How to Nurture Change Across Your Organization

It is widely reported that approximately 70% of organizational change efforts fail. Yet, we keep falling into the trap of doing the same things over and expecting a different result. We have found that there are two key considerations that are critical to beat the odds and more successfully have change adopted and embraced across your organization: The first is understanding what type of change you’re asking people to make and the second is being cognizant of how change actually gets adopted across a population.

Be Clear About the Type of Change You’re Asking People to Make
We have found that the primary obstacle getting in the way of change efforts being successful stems from our misunderstanding of the critical difference between adaptive and technical challenges.

  • Technical challenges are those for which there is a known solution. We can use our existing knowledge and skills (or easily obtain or find the necessary resources) to solve them. This is where using standard operating procedures and checklists and looking back at what has been done before can be helpful.

  • Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are more complex, messy and have us venturing into uncharted territory; there is no known solution. In fact, relying on our existing knowledge and resources and past experiences won’t work. They require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments. We also can’t just will ourselves to the solution; we can only solve them by reframing how we think and operate. And the past several years have been one adaptive challenge after another!

Herein lies the predicament…With adaptive challenges, we are faced with a sense of loss. We have to let go of what is familiar and predictable, and many times what has allowed us to be successful up until this point. Consequently, it causes great discomfort. When the familiar personal and organizational equilibrium is disturbed, not only do people push back, but they seek out what is familiar and try to use technical fixes to solve problems that are actually adaptive. This is why we tend to seek out “quick fixes” or “magic bullets” rather than acknowledging the complexity and uncertainty that accompanies adaptive challenges. It’s uncomfortable to wade in the messy middle—yet absolutely necessary. Welcome to being human!

The reality is that most of the challenges we face within organizations certainly have some technical components, but the overwhelming majority are adaptive challenges; and we fail because we’re not caring for the messy, human aspects that accompany adaptive change. So we keep trying to apply technical solutions to what are largely adaptive challenges; and our desire for and illusion of control (and wanting to avoid discomfort) has us engaging in strategies that forget the biology of being human and treat others like machines. It’s like playing a bad game of Whack-A-Mole as we try to put a temporary fix on something only to have other issues pop up elsewhere.

"The single biggest failure of leadership
is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

So if you’re trying to move change through your organization and there are significant aspects of adaptive change people will need to make, it is critical to do the work to support them in shifting their mindsets – period. There are no shortcuts. In fact, studies done by McKinsey & Company have shown that failing to recognize and shift mindsets can stall change efforts of an entire organization; however, organizations who identify and address pervasive mindsets at the start of change initiatives are four times more likely to succeed than companies who overlook this stage.

Understand How Change is Typically Adopted Across a Population
The other critical aspect of change involves understanding how ideas and change are adopted across populations. One of the concepts we’ve used that has been really helpful for our clients is anchoring their culture change work in the law of diffusion of innovation (DOI), based on a theory developed by E. M. Rogers in 1962. It explains how an idea or product gains momentum over time and diffuses (spreads) throughout a population or social system.

Innovators / Early Adopters – these people are the front tail of the curve and will be on board quickly and easily.

Early & Late Majority – these people are in the middle of the curve and will take a little more time and convincing before they are on board. But reaching them is critical to have enough momentum to have meaningful and lasting change across a group.

Laggards/Skeptics – these people are the back tail of the curve and will be detractors, frequently negative, and many times can be the loud ones that can suck others under or have you start second-guessing yourself. They’re not bad people—it’s just where they’re at with change. And, many times the behavior is very armored and can be challenging.

Woman holding smiling face and a man holding an unhappy face.

Adoption of a change means that people are doing something differently than they had previously (e.g., using a new product, adopting a new idea, behaving in a new way). For a new idea, product, or service to take hold, we must move from engaging only the left side of the curve (Innovators and Early Adopters) to the middle and beyond.

The problem is that we tend to get sucked in by the laggards and skeptics. We can easily get derailed and end up wasting energy by focusing on things like: How do we reach the hard to reach? or How do we get the naysayers on board? The key is to instead focus on engaging the left side of the curve; these people can help build momentum and influence others.

Putting This Into Action Real-Time
Recently, we were facilitating the initial session of our Developing a Leadership Mindset (DALM) program for a team. They had struggled with workplace culture issues for years. After the departure of two toxic employees, the leaders felt it was good timing to do a bit of a reset and leverage DALM to improve psychological safety, communication and overall team effectiveness. We had numerous conversations with the leaders of the team on how to tee up the work; this included conveying the purpose and intent of DALM, expectations regarding participation, and logistics on timing, schedules and pre-work.

We knew going into this engagement that it would be challenging. Their pre-psychological safety scores were fairly low, and we knew a few of the individuals on the team tended to be negative and vocal. So we teed it up with a bit more context than we usually do to further normalize the messiness of being human and give a greater sense of the WHY for doing the work and how DALM can help. Then we used an online tool to do container-building; this is where we have everyone anonymously answer key questions on what a successful experience looks like, what will get in their way and more so we have guideposts to nurture the work. This is an important aspect of any vulnerability-based, courage-building work, and we ask everyone for their permission to tend to the armored behaviors that they identified that will get in the way if they show up during any of the sessions.

Given that this is a team that didn’t choose to sign up for DALM, we know that we would likely be dealing with the typical Law of Diffusion of Innovation in terms of engagement and people leaning into the work.

  • About ¼ of the participants expressed hope, gratitude and excitement for DALM and what it would do for their team.
  • About ½ to ⅔ of the participants ranged from neutral to cautious optimism.
  • And about ⅛ of the participants showed up as laggards and vocal critics – bashing the “psychobabble” content and following up in a team meeting later that week complaining about how pointless DALM was and that it is a waste of their time. 

It had been a while since we had experienced such strong laggards, so it initially took us back a bit. Then we took a deep breath and leaned in with grace and empathy for the armor these individuals were hiding behind and how deeply uncomfortable they clearly were with being invited to step into the arena and into a space of adaptive change.

The next week, we met with the leader of the team who was also struggling with what to do about the small but vocal group. As we spoke, we asked the leader, “Is this the first time these individuals have pushed back on developmental work?” The leader responded that this behavior is the standard, go-to for these individuals and that they tend to derail any significant change. So why would it be surprising that they would show up any differently for DALM?

We encouraged the leader to use the 5 C’s to clarify the purpose and expectations with the team regarding their participation in the DALM program. Having that clarity of vision and purpose is a key part of making adaptive change feel safer. When we facilitated the second session with the group, the number of vocal laggards decreased, and more people were leaning into the work and expressing hope. This is what typically happens. And, we know by the end there still may be one or two holdouts, but we can’t derail the rest of the group by giving those individuals energy. Instead, surround them with people who are leaning into the change and know it will take its course from there.

One thing that is important to acknowledge is that part of us being able to grow and become stronger, better versions of ourselves (individually and collectively) requires that we are able to sit with people who are different from us, lean in and listen. Diverse and dissenting perspectives can help us think critically and unlearn and relearn to help us better navigate adaptive challenges and a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world.

And, that’s not the same with those who show up as critics – casting judgment and blame without ever leaning in to learn and think critically. This is an important distinction because there will ALWAYS be some people who show up as critics; it’s unavoidable. The key is to not get sucked in by them. Plan that in any group, there will be some. Instead, focus on leveraging your innovators and early adopters to build momentum and energy and find the critical mass tipping point as the early and late adopters eventually come on board.

Stay HUMAN. Stay connected. Stay safe. Show Up as a Leader.

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