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“Change” and “new” are two great words — so long as they don’t apply to you

I coined this title phrase some years ago, having often observed strong resistance to innovation and change in the corporate world. This was especially so when it comes to internal change management. So it was with particular interest that I recently read a NYTimes article, “We Have a Creativity Problem” that provides a likely explanation. It very much comes down to human nature.

What we say about change, creativity and innovation, and how we actually feel about them are, in fact, two wildly different things. These concepts are so aversive, it turns out, in large part, because they yank us out of our “comfort zones” and  “intensify our feelings of uncertainty.”

Creativity, innovation, and change; plus the emerging science of implicit bias

Creativity, innovation and change would seem to have a golden aura around them: Who could deny they are engines of progress or the lifeblood of forward-thinking? Who doesn’t believe they are distinctions of the best, most elite companies? Who wouldn’t applaud their presence in a company’s Vision and Mission statement, or their inclusion as company Core Values? 

However, the emerging science of “implicit bias.” which the NYTimes article explores, reveals that peoples’ judgments are not captured only by what they say they think. While we may outwardly praise innovation and creativity, research has shown that inwardly, “we actually harbor a visceral aversion to creators and creativity; subconsciously we see creativity as noxious and disruptive.” Multiple iterations of studies have revealed that “people actually have strong associations between the concepts of creativity and innovation and negative associations like vomit, poison and agony, “ said Jack Goncalo, a business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the lead author of a new study. The reason for this “implicit bias” against creativity and innovation can be traced to the fundamentally disruptive nature of novel and original creations: “Creativity means change, without the certainty of desirable results.”  

Added Jennifer Mueller, a professor of Management at the University of San Diego, and a lead author on a 2012 paper about bias against creativity: “We have an implicit belief that the status quo is safe”. An expert in creativity science, Dr. Mueller said that her original paper arose partly from her watching how company managers professed to want creativity and then reflexively rejected new ideas. “Novel ideas have almost no upside for a middle manager — almost none.  The goal of a middle manager is meeting metrics of an existing paradigm. This creates a conundrum because people in certain circumstances may really need a creative solution and yet have trouble accepting it.”

Simple, yet profound conclusions with wide-ranging applications and implications:

I was at first struck by how simple and perhaps obvious are these findings, on the one hand; and how far-ranging and broadly applicable their implications and applications might extend, on the other. Could it be that aversion to innovation and change, as things inherently dangerous and threatening, drives such phenomena as (conservative) political preferences; glacially-slow uptakes of new movements in art, music, culture and fashion; less than immediate embrace of breakthroughs in medicines and vaccines, in spite of scientific trials and proof? Might we, in fact, be programmed as a species to prefer our “comfort zones” as they would seem to promote our longer-term self-preservation, although surely not in every situation? 

The corporate context:  Broad speculations aside, the NYTimes article rightly puts these findings in a corporate context, and suggests that change-aversion can extend right across a business — from the kind of employees that employers hire, to the kinds of product innovations they choose to undertake, the kind of partners they opt to work with, and the kinds of customers they will eventually attract. And this brings me back to the original resistance I observed in the corporate world, when it comes to internal change management — and where I see terrific potential to apply these insights and thinking.

First, let’s take one brief step back.

Businesses must always necessarily adapt and change

Our consultancy at TorchFish is most frequently called in to help businesses react to and pre-empt new market realities. As markets shift, competitors emerge, and technology redirects focus, so businesses need to adapt and expand to new, predominating market realities— ever more frequently, with ever more urgency. In response, our work at TorchFish necessarily generates new brands for clients, by which we mean new Brand Octagons, including new positionings, new promises to emerging new audiences, new brand personalities, and above all, a new vision, mission and core values. Re-articulations of these critical brand elements play a vital role in helping a business respond to new market realities at the same time that they necessarily reshape how the business itself will operate, adapt and expand to meet new challenges. 

The changes a business must make to accommodate and pre-empt external market challenges necessarily demand significant, co-temporaneous internal change management to comply with these changes. On face value, who wouldn’t agree? We’re normally talking about shifting from a world of 1.0 to a 2.0 world in a corporate cultural context, and there is no going back, no living in the old world. Herein lies the rub, however: Not only will valuable employees likely resist change, for reasons we have amply seen parsed in the research cited above. We have also long observed, their management may not fully understand the deeply-rooted nature of people’s resistance to change, and may in fact, take for granted that change is so obvious, it will just happen. So, in fact, change management is not just a one-sided conundrum, but a two-sided, even super-sized conundrum.

Change management: A supersized conundrum

The employees’ perspective:

    As for employees, given our new insights into their situation, we fully understand when they ask, Why should we change? They have been appreciated and rewarded for doing a good job for a long time. They have dutifully followed business plans and delivered on their metrics, so “change” and “new”, well, they’re for someone else. “Not me. Not my department.” We fully get it now: internally there is resistance, as there is “absolutely no upside potential for them in changing anything.”

    Management’s perspective:

      And yet among the innovators, the management team and “rising stars” in the company, who have worked to recreate the new business paradigm, there is genuine excitement for new business prospects, new strategies, new “North Stars.” So much so, they either overlook, or forget, the need to bring people along. Or they wildly under-estimate the task of doing so. No, people will not just change because you snapped your fingers. Here, I recall what I shall call the “incident of the infamous memo” that captures this point perfectly.

      The “incident of the infamous memo:” A case in point

        The company in question is a very large, well-respected, international B2B organization. The management team, having decided the organization needed refreshed vision, mission and core values statements, sent a memo out on a Friday afternoon to the whole, global company. Their full expectation was that on Monday, when all staff would have received the mail, there would be instant and company-wide understanding and embrace of the organization’s new directions. Done deal. Imagine the management team’s confusion and frustration when they received totally opposite reactions – further confusion and frustration on the part of the employees, in addition to growing cynicism, anger and not a little lack of trust and respect. This memo began months of painful to-ing and fro-ing within the company, whose final results were, sadly, largely fruitless. The loss of precious time and squandered resources of situations like this one are unfortunately all too common – and as we now realize, fully avoidable. 

        Going forward

        Specific applications and implications for serious, change management programs

        As much as businesses must change, so equally must valuable employees be brought along to help drive the company forward. Ideally, everyone in the company needs to know what their new, evolving job means and how they are will help to make the new vision real and the new 2.0 world come alive. Our heart-felt advice and experience on this matter: Take change management seriously, plan for change, plan to make the change feel real. People will not want to change, we know this now; they will be cynical, they will be a little scared. Don’t run from this insight, embrace it. Valuable employees need to be brought along, and you need to communicate and connect with them, and coordinate and create the company of your joint future, together. You cannot do it alone, or with a small team. There is no one silver bullet. In our view, you must see change-management as ever-green and you must plan change-management initiatives for both the short- and long-term.

        5 essential short-term steps

        1. CEO announcement: Kick off to the change

        • The most essential, immediate step, a sine qua non, is the CEO announcement of the changes to come, the reasons why, and the specific new vision and mission that will bring this to life. This should take place live where possible, in a town-hall, and should also be captured on video, with attendance/viewing required by all. Nothing says the initiative, the new world order, is serious more than this. It gets people’s attention, they know what to be looking for, including training ahead, and if they are somewhat skeptical, they are surely also intrigued. 

        2. Management team: “Walk the Talk”   

        • In advance of the kick-off, there must be full agreement among the management team to represent the change, and to display whenever possible the new values, in their daily interchanges and activities. You cannot overestimate how important, and impactful, this representation of the new core values is.

        3. Change management training: 

        • This is equally a sine qua non, hugely important to reach every individual employee. Training should be bespoke, and designed so individuals “feel the stretch” they will need to make in the new, 2.0 world order. Most often this involves creating real-life situations that require participants to role-play, resolving the issue or solving a new problem with both former and new attitudes and behaviors. This method is highly revealing, always instructive: people get it. While we have not yet been involved in this sort of enactment, the possibility to use virtual reality to help employees envisage the changes ahead through simulations, is immediately appealing and intriguing. Simulations designed to capture what the new world order looks like, what are likely stretches everyone will need to make, what new core values mean and how does each employee live them – this is a new, exciting, ever-green frontier.  Think about it.

        4. Reward performance:

        • Many clients create employee rewards for living the values, for demonstrating “the stretch”, for delivering on the Vision – at all levels within the company.  No one is excluded, everyone contributes.

        5. Repeat message:

        • Take the opportunity in regular company correspondence to repeat and reinforce change management messages. Encourage employees to do the same, e.g., after internal meetings, if employees ask, “In this meeting, what Core Values did we represent? What could we have done more to represent them?”, you know you are there.

        Longer-term: More positive outcomes

        HR and marketing will become BFFs:

        • Expect HR and Marketing to work more closely together than perhaps ever before. Together, merging brand with human resource management. both will create the roadmap for successful, internal, corporate cultural change. All the better: what silo isn’t improved when it is collaborates with another? 

        Metrics will need to track success:

        • New monitoring for employee satisfaction and customer surveys will be necessary to observe what’s going on and taking hold within company; and what is being observed and appreciated by your customer base. Both internal and external tracking are extremely important: What is the impact the changes are having, what is working, what could work better?  What gets measured gets improved. 

        Updated training is a given:

        • As people come on board with and adapt to the new changes, there is always the opportunity to help them go even further, wider and deeper. Their own experiences can provide input into the company’s overall change, so collaboration, cooperation and co-creation are ever possible and ripe. We should note, some surveys suggest up to 25% of a company’s staff will resist typical change management, wherein there will be inevitable partings of the ways. The idea is to minimize this as much as possible.  A valuable employee should remain a valuable employee. 

        Final takeaways

        The NYTimes article made the point that people’s judgments are not captured only by what they say, but what they mean; not only by what they say they think. This has huge implications for surveys in terms of question formulation and evaluations; for data collection and interpretations; and not least, for drawing implications, setting business plans and taking resource-intensive actions as a result of this customer-based data. This is a huge topic, and not for development now. But it does speak to doing “reality checks” from time to time, to asking the famous 5 Whys?; to doing some good, old qualitative to ensure that what your customers told you they want is, in fact, what they really want. There is no finish line. We know this.

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