Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

We Like Change Just Fine

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Image: compass (CC licensed image by user Bios)

The mood before the meeting was tense, the news was surprising, and the group's reaction was far more negative than positive. As the meeting to announce a significant organizational change came to a close, one of the people who stood to benefit from the change mused philosophically, "People don't like change."

I find that kind of analysis troubling because it assumes that the people doing the objecting are unprogressive, inflexible, and lacking vision. Further, I think the "people don't like change" aphorism is factually incorrect. Most people like change just fine. What they don't like is loss.

Anyone who has ever visited a new restaurant, created a new syllabus, traveled to a new city, accepted a new job, started a new relationship, or downloaded a new app has embraced change, so the assertion that most people want to keep things exactly the same is ridiculous. We like change as long as it is beneficial to us and the rationale for it makes sense.

And that takes me back to the meeting. It felt like many such sessions I have attended before -- yet another example of a well-intentioned leader making a rational decision that seemed completely irrational to those most affected by the change. In this case, the leader viewed the situation in the context of national trends and knew that his decision was in line with what other universities were doing. But here's the thing: Most of the people who would be affected by the change have not been following national trends and have been protected from the financial data that influenced the original recommendations. To them, this new organizational design was a solution that emerged without an obvious problem.

So what lessons can we learn from this situation?

The first is to consult the research on organizational change before embarking on anything that might be considered transformational or even upsetting. No time or inclination to do that reading? Here's a recipe for moving ideas forward that builds on several organizational change theories and onjournalism's six W's.

1. Why is this change important? Before announcing a grand plan, expose people to data that show why change is necessary. These might include enrollment trends, patient volume, students’ buying habits, or donor preferences. Make the need for reform obvious and urgent.

2. How should it be handled? Ask for advice about how to deal with the challenge. You will create a sense of engagement and you might discover that other people's ideas are better than yours.

3. Who will help you? Enlist credible allies who agree that the status quo is no longer viable. Use them to signal that you are not the only one who thinks change is a good idea. Your allies can suss out the most vocal skeptics, and alert you to the factors that might imperil your plans.

4. What will it entail? Don't leave room for interpretation and ruminating by keeping details vague. Be crystal clear about what the change will mean so that people can accurately assess how it will affect their status and way of life. Change is not just organizational; it is deeply personal.

5. Where will it hurt? Be honest about where the pain points will be. Pay cuts? Having to learn something new? More work? Fewer colleagues? Less autonomy? These issues will be apparent soon enough, so you might as well be honest.

6. When will it happen? Be explicit about deadlines and milestones so that people can track progress and make decisions about when they should leave, if they don't want to be a part of the new world order.

Finally, it is worth mentioning a seventh W, the one that is likely to be texted: WTH? Be prepared for anger and name it. Once the change is announced, provide space and time for people to process it and then regroup to respond to questions and concerns.

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