Noted economist John Kenneth Galbraith said it best: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.” Change is a constant of life. Change breathes life into businesses, organizations and communities. Change can also be one of the most divisive and crippling issues these same institutions encounter.
At an intellectual level, most of us understand why change is needed. Without it, there is no progress. In a world of intensifying competition, a reluctance to change is a sure-fire formula for long-run disaster. However, change does not take place at the intellectual level. It is, instead, an extremely personal move. Change threatens what we understand. It shakes us from our comfort zone. And that is where the rub comes. At the personal level, many of us would rather not mess with the wrenching complexity of change. Even when the status quo is not all we desire, it is often safer and easier to grumble than get busy with the struggle and stress of changing.
There is nothing strange or bizarre about such resistance to change. For many people, caught in the rapid pace of their daily lives, holding change at arm’s length is a reasonable way to cope and a logical way to survive. Is turf protection involved? Sure. Is the desire to maintain and preserve one’s current status and sense of value in the organizational system at play? Absolutely. Is there an honest belief that one more thing cannot be placed on an already overflowing plate? You bet. Importantly, each of these responses is honest and understandable.
Given this backdrop, how does change, particularly important social and public policy change, ever get enacted? While difficult and involved, the process of change rests on a three-legged foundation. Further, it is our conviction that most significant change efforts that fail do so because one of these legs—one of these foundation pillars—has been ignored.
The first step and foundation is to convince a critical mass of those affected by change that a change is absolutely necessary. This foundation is drawn from the psychological principle that most of us only get serious about change when the pain of staying where we are is greater than the pain incurred in changing. Noted Harvard University business professor John Kotter goes a step further. He believes that the bedrock of change is creating a “sense of urgency.” This means convincing a critical mass of those affected that staying the course is simply untenable. This sense of urgency is no overstatement. It is the very thrust that well-intentioned, but logically resistant, people need to shake them from their comfort zones.
The responsibility for creating the sense of urgency falls on our leaders. Importantly, these leaders must translate their understanding of the need for change in such clear and obvious terms that others recognize, understand and accept the conclusion that change must occur. While you will never convince everyone, you must convince a critical mass. Most leaders dread and shy away from this time-consuming process of building the sense of urgency. That is unfortunate. Make no mistake, most change efforts fail here.
While fundamental, the sense of urgency is never enough. The second pillar requires the formulation of guiding coalitions who will study options and possibilities and bring to the masses a credible vision and direction for change. Guiding coalitions represent all involved constituencies. They speak of the concerns, problems, needs, fears and hopes of their constituents. They assess and explain the costs (both tangible and interpersonal) of change. They raise issues of resistance. In this manner, they become a critical link between top leaders and those who must eventually implement change. If this guiding coalition is viewed as credible and fair, most people will accept that the process of change is moving appropriately. Accordingly, most people will choose to stay interested rather than buy-out to the developments of change.
The guiding coalition provides an additional function. Through their work and effort, they frame the vision of change. We hear so much today about vision and visionaries that the term often becomes a glib and meaningless nuisance. A vision is simply a brief statement of a needed and possible future. It must be phrased so simply that all understand its meaning and implications. Yet, it must be so pervasive that it becomes a rallying point for the efforts of change. Importantly, the vision must be so clear, so motivational, so essential and so fundamental that a “commitment to vision” emerges among the people. Indeed, this commitment to the vision is the third pillar of change.
This model speaks nothing of the hard work of making the vision happen. It addresses none of the complex series of actions that drive the change. Instead, this three-phased process demonstrates the logic, necessity and general direction for change. In essence, it brings people along.
In a fast-paced world, many may argue that this approach is ponderous, slow and simply too time-consuming. It is not. It is involving, action-oriented, and in most cases, a time-saver. Further, when done well, it facilitates movement rather than political carping and continued inactivity. IBI