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Elephant in the Room: How to be a Champion of Change

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Change is hard, but it may be complicated by the attitude we collectively present when faced with change.  Attitudes can be influenced.

That’s one of the messages we took away from Dan Heath’s key note presentation at the 2016 LexisNexis Accelerate business development conference by the InterAction® team.  His presentation, “How to Lead a Switch” drew from the best-selling book Switch, which he co-authored with his brother.

It’s the “sheer pessimism when talking about change” that underscores his point.  As anyone that has ever pushed for change understands – a law firm marketer implementing a CRM system for example – change beckons a collision with a “wall of resistance.”

But the apathy or aversion to change is only part of the story, according to Mr. Heath.  He went on to present slides with “concrete visual evidence” of people “joyfully” accepting change:

  • Marriage photos featured the smiles of newlyweds are an example of dramatic change that is welcomed with great celebration.
  • Smartphones have completely changed the way we communicate – “teenagers used to enjoy speaking with each other.”
  • And finally fashion where society is both quite open to change and sometimes even grateful for it.

The Psychology of Change

Mr. Heath framed the psychology of change in the context of a healthier diet. On an airline flight, he once mapped out a plan for his own well-being to eat healthier and exercise.  No sooner had the plane landed, than he found himself “in line at Cinnabon,” a popular bakery franchise found in US airports.

So what is it that drove him to jettison a logical and detailed plan he just created moments after disembarking from a plane?  It’s that human minds are governed by two systems: a rational system and an emotional system.

It’s the latter that “craves” and amid the balance of authority between these two systems, “it’s not a fair fight,” he said.  He likens the emotional system to an elephant – and the rational system to the rider.  The rider might think he or she is in charge, when the reality is that elephant can go in any direction it wants.

When striving to adhere to a healthier diet, it’s the “voice of the elephant” that says “you deserve some ice cream.” Or it may call for a sweetly glazed bakery treat in Mr. Heath’s example.

What’s missing is that the analogy is oversimplified, Mr. Heath noted.  It casts the elephant and rider in terms of good and bad.  It’s a little more complex however, in that the elephant “is also a source of strength.”  It’s the voice of the elephant that gives rise to curiosity, experimentation and perhaps even entrepreneurialism.

That curiosity will prove an important ally for anyone attempting to usher in change.

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3-Stage Framework for Change

Mr. Heath’s talk was filled with many anecdotes from his book (including a few below) that center on a three-stage framework for managing change:

1. Direct the rider.The elephant rider needs “crystal clear direction.”

2. Motivate the elephant.Favor motivational techniques the elephant can see and feel over analysis.

3. Shape the path.The final stage is to shape the path. It’s a lot easier to walk in the direction of change if there’s a herd already going there.

The Top Mistake in Leading Change

A financial executive at a large manufacturing company had a $1 billion dollar cost saving proposal.  If the company centralized purchasing, it would gain leverage for better pricing from its vendors.  His analysis was sound and he pitched his case to his peers in leadership.

“What happened next was…nothing,” said Mr. Heath.  The executive had committed the “number one mistake of leading change: trying to motivate people with information.”

The financial executive redoubled his efforts. He tasked an intern with visiting every factory the company operated to find one common product that every location purchased. The intern found work gloves, 400 different kinds of gloves, and tabulated the cost for each pair by brand for comparison.

What they learned from the exercise was that work gloves come with a wide disparity in price.  Some gloves were inexpensive while others quite costly.

The financial executive returned to his peers and dumped a bag of various gloves on the executive conference table and explained the wide variation in pricing and potential cost savings. This triggered a conversation and led to action on the centralized purchasing plan.

While he had previously compiled a compelling business case in a spreadsheet, it was the visual impact of gloves on a conference table that was the catalyst for change.  This was because his peers could see and feel the need for change.

Shaping Paths with Bright Spots

When striving for change, look to what’s working and then clone it said Mr. Heath.  This is what he called “finding the bright spots.”

To illustrate bright spots, Mr. Heath relayed a story about a project to reduce malnutrition among children in villages of Vietnam. The project struggled until it realized some of these children were healthy for their age – this deviation from the norm was a bright spot that would ignite incredible change.

The team learned that mothers of healthy children broke daily rations of rice into four smaller servings per day, where it was common to serve just two larger bowls.  The stomach of a malnourished child can absorb more of the calories and nutrients in smaller servings, where it wastes some with larger servings, according to Mr. Heath.

In addition, the mothers of healthy children augmented the rations of rice with crabs, mushrooms, sweet potatoes and other food that culturally, was considered inappropriate for children.

The team then moved to match up mothers of healthier children with those with children presenting signs of malnutrition to share this knowledge.  The results were impressive.  In just six months, two-thirds of the children in that village were “demonstrably better.”

More importantly, the results were driven by a mere behavior change, rather than a change in resources, such as increasing the supply of food.

The success spread by word of mouth from village to village. The project grew eventually into a university dedicated to sharing this information.  In the end, Mr. Heath said, the project reached 2.2 million people in 265 Vietnamese villages.

Risk Tolerance and Accepting Failure 

In closing, he noted there’s a final characteristic of change management that lends itself to a risk-tolerant environment.

Mr. Heath cited an anti-smoking advertisement that read: “It took you years to learn how to smoke.  What makes you think you can quit on the first time?”

“Failure is part of change,” he said. “Most smokers quit 5-7 times before they succeed.”

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director for the LexisNexis software division located on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. In this capacity, he leads communications efforts in support of software products for law practice and law department management and also litigation tools – across large law, small law and corporate counsel segments. With more than 15 years of experience in the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of public relations for Vocus, which developed marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He has held multiple roles both in-house with corporations, ranging from startups to global organizations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms including the top 10 global firm Hill & Knowlton. A veteran of two year-long deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for more than 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University. He is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver and holds a USPA "B" skydiving license.