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Source: Business-improvement.eu
Lead & Change: Leading a changing organization
Young swallowsActivation energy for change
By Dr Jaap van Ede, editor-in-chief, 14-05-2020   (Dutch version on Procesverbeteren.nl)

Resistance to change? Numerous cases and book reviews on this site, and on our Dutch sistersite Procesverbeteren.nl,
show that this is a myth!

That said, changing does cost energy. People weigh up the pros and cons. Only when the balance turns out positive, they consider to ‘climb the mountain’. Why? Because it is more tempting to maintain the status quo (which makes you feel good in short-term) than to move (which makes you feel good in long-term). Besides this, there is an additional threshold in front of the mountain. This is called ‘activation energy’ in this article.

What looks resistance is a signal that the mountain is too high, is located at the wrong place, has to be conquered too quickly, or that tools and skills are lacking. It is also possible that the ‘activation energy’ is insufficient. Does everyone understand why change is needed, and is the goal inspiring enough?

It is a cliché but true: in business, stagnation means decline. Market conditions are changing faster than ever. Companies must therefore become more Agile. Ideally, they should remain as flexible as a startup.

This website describes a lot of methods for continuous improvement, ranging from Lean to Six Sigma, and from TPM to Agile and Smart Industry.

If change concerns technical adjustments, such as the introduction of new products, machines or software, the impact on the work floor may be limited. In that case, different behavior is not needed, and change management can be omitted.

However, often behavioral change is an integral part of the change process. Examples are the introduction of self steering teams, agile or multidisciplinairy teamwork, cross-training, or an increased customer focus.

Those kinds of changes will affect people personally. Task distributions and relationships change. For a small group this is no problem. They love challenges, and are often early adopters. I think there is also a (very) small group of people that dislikes any change. However, also their resistance is often explainable. If for example your retirement is very near, you will not be able reap any benefits when the change process is completed.

When asked to change their behavior and learn new things, the vast majority of people will react in a way between the two extremes described above. They do not like major social change, They do not like major social change, but are open to reasonable arguments.

The key question is: how can you make (or keep) an organization agile, while still maintaining a pleasant working atmosphere?

Many managers think that resistance to change is inevitable. However, In this article it will become clear that this is not the case. It will even turn out that we knew this already for a long time!

If resistance to change is something natural, these young swallows will never leave their nest
If resistance to change is natural, these young swallows will never leave their nest

As journalist specialized in process improvement, I visit many companies for in-depth interviews. The insights in this article are based on those experiences. In addition, many management books I read inspired me, as well as the discussions I had with the authors of those books. Finally, I compared my conclusions with those of international management gurus in the field of change management, like Porter and Sinek.

Activation energy
To begin with: I do not deny that people have to cross a certain threshold, to accept changes in their social sphere. For this treshold I use the term activation energy, a well-known term among chemists. Even if a chemical reaction releases energy, which means that the new situation is more stable than the old one, at first some energy is needed to start the reaction.

Falling in love
Likewise, striving for stability and continuity is natural in the chemistry between people. For that reason, many people hesitate to enter a permanent relationship. However, nature has found a nice solution: falling in love!

Couples in love often stare at each other in a a "cow-like" manner, as if they have lost their minds! Falling in love makes the potential partner look so attractive, that all resistance is broken. You can also say: the benefit of the relationship is over-estimated. I will come back to this trade-off principle later.

The assesment of the situation does not have to be correct. Recent scientific research shows, for example, that smokers often overestimate the benefits of smoking.

In companies, it is however not a good idea to exaggerate the benefits of change, with the intention to make people desire it. After a short while the love is over, and then what?


I will now return to the treshold people need to cross to start changing: the activation energy. If you wish to change something in your personal life, then management guru Ben Tiggelaar has a good tip. Say you want to jog more often. In that case: look for your shoes, or better: put them already on.

Good chance that if you have taken this first step, you will in the end do what you intended to: run! This concept can be broadened to company environments. If you want change, adjust the context to stimulate new behavior.

Ben Tiggelaar
Ben Tiggelaar suggests to lower the activation energy for change, by changing the (business) context.

Alpe d’Huez
The fact that every change requires activation energy explains, in my opinion, the persistent misunderstanding that resistance is inevitable. Many managers take it for granted that you have to overcome some kind of blockade. This can feel like climbing the Alpe d’Huez on a bike in the highest gear. As ‘explanation‘ for this ‘resistance‘, the internet is full of stories which tell that our brain tries to avoid any pain, and therefore any change. As a result people have to be forced to change, you have to push them up the mountain.

The mountain itself is very real. Completing a change process requires a lot of energy. New skills for example have to be learned. Or people need time to get used to new social contacts, or new ways of work.

Yet the idea that change is something that has to be forced upon is counterproductive. If you treat people like they are stubborn, they often will behave that way. Compare it with pulling on a donkey. The harder you pull, the more it digs in its heels.

There are situations when pulling is neccesary. Sometimes you have to rescue a donkey from a burning shed, as a metaphor for a company in big (financial) trouble. Then forcing it to leave the shed (the old situation) might be your last resort.

In most cases, however, it is better to ask yourself why the donkeys (the people) do not want to move. Probably they do not understand you, do consider your approach as disrespectful, or there have a different opinion about the direction to change to. Resistence might even be good, if someone knows a better route to climb the mountain!

Margriet SitskoornWell-being in long-term
Many people get married, have children, move to another house, or change jobs.These are all major changes, they voluntarily choose!

So, people can consciously choose to tolerate "pain in short-term" (change) to acquire "more well-being in long-term", says Margriet Sitskoorn, professor clinical neuropsychology in the Netherlands.

To embrace change, it is important that you have a clear view of the long-term result, and that the change route looks passable. This is because primitive parts of our brain prefer "well-being in short-term". Usually that means: don't change.

Resistance to change, making it neccesary to push employees to the summit of the mountain, is a myth that was already disproved a long time ago. In 1969, Paul R. Lawrence published the following article in Harvard Business Review: How to deal with resistance to change. The original version of his article is even older, and dates from 1954.

Resistance to change is not something you have to go through, but is a signal that something is wrong, says Lawrence.

What am I doing wrong?
Many years later, Jaap Boonstra, Professor of Leadership & Organizational Change, states that change managers should first search their own hearts. A good question is, "What am I doing wrong, that he or she is acting so crazy?", says Boonstra in his book Change Management in 28 lessons.

Back to Lawrence, and his remarkably modern-looking article. Lawrence for example already concludes that what I call "the height of the mountain" is relatively low, when the nature of the change is technical.

On the other hand, changes in the social sphere - new people to work with and new work relationships - require a lot of energy. When something has a negative impact on someone's status and/or autonomy, this might feel for this person the same as a physical threat, says Lawrence.

Jitske Kramer and Danielle BraunAnthropologists
Anthropologists like Jitske Kramer and Daniëlle Braun see little difference between the behavior of organizations and tribes. Like Lawrence and Boonstra, these anthropologists see resistance as a signal. It is an opinion that has not yet been heard.

Therefore you should not only pay attention to the "sneezers", people with desirable behavior that can "infect" others. You should also listen to "Harries", with strange or even undermining behavior. Perhaps these people can tell you something very important. A "Harry" might show you better ways to change.

The word "resistance" seems to refer to inertia. Like there is something outside your sphere of influence, that prevents movement. However, I think it is better to speak of "aversion".

Lawrence gives the example of an operator. In a new situation, product changes become possible without consultating him. As a result, this operator feels ignored and unappreciated. That is the reason for his "resistance"!

When a change is proposed, people weigh the pros and cons of it against each other. If the disadvantages are (or appear) greater than the benefits, then they switch to "resistance mode". Or, more to the point, they get aversion to the change!

Eliyahu GoldrattPot with gold
Ten years ago, Eliyahu Goldratt, founder of the Theory of Constraints, explained this concept in a very visual way. He did this in his book Isn't it obvious?.

According to Goldratt, people compare the "pot of gold" on the mountain, the gain that change brings along, with "the pain" to climb the mountain, the route they have to travel.

I think this is a perfect metaphor for the (apparent) resistance to change. This metaphor becomes even better, if you add the idea of activation energy to it, as an extra hill you need to climb at the start.

Interestingly, according to Goldratt, the pluses and minuses of not changing are also taken into account. People also compare "beautiful mermaids", things that are fine at the moment but will change, with "crocodiles" that can bite off their toes if everything is left the same!

What becomes clear is that there is always a reason for resistance, even though the content varies from person to person.

In Choosing Strategies for Change in Havard Business Review (1979), John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger give four common reasons for resistance.

The first is self-interest. Position and status are threatened, for example because relationships change unfavorably. Resistance is likely and justifyable, if a proposed change predominantly has disadvantages for the person concerned.

Another reason for resistance can be, that someone has a low tolerance limit for change. There is not anough activation energy, or the mountain is too high. Learning new skills takes time, and sometimes the time is too short for that. In that case even someone who admits that change is neccessary, might resist it.

Resistance to change can also occur at management level. It could be that the risk of Goldratt's biting crocodile, e.g. in the form of a falling market share, is not being seen as dangerous enough. Sometimes people hope for some kind of miracle to occur, which makes the crocodile go away after which everything returns to its original state!

Jos de BlokOpinion
A third reason why someone can be negative about change is difference of opinion. Remember the strange behavior of the "Harry's", described by Kramer and Braun. These anthropologists portray such people as birds hanging upside down.

Those "Harry's" are simply not convinced that the chosen route leads to Goldratt's pot of gold! This doesn't have to be negative. Sometimes a "Harry" knows a better way. The difference with self-interest is that they dispute the goal or vision behind the change.

If you do not listen to the "Harry's", they might leave your company and even start a better variant of it. This scenario led, for example, to the establishment of Buurtzorg by Jos de Blok.

Managers often assume that they have all the information to judge what an organization should do, and that this is aldo true for other stakeholders. However, both assumptions are incorrect. Nobody knows everything. You need each other for a complete picture.

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The last reason Kotter & Schlesinger mention for aversion to change is misunderstanding. This happens more often than you might think, as managers are often mistrusted. When flexible working hours are introduced, people might think that this only means an obligation to work in the evenings.

Where Kotter and Schlesinger are cited, the above four reasons for resistance are often mentioned. However, who takes the trouble to read their complete article will notice that the number of reasons for resistance is in fact infinite.

A fifth reason might for example be that it is not clear what the new behavior looks like. Then it is no wonder that change becomes difficult! As change manager, you should clearly see the new situation and the associated new behavior in front of you. This was recently discovered during a change process at Rockwool.

If it is a major change, it might not entirely be clear in advance what the new situation will look like. In that case it is important to invite everyone to think along, and to contribute with their knowledge and skills.

In case of resistance, it is important to determine the cause. Since accepting change or not is a question of a trade-off, you can try to make the balance turn to the positive side.

This may require an investigative attitude. In public organizations, there often are conflicts of interest. In that case it is not always immediately clear what might put a positive weight in the scale. Sometimes the "rules" are not good. This is at the moment the case in healthcare, where payment per diagnosis-treatment combination rewards "delivering" of as much care as possible. As result, prevention of disease gets little attention.

Prof. Dr Jaap BoonstraGame
Jaap Boonstra and Hans Vermaak.consider ​​change management as a game. They position a change manager as a kind of coach. He or she formulates hypotheses about how things could be done better, and learns and adjusts continuously. For example, new 'players' can be introduced or trained, or players may trade places.

Whether something works or not is assessed by its contribution to the mission. In football, this means scoring goals. In an organization, it means increasing the "value" to society. So, the "why" of the organziation is used as motivation. I will come back to this later.

During the "change game" many adjustments are possible. As a rule, different types of "interventions" are needed, because every person has his or her personal reasons to resist change.

It should be clear what a change means for someone personally, and what is in it for this person. Kotter and Schlesinger propose a number of possible interventions, in line with the four prevalent reasons for resistance I discussed earlier. Examples are better communication (so that the height of the mountain is not overestimated anymore), training, coaching (so that climbing becomes easier) and participation (the person is asked to think along about the route)

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Participation increases the involvement, when not applied as some kind of trick. Participation has particularly a positive effect when people are treated in a more pleasant and respectful manner. In other words, their social environment should improve. This seems even more important, than the possibility to contribute to the change process.

Kotter and Schlesinger also mention a number of "negative" ways to lower the mountain and / or to reduce the activation energy. These interventions range from negotiations, to giving people extra rewards when they accept change..

A final possibility is manipulation. One example: giving a popular task to someone with many reservations. This option raises doubts. Isn't it more logical to reward people who, without extra's, are willing to put a lot of energy into the change?

There are also milder ways to influence behavior, such as the ones described by Robert Cialdini. He describes six ways: reciprocity, sympathy, authority, social proof (what others do is copied), consistency (if you take the first step, the next follows automatically), and deliberate creation of scarcity (I already have eight of the ten places filled in this team, do you want to participate?).

Generally speaking you should be reluctant with manipulation. It might be ethically unacceptable, and sooner or later people will see through it. Then, their resistance will increase enormously, and their trust is permanently damaged.

Wanting and being able
From a change manager's point of view, reducing resistance is a matter of wanting and being able.

If it is a relatively small change, and if it is crystal clear what it looks like, then you may not want to put extra energy into explaining it.

If the change is big, but is needed very quickly because the existence of your company is at stake, you may not have time to reduce the resistance. In that case, enforcing is your last resort. Even then it is important to try to explain why change is needed. People do not want to be changed. Ideally, it should be their own choice.

To the list of possible interventions above, I would like to add "passion". In a well-functioning company, people share the same values ​​and convictions.

It might look like people only accept change if this (also) makes their own work more pleasant, or if they simply have to change. However people no longer see the highest possible salary as their holy grail. Factors such as "meaning" increasingly carry weight.

If work becomes more meaningful, or the company becomes more valuable to society, that is also important. After all, everyone wants to do work that is respected, and work for a company that you can be proud of. For example because it delivers good products and / or does this in a sustainable way.

Remember the aforementioned phenomenon of falling in love. If you want people to build a ship, make them long for the sea.

People do not long for building ships, but for sailing on the ocean
People do not long for building ships, but for sailing on the ocean

How stimulating an appealing mission can be, became clear to me from the transformation of Spirit in 2017. Spirit is a centre for youth care in the Netherlands. One heart-breaking story of a young person who was sent from shelter to shelter, was enough to initiate a radical change. A change in which the young clients became much more in control. Everyone within Spirit understood why this change was necessary!

Nowadays, it is fairly common for an organization to regularly think about its right to exist. Only ten years ago, many companies only knew what they were doing and how they did it. Their why had become blurred.

Wouter HartStart with why
In his book Start with why, Simon Sinek argued that organizations with a clear mission are more successful, because what they do is based on a kind of belief. This is comparable with for example the "man on the moon mission" of President Kennedy.

Apple and Tesla share the mission to achieve science fiction-like breakthroughs. This idea gives a large group of consumers a good feeling. Matching products follow, whereby it is no longer necessary to explain what the added value of those products is.

Wouter Hart sharpened this idea in his book "Verdraaide Organisaties", which means twisted organizations. According to Hart, organizations often put their procedures first. Instead, they should put their customers central, and how these experience the products or services.

In customer-oriented organizations people experience a great sense of meaning. This feeling becomes extra strong when an organization contributes to a better world. A modified (or refurbished) mission can therefore act as a catalyst for change. For non-chemists: a catalyst is a substance that lowers the activation energy!

Think of the Wright brothers. They were in 1903 the first to make a successful test flight with a motorized aircraft. The Wright brothers had little money and initially received little attention. However, they were so enthusiastic that their aircraft became the first one to get off the ground.

Self management
According to the latest management insights, if the enthusiasm is large enough, you can leave part of a change process to the workplace. To this end, the employees get a freer role. Job descriptions disappear and permanent positions become something of the past.

In other words, more self-management and less management. Or rather: different management, with managers that support and coach. The resulting "agile" organizations respond to changing market conditions, like a flock of starlings or a soccer team.

The more natural a change is, the easier it becomes. This idea is less radical than it may seem. With Lean, this is already practized for long, be it on a small scale. In this improvement approach, production teams are told how they can contribute to the company mission. Next, the imnprovement teams are allowed to freely search for, and even experiment within safe boundaries, with solutions based on their own experience and crafmanship.

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