Change the Consequences to Launch Change
In this blog, I’d like to reveal a tip for how to be the most effective you can be at bringing about change, with whomever you work . In short, the most effective way to communicate and get a change in others is to extend more effort than just talking, and change the contingencies, the consequences, the reinforcements to fit with the new behavior patterns that comprised the desired change. But there’s an interesting story behind all of this that illustrates what is typically used, and then again what works much more effectively when it comes to launching change. This story starts with a call I got from a CEO I had been previously working with, and who had fired me 90 days prior to the call. As I picked up the phone, he simply said, “$1.3m, when can you be here”.
Let me back up and give you some context for that call. I had previously been working in his company that was doing around $150m/year, and found that they didn’t have enough management systems in place to effectively manage everything they had underway. In fact, without better systems in place than the constant stream of meetings and emails, they had hit a profitability and growth ceiling. When I introduced the new systems into the organization, a number of the leaders said, “We don’t need new systems we’re fine, and besides that we are too busy to learn something new.” The CEO said, in effect “I don’t want to force this on them, so why don’t we stop and you leave.” To which I said as I was walking out of the office, “I understand, but you still don’t have enough visibility on follow-through, and enough systems in place to not lose a million dollars on any given day.” He said, “Oh get out of here, you’re just trying to sell me more consulting time.” 90 days later he got stuck with an un-foreseen loss of $1.3m, and I got the call.
As a side note, I did respond by going back into his company. There was now a requirement and momentum to use better systems and they grew over $150mm in the following 12 months with the same 14 people, as their market had a number of opportunities we could capitalize on once we had better systems in place. But that phenomenal growth isn’t what I want to focus on in this blog. In fact, that experience had all sorts of lessons you could learn from, but I want to focus on the difference between telling, requesting change, versus changing patterns, when you are trying to get people to change – because it’s all at play in this story.
By-the-way, I think we all trip ourselves up and become less effective with others, by operating as if we can speak change into being at any time. But before I explain what works a little and what works much better, let’s go over just a couple of operating assumptions:
1. When you see the next person walking by, I want you to think 98% patterns, 2% making it up as they go. More specifically think of each of us as a walking around with a 1,001 patterns, and most of what we do is creatively or non-creatively put patterns into play all day long. Thomas Czerner’s book, What Makes You Tick, points out that, “Your brain craves patterns and searches for them endlessly” In fact he suggests that the underlying function of our brain is to create predictive maps, finding associations, connections and links between bits of information, connecting our thoughts and memories, etc, via complex chemical and physical pathways. Our brains like to create order out of the chaos coming into them. We feel more comfortable when surrounded by order. Given the comfort over existing patterns and the order they represent, you can imagine the discomfort or resistance that naturally occurs when a change effort is launched which involves modifying or rewriting existing patterns.
2. But here’s the second thing I want you to understand about patterns and behavior. Most of what we do is unconscious, including patterns. So even though we’re thinking about stuff all day long, most of what our brain is doing, is behind the scenes or under our level of conscious awareness. Gerhard Roth suggests that the brain is constantly trying to automate processes, “hereby dispelling them from consciousness; in this way, its work will be completed faster, more effectively and at a lower metabolic rate. Consciousness, on the other hand, is slow, subject to error and expensive.” For instance you didn’t tell your brain to listen to read the words, versus listen or attend to the central air system, your unconsciousness is handling all that without you consciously telling it to. That means if you ask me to do something different, I may not even be conscious of the pattern I’m following or what kicks the pattern into action for me, which will make me much more likely to repeat versus change the pattern.
Ok, given that we a walking collections of patterns, intellectual maps and habits that we substitute in and out, and given that most of our patterns kick in without us consciously thinking about it, let’s go back to the $1.3m story, and talk about how you can use it to be more effective with others.
There are several common ways to communicate that you want a change from others, including:
Inform – So more than 90 days prior to that call, the CEO told (meaning informed) his staff they were going to use new software for better planning and tracking. So informing is one way we communicate and attempt to influence others, in fact it’s probably the most common, takes the least effort… and is the least effective. When we are informing, we may be simply conveying information or expressing our self on an emotional and/or cognitive level; either way we’re sharing data.
Request – But sometimes we’re not just informing, we’re requesting. So in this case the CEO might have added, “Please schedule time with him and start using the new software system.” And if you were the CEO in the $1.3m story, that would have included something like, “This is Rodney, he’s here to help us and please make your schedule open to work with him.” Requesting is the second way we most often communicate or launch a change effort. Unfortunately it doesn’t work very well, especially when requests extend beyond the immediate. Usually our old patterns kick in very rapidly and diminish the effect of the request over time.
Persuade – Finally the CEO tried persuading, by connecting the facts in a way that hopefully would get people to work differently, e.g. to rewrite their thinking and behaving patterns. You know, like pointing out that they weren’t growing as much as they had hoped, and then there were those last month cost over-runs.
Guess how well that all worked? How impactful do you think Informing, Requesting and Persuading were, given that everyone was running around with their existing patterns. It didn’t and perhaps it hasn’t for you in similar situations. In fact you probably guessed that when confronted with making a change they acted in concert with what John Kenneth Galbraith desribes, Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
You see Informing and Requesting aren’t all that great at changing existing patterns, yet their easy on the front end to do. We all do it, it just doesn’t work that well. Do you remember the Paul Newman film, Cool hand Luke, in which the warden has that famous statement as he’s unable to change Paul’s patterns, “What we have here is a failure of communicate.” Maybe, or maybe more accurately, the form of communicating with Paul’s character wasn’t working. So what does work?
Consequences – So here’s what I want you to get, ready? Communicating, especially informing and requesting, isn’t all that effective at getting people to change or create new habits. Only God speaks things into happening, the rest of us contend with rough approximation or less. So what do you do to be more effective when communicating and working with others? Well realizing that we all are mostly patterns, you could try persuading, essentially helping others reconstruct their patterns with new connections, a new story line, new insights. And sometimes that works well, but before I wrap up, I want you to be aware of what works better. Since we are so defined and constrained by our patterns, the best way, the most effective way, to communicate and get a change in others is to extend more effort than just talking, and change the contingencies, the consequences, the reinforcements to fit with the new behavior patterns that comprised the desired change. New consequences create an immediate impact on our system of patterns, challenging us to modify existing, or develop new habit, patterns and mental models.
Bottom Line: To be more effective with others when launching any change effort, spend less time on informing and requesting, watch the investment in persuading, and focus mostly on changing the consequences. That’s right, talk less and instead change the consequence, move the cheese. Remember, there’s informing, there’s requesting, there’s even persuading, but if you want big results, most of the time you need to change and create new patterns which means different consequences… and don’t’ wait until you lose $1.3 m before you decide to act on what you already know.