Mindful Change - Beyond Behaviorism and Humanism

Posted on 1/08/2009 by Rajeev Singh

My last post discussed steps to sustain the goodness introduced by a transformation. As an abstraction, introducing Agility is an organization transformation (OT) process - an important one in software industry. The famous trifecta of any OT initiative is People, Process, and Technology. People first!
Leading people to change in order to transform an organization into a more efficient, productive, profitable, pragmatic, and agile business is tricky and often left for the very last. At best, I have seen managers read and recommend literature that deals with behavioral science - psychology, organization theory, and sociology. I always felt that this is not enough, although far better than not being cognizant of or sensitive to people issues or using brute force for business transformation or in OT.
Recently, I read The Neuroscience of Leadership , which is an excellent primer on the next frontier in organizational transformation - cognitive science. This writeup concludes that, and I quote:
  • Change is pain. Organization change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of physiological discomfort.
  • Behaviorism doesn't work. Change efforts based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run.
  • Humanism is overrated. In practice, the conventional empathic approach of connection and persuasion doesn't sufficiently engage people.
The next three points, which can be treated as prescription are significant. Again, I quote:
  • Focus is power. The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in the brain.
  • Expectation shapes reality. People's preconceptions have a significant impact on what they perceive.
  • Attention density shapes identity. Repeated, purposeful, and focused attention can lead to long-lasting personal evolution.
What does this mean for OT practitioners?
The first message is that behaviorism and humanism can be and should be leveraged only so much. Second, if change is pain then it should be done as fast and as quickly as possible. I prefer an orderly big-bang; a carefully spreaded out step-by-step rollout will not only delay the reap but agonize the people too.
Onboard OT teams with 'right' people. There's those who can see themselves operating in a new and better environment, and then there's those who are extremely comfortable with status-quo. The latter are a detriment to change initiatives.
How could change be lead by people who don't know why they are changing and for who? OT leaders and participants should also nurture a vision to make their services/products more competitive. The expectation to make services/products more appealing for consumers and the business more efficient and productive is essential for OT success. Also, include people from different functions of the business - marketing, accounting, project management, customer service, to name a few.
It takes multiple sessions/workshops for people to understand and remember concepts. The root cause is not participant's IQ but their lack of focus and sometimes the learning material not being insightful enough. 'Induce others to focus their attention on specific ideas, closely enough, often enough, and for a long enough time.'
I don't know of any successful transformation that was a one man show, even if it was glorified as such by media. Transformations and turn-around are executed by teams that have a critical mass, the appeal within the organization, and the know-how of the business. Hence, OT initiatives will not be successful unless change is perceived to be necessary by others. Therefore, embarking on a OT journey can be a decision that a CXO can take, but the demand has to be generated from the bottom first. Invest in creating an environment where this demand gets generated. A good consultant would know how to get there.

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