The Softer Approach to Hard Changes

I was listening to my friend tell me last week how exasperated she is with her husband.  She explained that despite putting all sorts of punishment and reward schemes in place (which we men never do btw) she still can’t get him to move his socks from the side of the bed to the laundry basket.  She suggested a shock tactic of emptying all the laundry out on his side of the bed as a way of letting him see how she felt.

Whilst this would definitely be an intervention it would be a bit like holding his feet to the fire, albeit with no socks on.  In the name of male solidarity (and because I didn’t want to get the blame from her husband for suggesting new ways of torturing him until he changed his bad habits) I claimed I had no idea how to help, but that my good friend Ron Skea is currently in the process of trying to establish a thesis on how best to help people change. So I suggested that she take advice from him and then hid.

According to Ron the published theories of change, especially in organisations, are wrong.  The academics would have us believe that people change in response to a large and traumatic event.  Hence the advice from Harvard Professors such as John P Kotter, author of ‘What Leaders Really Do’, is that we should engineer a crisis when we want change.  But according to Ron creating a big scary event can make us well…really scared.  As a result we often retreat into our caves (men are allocated theirs at birth but many women have them too) and then do nothing, often denying the fact that the problem exists.  The fancy name for this is cognitive dissonance.

Ron’s advice then is to do the opposite. Create small and frequent interventions to build curiosity and help the person to see not only that there is a problem but that the change can be done in lots of small increments rather than in one large leap of faith.

This is what John Seddon had in mind when he designed the Vanguard model for Check.  Staff involved in the internal Check team assessing an organisation go through different stages of analysis and are able to see the problems building over time.  So the design allows people to come to the realisation for themselves that things need to change.  The model also points to the scale of the change required and where the changes need to happen.

For example, if you were studying a typical social care system you’d first see that the front end of the system is not designed against the nature of customer demand, then you’d find out that response times are usually slow – leading to more cost and worse service, then you’d see the consequences of this poor process design and failure to recognise that part of the system should be seen and managed as a project environment.  Your final conclusion would be that poor policy design and the use of targets are actually the result of the way management think about the design and management of the organisational system.  (You can btw replace the context of social care with something more appropriate to your organisation and regrettably you’ll likely find similar problems.)

Imagine trying to take in all that information via PowerPoint slides in less than an hour.  It would blow your mind right?  In-fact you’d probably put it in the too difficult drawer (the same place my friend’s husband puts his sock habits) and do nothing as a result.

So if you’d like more insight on how to avoid this and get people in your organisation to change here’s a wee interview I recorded with Ron, you can listen to it here.

And if you have any thoughts on the sock issue, please don’t send them to me!




The Softer Approach to Hard Changes

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