Change the change models

I was speaking at the IFMA conference on Friday on change and communication. As my co-presenter, Al DePlazaola, noted, organizations spend 'shedloads' (new UK terminology I just bumped into) of time and money operating under the assumption that change can be managed. He showed pages of various 'change management' frameworks and models – look at the selection on Google Images and you'll get the idea.

We feel that none of these work. Our contention is that preparing a game plan, identifying the "burning platform" (we must change or else!) and following a prescriptive, model based, "10 step" plan, or similar, to bring employees along is not the way to go as the reality is that if your platform is burning, it's probably already too late.

These standard approaches to 'change management' developed in slower moving environments are not appropriate now. Our current environment is fast, fast, fast. People expect rapid digital communication, from answering email within seconds to dealing with tweets (in a nano-second). Not only that, as Ian Sanders notes in his FT article Think First Tweet Later people are likely to be getting these communications and responding to them as they are walking down the street or standing in the queue at the coffee shop. Change is happening too quickly to ponderously 'manage' it.

So what approaches might work in this digital, rapid fire communication age. In our talk we suggest four which are not mutually exclusive. We illustrated them by taking a small but fun example of a corporate fitness center manager making the decision to withdraw its free towel service (a decision many are making). OK it's not significant in the grand scheme of things, but I've noticed that in a major change the truism 'the devil is in the detail' is worth bearing in mind. The four approaches are:

Just do it. Withdraw the towel service with a straightforward note and explanation. "We are withdrawing the towel service, effective first of next month. The cost of providing them is one that we can no longer justify.' This approach is clearly not collaborative, involving, or participative – all hallmarks of a 'good' change management process, but in some circumstances it is worth just biting the bullet. You're unlikely to get agreement on a best alternative and people will get over the loss of this service. Does it smack of autocracy, and command and control? Maybe so and maybe that's ok. Certainly in some cultures it is more the norm than in other cultures. The 'suck it up' (as the US phrase goes) is swift, cheap, and easy. One caveat before you press 'send'. Consider the risks if you take this route.

Gamification. This is increasingly seen as a way of driving productivity, learning, and changes in behavior. It works especially well with generations that grew up using social networks and online games. The article Profiting by Playing Games explains:

LiveOps and the other organizations are among the employers who have firmly jumped on the gamification bandwagon as a way to liven up the workplace (no matter where it may be), and boost productivity, learning and innovation — depending on the objective.

Gamification, which differs from the traditional use of video in the workplace, is based on using game mechanics and game theory to drive behavior by injecting some fun and a sense of community into the workplace.

"Gamification describes the broad trend of employing game mechanics to non-game environments such as innovation, marketing, training, employee performance, health and social change," says Brian Burke, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, which predicts that, by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes."

Deloitte has produced a short but useful paper on gamification in the workplace making the points that:

  • Serious business issues demand serious solutions. Games can generate serious solutions
  • Games and contests are a fun way to recognize and reward employee achievements. But strategy and innovation demand a more serious approach.
  • Innovations and strategies often result from out-of-the-box thinking-—exactly the type of thought processes that some games cultivate.
  • Popular games can hold answers when you focus on the game's attributes.
  • Some game attributes, such as leaderboards and badges, can help build engagement and accelerate cultural shifts. Other types of game traits, such as anonymity, peer review and crowdsourcing, can lead to breakthrough thinking.

In the instance of the towel service you could initiate a type of poker game (putting it into context) of the employee benefit what's important would you rather win: coffee, free drinks, towel service, etc.

Nudging: having a variety of different ways to experience the towel service that doesn't involve the company paying for it directly. Nudging people's behavior in a different way, using concepts of behavioral economics, is well described in the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Rich Thaler. (Read an article on it Nudge Nudge, Think Think).

For example if someone wanted to join the fitness center they would have to opt in to the towel service, accepting the cost of it. Or you could linking the towel service to a health benefit. In this nudge approach if you meet a minimum requirement for gym time, you get a towel.

Language changes can nudge behavior. The article just mentioned notes that "A study into the teaching of technical drawing in French schools found that if the subject was called "geometry" boys did better, but if it was called "drawing" girls did equally well or better. Teachers are now being trained to use the appropriate term." What would be the effect of having a "towel benefit" rather than a "towel service"?

Make it go viral: Think about some of the YouTube things that have gone viral. Domino's Pizza is one. The damage to a guitar by United Airlines is another. Social media – internal and external – is a powerful and underused tool in change management. It is also a dangerous tool if used carelessly or thoughtlessly. But there are now dozens of businesses aimed at making your products and services go viral, creating the buzz that makes people want to join in. Making withdrawal of a towel service go viral in a positive way presents a challenge but there are some innovative, creative people out there.

Other ways of moving change management practice away from established models and frameworks built for a previous era? Let me know.