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by Vault Careers | June 21, 2010


Change. It's a word not many people like to hear, either intheir personal or their professional lives. Usually it means breaking from theusual, comfortable, established way of doing things and striking out for newterritory, be it physical, mental, or emotional. Little wonder, then, thathumans—creatures of habit—can be so opposed to it. And that effecting it at aninstitutional level can be next to impossible.

That was the subject of a presentation given by Chip Heathat the recent World Innovation Forum in NewYork.  Heath, Stanford Professor ofOrganizational Behavior, is a specialist in effecting change, and offered astriking analogy for how organizations can approach it.

The trick, according to Heath, is to get people invested inchange. While they may not like it if it's presented as change, he points outthat people make significant changes all the time—like getting married, orhaving children—and often end up enjoying the results. 

He suggests that people trying to change are like riders incharge of an elephant they're trying to get to a specific destination. Each ofthe elements in the analogy represents a different facet of the human brain:the rider being the rational, analytical side, the elephant being theemotional, "feeling" side that can overwhelm the rider at any point(think of the appeal of cookies when you're dieting), while the path is simplythe route to the change you'd like to see.

None of the ideas in the presentation were exactly new to anyonewho follows Heath's work: they're at the core of his recent book Switch(co-authored with his brother and helpfully sub-titled How to Change Things When Change is Hard), while the presentationhas been given—andcovered—at other events as well.

While the idea of humans being a mass of conflicting forcesis a fascinating one, where Heath was at his most illuminating, and mostpractical, was in suggesting how we can overcome those conflicts and actuallymake change happen.

The key, it would appear, is to keep it simple—and specific.On that note, he had some very specific advice for any leader seeking to effectchange or promote a culture of innovation. While he made many, I've culledthree main points from his presentation:

Find the Bright Spots

No matter the situation at your company, something will begoing well. Even if your firm is one the verge of bankruptcy, there will besomething or someone within it that's excellent. Heath suggests studying thosethings—whether they're people or processes—and finding out what it is that theydo differently. By identifying and fostering those things—no matter howsmall—you can make a significant difference. To illuminate this point, he gavean example of an organization that was given six months to make a difference tomalnourishment among children in Vietnam. Rather than focusing on a grand-scalesolution, the leader of the organization went to villages and sought out the"bright spots"—the least malnourished children in each place. He thenhad the mothers of those children teach others their practices, and beganmaking a significant difference without asingle extra resource.

Scripting a move

Which of the following statements is likely to produce mostfocused ideas from employees?

"Let's innovate our way out of this."

"Let's achieve a 20 percent reduction in waste by 2015."

It should be obvious that it's the latter, right? The reasonis that people respond better when they have a clear idea of a destination inmind. When they have carte blanche to do anything they want, results tend tostall. The reason: "too much choice is paralyzing," according toHeath, and creates a situation where people don't know which way to turn. Thus,in many cases "what looks like resistance to change is cluelessness."

Shrinking the Change

There's nothing worse than feeling overwhelmed by a problemthat's too big. The role of a good leader in effecting change, then, is as muchabout figuring out how to reduce the scale of it for employees—breaking it intosmaller chunks that they can tackle incrementally. Heath's example came fromhis own life: as someone who couldn't motivate himself to help out withcleaning at home, he accepted a challenge to do so for just 15 minutes at atime. What he found was that, once he started, he didn't want to stop until thejob was done.

As mentioned above, most of this—like the best advice—is prettysimple stuff, at least in theory.  Putting it into practice, however, is another thing entirely.

Posted by Phil Stott,


Filed Under: Workplace Issues