Guest post by Olivier Aries – Design Thinking and Change Management Consultant

Since Amazon reduced prices at Whole Foods and hinted at a new integrated service experience, retail chains like Walmart and Albertsons have been scrambling to innovate.

Pundits are wondering: what will these players change in their operating model, marketing, and supply chain, in the face of disruption?

The bigger question is: can they change at all?

The business of change and transformation is worth billions of dollars. Or rather, the business of trying to overcome the seemingly intractable resistance to change that plagues many organizations. For we are barely starting to understand the deeply human and emotional drivers that prevent people from embracing change. Companies throw “change management initiatives” and “change communication plans” at the need to change and innovate; and yet, research from consultancy A.T. Kearney shows that 80% of transformation projects still under-deliver or fail to achieve sustainable results.

Change is welcome, more than ever. But… how do we make it happen?

Einstein used to say: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

So, let’s look at the problem of change. In “Immunity to Change”, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, from Harvard’s Change Leadership Group, recognize that there are actually two types of change challenges:

  • Technical change requires new skills which can be learned
  • Adaptive change requires a mindset transformation

Implementing a new financial platform requires technical change. Making a company more innovative requires adaptive change.

You guessed it – trouble happens when we face adaptive change. The issue is not that people do not want to change; the issue is that they cannot change. Want proof? Kegan and Laskow Lahey stress that when heart doctors tell their patients that they will die if they do not make changes to their personal lives, like diet or exercise, only one in seven patients is actually able to change. Which means that 85% of patients are unable to change – even if the cost of inaction is death.

Transpose that to the workplace, where doing nothing is may not be personally fatal, but it puts whole companies at risk. Employees have a hard time changing, because their behavior is a response to the current state, and it has proven quite successful for them to be high-performing, committed employees in the workplace they know. If change is introduced in that workspace, it also introduces in employees’ mind the anxiety that they will be defenseless, without the right behaviors to deal with the “new normal”. Their heart may be in the right place, but their anxious mind gets in the way. And anxiety is a very, very powerful deterrent.

This is the change problem. What is the solution?

The solution is to take a page from design thinking and its key ingredient: empathy. Empathy means that leaders follow a deeply human-centric approach to change, one that recognizes that employees both think and feel. It accepts employees’ mindset and behavior as being the starting point for change, not a barrier to change.

Here is empathy in action: when we redesigned a consulting firm’s knowledge management to foster collaboration and innovation, we first spent several months understanding how and why consultants developed and disseminated knowledge. This was before we even developed a new blueprint. For example, why do people adopt behaviors that discourage collaboration even though they claim to be highly collaborative? Through interviews, role-playing, and other methods, we surfaced the unspoken fears and anxieties that got in the way of change. With that knowledge, we then designed a new model and influenced behaviors in way that would encourage innovation (one finding was that people needed greater recognition to share their expertise more broadly; in the old model, consultants seeking someone else’s knowledge would see the exchange as a merely transactional; they would not take the time to thank their peers; it turns out that saying “thank you” works wonders).

There is another advantage in engaging employees to surface their deeper feelings towards change: they are now part of your journey. As IDEO’s Bryan Walker says: “people support what they create”. Once you pull them in the design of your model, your change becomes their change. They become your co-creators, and your advocates.

Back to grocery retailers and their change imperative. My colleague Eric Gervet likes to say that “what a brand really does is to co-create an experience with each and every consumer”. I would argue that what a company does is to co-create change with each and every employee.

Olivier originally published this post on LinkedIn, he works with TeamFit on change management initiatives around the introduction of skill and expertise management.