First, notice employees get to choose their car. Offer a free Lumina and the acceptance rate would plummet. Why? You made the decision, not them, that’s why. And also because it’s a Lumina.

For the most part, people embrace changes they control, and dislike being controlled. Which is why, when you lead a change, you need an involvement plan. Project teams must figure out which decisions end-users will make or be consulted on.

What’s another reason employees would happily take the car while resisting other changes? It benefits them, of course. People embrace change that’s good for them and resist change that’s bad for them. (Most leadership training is built on sophisticated psychological concepts like this, by the way.)

So the second component of any change management plan is establishing this universal design principle: To the extent possible, project teams will design all changes to benefit those affected by the change.

These elements aren’t hard to build into a project. To illustrate: Early in my career I designed a bar-code-based raw materials tracking system. As part of the process I attended a union safety meeting to present what we had in mind. Our process design called for attaching three-part perforated tracking cards to the items to be tracked. Warehouse staff were to wear scanners – two piece affairs, connected by a cable – on belt holsters, removing one part of a card at each tracking location, scanning it, and dropping it in a box.

The union representative was outraged – the cables, he hold me, created a workplace hazard. Instead of arguing, I asked what would work better. Within fifteen minutes the warehouse staff had designed a simple table to hold the bar code scanners and drop boxes for items as they passed by in the work queue.

I was quite proud of that table. And all I had to do to design it was ask a question.