Does Change Have to Be Complex to Be Effective?
In the world of change management, there is an axiom that organizational change is difficult and meaningful change can be hard to achieve and sustain. This point of view is not without merit. After all, change managers no doubt encounter and combat resistance from individuals and bureaucracies, and they have battle scars to prove it, myself included. Thomas G. Cummings, Director of the Leadership Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business and Professor of Management and Organization, and Christopher G. Worley, Professor of Organization Theory at Pepperdine University and Senior Research Scientist at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, have outlined five steps to managing change within organizations, and each step has its own lengthy and complex explanation (Cummings & Worley, 2015, pp. 179-206):
- Motivating charge
- Creating a vision
- Developing political support
- Managing the transition
- Sustaining momentum
Cummings and Worley are titans in the field of organizational development and effectiveness. Their research has helped shape the field, and I have confidence that they and other scholars and practitioners have rigorously tested the steps listed above. All this notwithstanding, I’m going to challenge the premise upon which this approach to organizational change is carried out. After almost two decades as a professional working in seven different organizations, my observations and visceral experiences have led me to conclude that the axiom about organizational change being difficult is based on a false paradigm that in order for change to be effective, it needs to be complex.
I have participated in and been the object of organizational change initiatives on at least a dozen occasions. Each change effort used some variation of if not the identical five-phase approach that Cummings and Worley outline. My overall takeaway from the experiences I’ve put others through and have been put through is that the change management process is overused and has reached a level of complexity such that diminishing returns have been reached, resulting in countless hours of labor and tremendous costs with little to show for it.
The Paradox of Being Human: The Brain's Potential and Limits
My primary hypothesis is that traditional change management theory leads to self-destructively complex change initiatives. An inverse relationship exists between how complex a change initiative is and how likely it is to succeed. The reason for this is the result of one of evolution's biggest mistakes—the prefrontal lobe, more specifically, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Humans are the product of nature. With the power of the PFC, we have created a world that is unnatural through technological advance, developing inventions such as planes, indoor ski slopes in the desert, artificial organs, skyscrapers that defy gravity, space travel, and artificial intelligence. The PFC cannot resist complexity. It is a paradox that despite being products of nature, we strive to create artificial artifacts. This incongruence within ourselves is a byproduct of our evolution.
The neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean proposed the concept of the triune brain in the 1960s. MacLean’s proposed model of the brain suggests that it is made up of three parts that evolved consecutively. The most ancient part of the brain is referred to as the reptilian brain. Following the reptilian brain, the paleomammalian brain developed. After the paleomammalian brain came the newest part of the brain—the neomammalian. The lizard and paleomammalian parts of the brain govern instinct, involuntary behavior, and routine. The neomammalian brain is responsible for high-order thinking such as planning, language, and abstract thought. While this model of the brain has been criticized for being overly simplistic, it still captures the paradoxical essence of the human condition—that the instincts of our lizard and paleomammalian brains are not always consistent with the desires of the neomammalian brain. The neomammalian brain, which contains the PFC, allowed Albert Einstein to come up with his Special Theory of Relativity that paved the way for the development of nuclear weapons capable of wiping out the planet. However, you could have just as easily startled Einstein into a chest-clutching gasp with a well-timed “boo” as anybody else by igniting his limbic system within his lizard brain.
Thanks to the PFC, we have the ability to solve problems. But this so-called rational part of the brain does not totally mute the instincts of the lizard and paleomammalian brains. The instincts and desires of the lizard and paleomammalian brains want to have a say, and they still get a say. But because we use the PFC for problem-solving, we often come up with things that satisfy the PFC like a form of prefrontal narcissism. And these solutions can often compromise the weak PFC and ignite the survival behaviors from the limbic system of the lizard brain.
Because of its relative newness, the PFC has three limiting factors. First, the PFC is the most energy-hungry part of the brain and is therefore susceptible to waning abilities under the strain of even minor sleep deprivation, insufficient caloric intake, or mild dehydration. Second, the PFC tires quickly. The prefrontal cortex is at its most efficient in the morning. Many schools have shifted cognition-heavy subjects such as math and science to the morning in order to maximize the information students can take in. Thirdly, the PFC is not good at doing more than one thing well at a time. In fact, the PFC doesn’t really do more than one thing at a time. What the PFC can do is rapidly switch between tasks, giving the impression that tasks are being carried out simultaneously, when really, it’s just rapidly switching, and, you guessed it, this rapid switching also takes a toll on the PFC’s performance. While we are capable of putting a man on the moon, we cannot read an email and talk to someone on the phone simultaneously, at least not without serious degradation in the tasks being performed.
With this understanding of the brain in mind, what does it have to do with change management? First of all, the brain reacts by default to states of change as threatening. Not all change is perceived as threatening. However, change that is ambiguous—as organizational change often is—lights up the amygdala, which plays a key role in the fight/flight/freeze response, as outlined in Dr. Margaret Wehrenberg and Dr. Steven Prinz’s book, The Anxious Brain (Margaret Wehrenberg & Prinz, M.D., 2007). In a research paper, Interpreting Ambiguous Social Cues in Unpredictable Contexts, the authors found that when they presented subjects with pictures of faces that had unpleasant expressions—such as anxiety or anger—an involuntary fear response in the subjects occurred via arousal of the amygdala (Davis, Maital, Kim, Moran, & Whalen, 2015). The authors also found a lesser but still aroused amygdala response even in benign facial expressions when those facial expressions were unexpected (Davis et al., 2015). The authors concluded from these findings that uncertainty associated with what the subjects expected to see suggests that ambiguous social cues are, by default, perceived negatively and arouse the amygdala, indicating a stress response (Davis et al., 2015). For those who are in positions of authority over change, this stress response is mitigated, if not eliminated altogether, by the ameliorating effect that a real or imagined sense of control has on the stress response. Thus, while the designated change agents are huddled together, coming up with new org charts, titles, policies, procedures, systems, and structures, most everyone else in the organization is experiencing at least ambient levels of stress and subsequent premeditated, if subconscious, resistance. This significantly diminishes the chances that the desired change will actually stick.
The second important factor regarding the relationship between change management and brain functioning is cognitive load. When change occurs in an organization, people are often tasked with being “champions” or “advocates” for this or that pillar of restructuring. Even for those who are not given ancillary duties, modifying behavior consistent with organizational change takes a toll on the PFC as people get used to new ways of doing things, new structures, new policies, etc. This cognitive load is nontrivial, and the more variables are added to the change process, the higher the cognitive load and the less likely the change is to succeed, especially when there is a co-dependency of actions (i.e., one action must be started or completed before the next can start). If the brain reacts by default to ambiguous change with stress and the PFC is limited in its ability to carry a heavy cognitive load, what are effective change management strategies? There are one test and two rules that form the foundation of effective change management.
The Toynbee Test: Responding to the Real Challenges
The first thing to do before even taking on any sort of change management intervention is to perform what I call the “Toynbee test.” The Toynbee test is named for the esteemed 20th-century British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee. Toynbee posited that all of history could be reduced to a simple formula: challenge-response. The premise of Toynbee’s view of history is that the environment presents challenges to which humans respond, and as a challenge changes, so does the response. For example, the challenge of Nazi Germany was something to which continental Europe was not prepared to respond because it was still in a response posture held over from WWI. Eventually, the Allies changed their response to the technologically and strategically advanced threat Nazi Germany presented and prevailed.
Many things stir the desire for change. One is changing for change’s sake, which is a dangerous and often indulged temptation. Another reason is restlessness; it is easy for some to become restless or complacent in their routines. When leaders sense this restlessness or complacency, they sometimes reflexively call in the change police to shake things up. Still another reason for seeking to initiate organizational change is diminishing or poor returns on investments for shareholders. Nothing ignites the proverbial fire under the backsides of CxOs and members of the board of directors like plunging stock prices. Indeed, the failure of an organization to be profitable is a valid call to action for change. Lastly, I have witnessed on many occasions people who have recently taken up a leadership position kicking things off with a grand and elaborate change fest.
Sometimes, the change is warranted. Sometimes, it’s a self-serving way to leave a personal legacy. Sometimes, it’s both. There are just as many good reasons for change as there are bad, but simply because someone has given you the power to change things by virtue of your position of authority does not mean that that power needs to be exercised. There is nothing more useful in a leader than the ability to resist the unnecessary use of his/her power. This is not to say that change should be avoided, but the "why" behind the change must be firmly planted in the fertile soil of necessity that has been scrutinized by the potential cost of the change vs. the benefit it might bring. If the "why" passes this test, it must remain firmly tethered to the plan of action. If the "what" and the "how" become disconnected from the change, which is frequently the case as change efforts tend to gain a life of their own, the incongruence will cause damage to the organization.
Often, organizations don’t change when they need to or attempt change when it’s not necessary because they are out of touch with the challenges the environment is presenting. The best organizations are able to anticipate changes to the challenges in the environment and time their responses to maximize impact, as Netflix has done by going from mail order DVDs to streaming to creating its own content. The worst organizations either ignore the new challenges the environment is presenting, are altogether unaware of them, or try to play catchup after it’s too late. The vast majority of organizations sit somewhere in the middle and attempt change management interventions when the environment does not call for change or take on interventions that are not responsive to the new challenges.
By applying the Toynbee test, organizations stay in touch with the internal and external environments and carry out change interventions as a response to real shifts in challenges or new challenges they can see coming down the pike. Perhaps most importantly, the Toynbee test dictates that the response must fit the challenge. I have often witnessed organizations take on change interventions that are totally and utterly unresponsive to the real challenges before them with catastrophic consequences.
The Monderman Rule: Reduce Cognitive Load by Keeping it Simple
The first rule of change management interventions is in response to the amount of load the PFC can bear. I call it the “Monderman rule,” named for the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Monderman was something of a maverick in the world of traffic engineering for his belief in simplifying the design of dangerous roads by removing signs, flashing lights, and other warning devices. Monderman’s pièce de résistance is the Laweiplein Roundabout in the city of Drachten in the Netherlands. Previously called Laweiplein Intersection, it was both dangerous and a mess, with lines all over the roads and street signs and lights galore. Despite their best effort, the authorities could not reduce the number of accidents at Laweiplein Intersection, which cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians frequented. The problem was that the excessive information being conveyed to cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians overwhelmed their PFCs and reduced their ability to navigate the intersection calmly with their attention on each other (where it should have been) instead of the signs, flashing lights, and lines on the road. Monderman removed all of this and installed a sleek and simple roundabout, which allowed individuals to use their prefrontal processing power to navigate the road with their attention on each other instead of all the warning devices.
As I mentioned earlier, as capable as it is, the PFC is very limited in the cognitive load it can bear. With this in mind, it stands to reason that change management interventions should be simple. Simple but meaningful changes can have positive reverberations throughout an organization like a thin stone being gracefully skipped across a pond whereas massive organizational change interventions can plop like a boulder in a lake with almost no splash and no reverberations and sink straight to the bottom. Simple interventions can bring about the most effective organizational change interventions of all because they don’t add excessive cognitive load to the PFC. There is almost nothing worse an organization can do than to kick off a massive change effort with pomp and circumstance. Trust me when I say that even if the faces in the audience look interested as the PowerPoint slides elaborately transition from one to the next, over-stuffed with detailed flowcharts and barely comprehensible paragraphs packed with managementese, the information is running straight through people’s brains like water through a sieve. So instead of implementing a ten-pillar cross-organizational multi-phase global change initiative, start with a small change footprint by introducing perhaps one or two simple changes within one team or group and see if the change meets the Toynbee test. If the change does satisfy the Toynbee test, expand the change footprint and keep it simple. One of the beneficial side effects of this strategy is that if a small change creates a positive result in a group or team, they are likely to support it openly of their own initiative, and their support will add credibility to and reinforce the change.
Simple and well-timed changes will have a much more meaningful and sustained effect on an organization than large-scale ones. Furthermore, simple changes give change managers a much wider berth to withdraw the change gracefully if it’s not working, which is a wonderful way to build credibility and trust by admitting that the change did not have the desired effect and retracting it before it causes irrespirable damage. If you find your organization at a place where massive and immediate change is necessary in order to survive, it’s likely you didn’t properly apply the Toynbee test.
The Grandin Rule: Reduce Resistance By Allowing Buy-In
The second rule in the “Grandin rule,” named for the pioneering professor of animal science, Temple Grandin, who revolutionized the way cattle are handled. Grandin creates and implements systems of cattle handling that are designed to work with cattle’s natural instincts. Grandin’s systems have significantly reduced the injury, mortality, and stress that cattle experience during and after being handled. All things being equal, it follows that the human brain responds to change as a danger by default because of how the brain has evolved and adapted for the survival of the human species. While it may seem crude to compare humans to cattle, there are principles that apply to our behavior that are similar, that is, the stress response. For cattle, things like not being able to see at least two body lengths ahead and significant contrasts in color can cause them to balk, startle, and resist. For humans, ambiguity, complexity, and change can also cause a balking effect. However, there are ways to reduce this resistance.
Grandin reduced resistance from cattle by creating circular chutes and removing confusing visual stimuli, tapping into their natural instincts and encouraging them to go along with the process naturally. The same principle applies to humans. One of the most effective ways to create change that sticks is to reduce resistance by allowing people a pathway to buy into the process naturally. In Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ model, he uses the technique of productive conflict as a pathway of buying in, based on the premise that once people have had their voices heard, they are likelier to accept an outcome, even if it’s not the one for which they advocated. Using productive conflict is a potent way to reduce resistance to change. However, its usefulness starts to diminish significantly when more than about eight people are involved in the conversation. When considering changes in a large organization, sometimes, the focus group method is used. But focus groups suffer from low participation when they’re voluntary and create us-and-them dynamics when people are appointed to them.
A novel way to get people to buy in is to introduce subtle and incremental changes over time and observe how people respond. Subtle and incremental changes allow people to buy into the change subconsciously because it's innocuous and doesn’t trigger stress and therefore the resistance response. I am not suggesting convert social engineering; I believe in being transparent about change. But it’s all in how you frame the change. First, it has to pass the smell test. I once worked at an organization where people were free to take an unpaid 30-minute lunch break and work eight and a half hours or forgo the lunch break and work eight hours. Most people worked while eating lunch at their desks and put in eight hours of work. Then, suddenly, a new rule was implemented that everyone had to take a 30-minute lunch break because apparently, a few people out of dozens had been taking 30-minute lunches but had not been working eight and a half hours. What ended up happening is that most people still worked through lunch, eating at their desks, and worked eight and a half hours while only getting paid for eight. Yes, it was a small change. However, it was petty and unnecessary. It did not pass the smell test and caused a lot of consternation among almost everyone. In short, don’t make stupid changes, and don’t punish everyone for the sins of a few.
When introducing small and incidental changes, help people to see what’s in it for them, and temper the language used to describe the change. Instead of “We’ve got some big changes coming that we’re sure you’re going to love!” pivot to a tone of humility by saying something like, “We’re going to give something a try, and we want to see how it works out. We’d like to know how you feel about it now and in the future.” If you’re careful to express that the change is experimental (all changes, in reality, are experimental) and that you’re willing to be wrong and open to feedback, it gives people a sense that there are off-ramps if the change didn’t have the intended effect, thus reducing their level of resistance. You allow yourself to save a lot of face and give yourself room to be wrong when you express that the change is a trial and open to feedback and reversal. When changes are presented with an air of infallibility under the guise of having been decided and designed by a committee of “omniscient strategists”, it results in resistance to the change and locks change agents into the change, making it very hard to back out, undo damage to people’s credibility, and rebuild trust if things go wrong. How freeing is it to know that the decisions don’t have to be infallible and that people don’t have to be omniscient strategists to be good change managers? Most importantly, being genuinely curious about what effect the change is having allows change managers to get out of the echo chamber of their heads and endows them with the knowledge that can inform more positive and meaningful changes.
When you operate from a paradigm that change is hard, you set yourself up for a complex approach to change that is going to result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, change is hard if you make it hard. However, in staying aware of the environment by listening to signals for when change is indeed necessary, change managers are better positioned to create change that is timely and responsive to the shifting challenges in the environment. By keeping change simple, change managers reduce the cognitive load on the PFC of those affected and increase the chances that change will stick. Lastly, when change managers give people a pathway to buy into the change with visible off-ramps and are genuinely open to feedback, they reduce resistance to change.
Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2015). Organization Development & Change. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
Davis, F. C., Maital, N., Kim, M., Moran, J., & Whalen, P. J. (2015). Interpreting ambiguous social cues in unpredictable contexts. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 775-784.
Margaret Wehrenberg, P., & Prinz, M.D., S. (2007). The Anxious Brain: The Neurological Basis of Anxiety Disorders and How to Effectively Treat Them. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.