The 3 factors that make change work

I’ve been involved in a lot of change over the years – both personal (such as trying to get fitter, lose weight etc.) and professional (leading change programmes and being on the receiving end of change programmes!)

I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the ugly side of change over the last 20 years. During that time, I’ve noticed a pattern in that there are three things that I’ve seen that are more likely to make change a success:

1-Reinforce, don’t punish (or convey a sense of loss): If people feel like they are losing out or having something taken away then they are more likely to resist change. Indeed, I’ve seen various degrees of sabotage of change over the years because of perceived loss/punishment.

It was the psychologist B.F.Skinner who discovered this through his research into operant behaviour conditioning (1938). Through his research, Skinner has helped today’s change leaders understand the different types of reinforcement that can be used. These include:-

Continuous reinforcement – this happens from start to finish during the change period. Daily, weekly, monthly. On the plus side, it is a really quick way to develop an association between the new behaviour that is required and the rewards that come from the reinforcer (the organisation). On the downside, it is a lot of effort and time on behalf of change leads and managers – you have to be constantly on the ball, looking out for examples of successful change in behaviour and then communicating that to others so they can learn. If the right people and processes aren’t lined up, then this can fall down and end up turning into randomised intervals (see below).

Fixed time intervals – this would reward the right behaviour at set times, e.g. every two months during a 12-month change programme, a team leader might award a voucher to a team member who has hot-desked the most during a move to more agile working. What Skinner and subsequent researchers found is that the desired response was low just immediately after an intervention but then sped up just before the next scheduled intervention. In other words, regularity and consistency have a big impact on changing behaviour.

Random time intervals – no set timetable to reward and reinforce the right behaviours. This happens as and when. My experience is that this is less likely to work in large organisational change programmes where staff are likely to lose interest and switch off if they don’t know that things are going to happen at a certain time. Although, Skinner did find that the reinforcement rate was a bit steadier here – less spikes in behaviour change between intervals.

Fixed ratio intervals – reinforcement and reward take place after a certain amount of the required behaviour changes have been made. For example, if a team has achieved three consecutive months in reducing their print footprint by 50% then they are rewarded with a longer lunch break on a Friday.

Varied ratio intervals – reinforcement and reward happens at random moments during the period of change. There is no pattern. This can be helpful if the pace of change isn’t quite moving at the right expected for whatever reason, such as a new IT programme hasn’t been delivered when it was expected. Key here is that the change leads and team managers are adept at spotting where behaviour has changed to the new desired state and then rewarding it swiftly.

2-Baby steps and quick wins: A great example of this is the NHS Couch to 5K programme. It gradually builds you up to your desired change – i.e. being fit enough to run continuously for around 30 minutes.

I just haven’t seen enough of this in change programmes. It’s all about the end-goal, such as saving £xxx millions. Without those baby steps, employees are lost and overwhelmed before you’ve begun. This is far too big a goal for your average person and not particularly motivating.

This is where Edwin Locke’s ‘Goal setting theory’ (1968) comes in. This is another really useful psychological theory which has practical use. Goal-setting theory showed that setting really clear, achievable, understandable goals with clear feedback at appropriate points is more likely to deliver the required performance. In other words, this helps people see how they fit in to the bigger scheme of things and perform to the levels expected to help achieve change.

Breaking the overarching aim it down into something achievable and that resonates at an individual level is key. It is motivational.

So, if the goal of the organisation is to save £5 million a year for the next five years, then what does that mean for the individual? How do they contribute to that on a monthly and annual basis? For example, do they need to increase the number of sales they make incrementally by £500 per month? In other words, the overall organisational goal needs to be translated into an overall individual goal, which then gets broken down again into steps – ideally of monthly targets. And going back to the first factor, with achievements being reinforced through acknowledgement and reward at key points.

3-Request regular feedback and communicate progress: I’ve seen a lot of the latter. Communicades, emails, memos – all broadcasting. But that communication is only going to support the change programme if it reflects how employees are feeling about the change programme and picks up their stories of change.

This is why installing a feedback system (or systems) is so crucial and then more importantly, doing something with the feedback! There’s nothing worse than being asked to give your time to answer some questions, share your thoughts etc only to never hear what’s changed or happened on the back of you doing this.

Feedback can be formal – such as monthly feedback to a designated director, facilitated discussions with the change programme team or short online surveys; through to informal with team managers asking staff how they feel about the change programme and then taking the time to feed this back to the relevant people.

When your feedback mechanisms work out of kilter with the communication strategy, your change programme is likely to hit a brick wall. A change communications strategy must outline clearly what, when and how you’re going to get feedback on how things are going. Feedback and communication need to work in tandem and should really be sitting with the same person or team. That way, changes can be made and communicated that bit faster.

There are, of course, other factors that help change succeed but in my experience, these are the ones that have come up time and time again.

What have your experiences been of successful change and what were the factors that made the difference? Drop me a line, as I’d love to know.

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