Building Blocks for Change

Change management experts say change isn’t something that happens with talk and ideas alone. It takes effort, strategy—and positive thinking.

building blocks of change

"The change we need."

"Change is coming."

"Change we can believe in."

These phrases filled the air at political rallies in 2008, gracing posters and bumper stickers displayed by Democrats and Republicans alike. They were not-so-subtle reminders that the candidates felt they stood for new, positive directions. But by the time the presidential campaigns had come to an end in November, the word "change" had gained new status in the national lexicon.

It had become a buzzword.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama, in particular, campaigned on a message of change, using modern technology to communicate with supporters and at one point saying of those supporters, "We are the change we have been waiting for." Sen. John McCain adopted the call for change when, tapping into his "maverick" identity, he said, "Change is coming."

Once the political dust had settled, though, national concerns such as the recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing energy crisis had started to demand real solutions. The Obama administration had pledged change, and the world was watching to see how and if it would deliver.

But how exactly does someone or some group bring about—and then manage—change?

Moving in a new direction and being forced to leave behind old habits can spark resistance and even fear. Such transformation is emotional, but often crucial for growth and success. Change management experts say certain principles and strategies can help develop plans for change at any level, from the U.S. government to a Fortune 500 company to the average American household.

Change is a necessary and an unavoidable fact of life, says Case Western Reserve University professor Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D., who studies how people and organizations engage in sustainable, desired change. It can come about with or without intent, he says, but positive, intentional change comes after several important steps.

The first step is to have a personal or shared vision about the future and a desire to attain it.

"Imagine the very common goal of losing weight," he says. "Everyone wants to lose weight, but ‘losing weight’ on its own is impossible as a goal. That type of change must be based on a vision of an ideal self that includes being slim and healthy."

Once a vision for change has been established, Boyatzis says, the individual or organization must compare the situation they have to the situation they want and assess strengths and weaknesses. That’s more difficult than it sounds because the human psyche has a number of defense mechanisms. Psychological responses, such as projection, displacement and transference, can cloud a realistic view of oneself or one’s organization, Boyatzis says.

"Take projection. Let’s say you come across a barking dog and you think or say, ‘That dog is vicious.’ The dog may not be vicious, he may just be excited, but you may be unconsciously projecting your fear onto the animal. That’s the sort of thing that keeps real self-assessment from happening."

The third step, Boyatzis says, is to draw up a learning agenda—strategies or actions to try while working toward a goal. These can be emotional, social or cognitive efforts, but they have to be something the individual or organization wants to do.

"What a learning agenda is not," says Boyatzis, "is a performance improvement plan—that won’t help."

A performance improvement plan comes with a mandatory objective, something that has to be done, like a to-do list or, often, a New Year’s resolution.

"People don’t do things because they’re told to," he says. "Ultimately, they do them because they want to."

Finally, the actual mechanism of change, the spark that pushes us out of our normal equilibrium, is a "positive emotional attractor"—or hope. Hope is a physiological phenomenon; it engages the nervous system and provides access to neural circuits that can make an individual feel more open, creative and calm.

Hope helps create the type of positive group and individual behavior that leads to change, Boyatzis says, adding that examples can be found in popular culture. He points to the fan bases of Star Trek and the The X-Files. "Why have trekkers become such a force?" he asks.

The answer, he says, is because the Star Trek television series was based on the possibilities of going "where no man has gone before." It was open ended and looked to the future. The X-Files, by contrast, was based on the existence of a conspiracy: They are out there, waiting for you.

Star Trek fans are drawn by a positive emotional attractor, Boyatzis says, that is reinforced by the social identity of belonging to a group of like-minded people who accept this positive force.

X-Files fans, however, are faced with a negative emotional attractor, which may make people feel defensive and closed off.

Boyatzis notes that a group or individual driven by hope doesn’t necessarily guarantee change.

"But it sets it in motion."

For change to become a reality, though, an individual or group has to recognize a need for it. In corporations, says Harlow Cohen, Ph.D., a professor at Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School of Management, opportunities for change can go unnoticed because companies don’t have proper feedback mechanisms to let them know they need to do things differently. Companies attuned to the need for periodic change function differently. They’re aware when things are going well, but continue to look to the future.

"Products and processes have life cycles," says Cohen, a two-time alumnus of the university. "And there’s always a need for innovation."

As an example, Cohen cites the digital camera market. Eastman Kodak fell behind when digital cameras entered the consumer market in force in the late 1990s. The company failed to identify computer and printer maker Hewlett-Packard as a potential competitor, but longtime Kodak rival Fuji film was quicker to adapt and fared better against the competition.

Kodak managed to bounce back, though, and retain solid, if not always steady, market share. Other companies, Cohen says, aren’t so lucky. They either don’t answer the wake-up call or, if they do, don’t offer the right response.

"Automakers after the 1970s oil crisis are a textbook example," he says.

In the aftermath of the crisis, Japanese automaker Toyota saw a changing market and responded to what it deemed a need for a flexible production system that could be adapted to changing consumer preferences. The company did away with facilities designed exclusively for the production of specific models and shifted instead to general-purpose facilities that could be operated according to changes in market demand for the company’s various models.

Toyota also moved forward to develop a new generation of cleaner and more fuel-efficient engines, ultimately producing automobiles that conformed to the world’s toughest emissions-control standards. By 1980, Toyota ranked second only to General Motors in total number of cars produced.

Boyatzis calls this kind of management "dissonant" because it signals that leaders are not accepting new ideas and acting on them.

"When you’re dissonant, you lose touch with your products and with your customers."

Often, dissonance is the product of chronic stress, negative pressure that keeps organizations and individuals from seeing themselves and their surroundings clearly.

"That was certainly the case with GM," Boyatzis says. "The company was under great pressure in the 1970s, and fell out of sync with the market."

But dissonance isn’t the only barrier to change. Cohen says one of the greatest roadblocks is anxiety about what you have to give up.

"This can affect anyone," he says, "from a child being weaned from a bottle to a government transitioning from one presidential administration to another. Things are built to perform, not to change. They are built for stability."

That’s why even unpopular political incumbents can have an advantage in an election, he says, and why talking about change is so much easier than making it happen. Yet stability can turn into stagnation, preventing individuals and organizations from keeping pace with the demands of a rapidly evolving world.

Change is a reality, Boyatzis says, not just a buzzword. Making it happen requires more than catchphrases and political momentum; it demands businesslike intent, understanding and strategy.

And, he adds, hope.