I suspect we have all been there. Caught in the middle of some kind of organisational change project or programme.  In my first job outside of University as a Graduate Trainee, the organisation I worked for was embarking on a change management programme – project “future” they called it.  It was good timing as I used them as a case study for my dissertation.

But change projects fail at a terrifyingly high rate – in fact, the frequently quoted figure is 70%.

There’s no accepted general theory of change but there are some “best practices” which include:

  • “Create a burning platform”: meant to motivate employees via an expressed or implied threat
  • Leading change from the top of the organisation down: only a few individuals are involved in the change and either under communicate or miscommunicate with others


Here’s the thing – organisations don’t change.  People change. Organisations are made up of people, so if we want to change organisations, it makes sense that we focus our efforts on trying to help people change. But before I dive into how you can increase the likelihood of change being successful, let’s just take a step back first.


Why should we care?

Change is no longer the exception, it’s the rule or the new reality, and it’s likely to continue like this into the future. A wide range of industries – from hospitality and retail to education and healthcare – are undergoing radical transformation.  What’s driving this change?  According to the WEF’s report “The Future of Jobs” its technological advances, socio economic trends and the move towards greener global economies and advances in new energy technologies.

Adapting to change is absolutely critical to survival in both business and in life.  So if you want to keep ahead of the competition – let alone complete successfully – you need to accept that being able to successfully manage change needs to be high on your business agenda, and your Managers’ and Leaders’ abilities.


Why Don’t People Change?

I’m sure we’ve all seen this.  An organisation willing to make a significant investment in process or technology change, but then shying away from investing in the employees who will use that process or technology.  I wonder if there’s a subconscious belief that people are treated as passive followers who will do whatever they are told to do. I say this because let’s look at the opposite.  Are we saying that change is a personal issue that people can choose to adopt or not adopt?  If so, we’re telling Leaders that they are at the mercy of their employees.

This is the reality.  We are creatures of habit. Our brain creates neural pathways from repetitive thoughts and behaviours in an attempt to be efficient and make things easier. And after some time, they become our default way of functioning and our underlying beliefs and assumptions.  We then repeat those behaviours or actions because they make us feel good, secure and comfortable.

Any type of change in our routine can go against the neural pathways that have become automatic to us.  If the brain decides the change is, in fact, threatening, then it will resist or avoid the change as much as possible—“fight or flight” mode as it’s often called.  Change creates uncertainty which may cause strong emotions because most people feel they have lost something during the transition from one state to another.  That is why we tend to fall back on our default or automatic behaviours when we try to implement changes.

On top of this, there are areas of the brain that control our habits and conscious decision-making abilities. Our basal ganglia in the ancestral or primitive brain are responsible for “wiring” habits. This cluster of nerve cell bodies is involved in functions such as automatic or routine behaviours (e.g., habits) that we are familiar with or that make us feel good.  Although we can consciously control the decision to change our behaviour, this is the responsibility of a separate region of the brain known as the neocortex, and conscious actions require much more effort.  It’s easier for us to carry on as we were before we were asked to change.

So yes.  Change is a personal issue that people can choose to adopt or not adopt.  But if we know this, we can take steps to help people feel comfortable to make the decision to adopt that change!


Making Change Stick

I think we need to help Managers and Leaders get over their concerns and accept that people can determine the future success of strategy and change – and build that into their original change plan.  From the outset, accept that people’s natural response to the change may be distrust, rejection and difficulty?  Note I said “may”.  But above all, not to take that personally or to feel threatened by it.  This is a natural reaction in our brains, and we can’t shortcut that process.

By knowing that may happen, Leaders can choose to engage people in a meaningful way as soon as possible.  So the sooner people are engaged and embrace it, the faster a change initiative will be implemented and the better the outcome it will deliver.

What do I mean by engaged?  Let people challenge your logic, whether the system will work, what’s wrong or missing from the system.  All they are doing to going back down their known neural pathways, and you are presenting them with something that doesn’t fit!  On top of that, you’re taking away something that makes then feel competent, important and Good!

For many years we’re thought of change as a linear process.  It’s not.  It’s non-linear and chaotic because it involves people making a choice to change and people do things at different speeds and in different ways.  This means we need a new approach to change.  Incorporating understanding from neuroscience research and taking into account 21st century workplace dynamics and realities.  Whatever time or money you think you will save on the front end by not engaging, you will waste on the back end with useless delays, political battles and reduced impact.