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McKinsey, Interrupts and Change

April 08, 2014

Recently I’ve been blogging more about leadership and what’s involved, from brain functioning to actual tactics, to help improve your own and others performance.  Occasionally someone comes along in life and directly corroborates what you’re talking about.  That happened this last month for me, with an article Nate Boaz and Erica Fox posted in the McKinsey Quarterly, underscoring the value of working on yourself.  The article is a good read, entitled, Change Leader Change Thyself.  Their one line summary, which you can easily extrapolate to any effort to improve people and processes is this.  “Change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves.”  However there’s something really big, really practical, in their article that’s missing and it has to do with interrupts.  Keep reading, and I’ll explain.

Do you remember back in a recent blog when I talked about the need to change the consequences when you’re trying to effect a change?

The summary went something like this: “To be more effective with others when launching any change effort, spend less time on informing, requesting and persuading, and instead focus on changing the consequences.  That’s right, talk less and instead change the consequence (like Spencer Johnson’s book Who moved my cheese).   If you want big results, you need to change and create new patterns which means different consequences.”

So let me introduce the concept of interrupts, because it’s key, and it’s a way of thinking about changing consequences.  And the interrupt that precedes and is part of the consequence change is a key to leading any change process, even if it got left out of the McKinsey article, so let’s plug it in here.

First of all do you remember Newton’s laws of physics, especially the first one?  Because it directly applies to what we are learning about humans, pattern formations and how the brain works.  Here’s Newton’s 1st law,  “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.”

So what does that have to do with Leadership and the change process?  It turns out a lot, as it predicts exactly how change works, whether you are working on your self or someone else.  For starters, if you extend physics to viewing how people operate, it predicts that we tend to remain the same or constant over time.  We develop preferred patterns and pretty much stick to them.

It also predicts that words don’t have much power in the change and leadership process, unless they can apply a disruptive (read interrupt) force to the patterns of how we think and act.  Insights, vision statements, a game plan… it’s all pretty non-relevant, unless it has a force of impact, where it breaks up the existing pattern and creates opportunities to build new ones.

Let me get more concrete, this is too conceptual.  First let’s talk about dogs.

I’ve raised Airedales for years, talk about a breed that’s challenging to have an impact with.  But yesterday someone was over with their small dog that my Airedale ignores, and it was doing the small dog thing of barking.  I call it yapping.  And the owner was yelling back from the other room.  “Stop barking”.  Now guess how much impact that had on the small dog’s pattern?  Go ahead, you can say it.  “No impact.”  With dogs you have to “get off your butt” and create an interrupt, change the consequence, before the words have any meaning the dog is going to pay attention to.

Sometimes I think it’s the same with us humans, what do you think?  I think most of us have a healthy capacity to ignore and/or refute what other’s say if it doesn’t match our thought process or assumption base.

So the basic premise is that we stick to patterns like glue.  It makes our world comfortable, predictable, and we’re pretty good at concluding that our patterns are the right ones.  If you want to introduce change, you have to interrupt those patterns, and one of the most effective means of interrupting is by changing the consequences, so that the old patterns don’t get reinforced anymore.

By-the-way there are some common interrupts you’ll need to engage in when you’re leading change.  You very likely will need to interrupt workers pattern or framework for defining a number of areas.  Here’s three for consideration:
– What’s good enough… or you get paid for what?
– What creates enough value…?
– How much one should have to get stuff done versus adher to certain values while doing it, e.g. quality, efficiency, systematic, documentation, compliance, etc.?

All three of those areas represent patterns that need interrupts applied if you’re going to improve performance… versus just talk about it.

Let me squeeze one more visual image in before I wrap up.  This is one I carry around in my head.  It’s from the gospels, and it’s a statement that Jesus makes simply stating you can’t put new wine into old wineskins. You can’t put new ideas into old operating environments (and typically expect much more than resistance).  You’ve got to have an interrupt, a change in consequences, a change in perceptual or mental maps, otherwise you’re putting new ideas into old patterns, and Jesus predicts exactly what will happen.  A. Your change process fails, the new ideas get spilled on the ground, and B. People respond by saying the old ideas were better.  Thomas Kuhn was correct when he wrote in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “One’s paradigm predetermines the conclusions about reality, and new facts that don’t fit an existing paradigm are ignored.”

Bottom Line:
Whether you think of leading change in terms of physics, or wine containers, it’s critical to understand how important it is to interrupt existing patterns and build a new context supported by a change in consequences to help you be successful.

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