Making change is about the hardest thing any leader has to do. I specify leader, as in my experience, managers cannot effect change, the best they can do is optimise the status quo.

Regularly, I am faced with situations where change simply has to be made, where there is recognition that the status quo is no longer viable, where there is verbal acknowledgement that it is necessary, but insufficient commitment to the hard stuff that needs to be done, so it does not happen, in any meaningful and lasting way. There is no situation I have seen where at least some of those involved would rather not change, and when they are in a ‘blocking’ position, it can get messy very quickly.

There is only two ways:

  1. Fast and bloody, the ‘Chainsaw Al’ approach which can deliver short term results but long term usually destroys value.
  2. Bit by bit, building on what has gone before, adjusting the small things that may not have worked so well.

Behaviour is about the most elastic thing I have seen, you can change it, like stretching an elastic band, but take the pressure off, and the elastic goes back to the original shape. The challenge is to make the adjusted shape the default, so that when the pressure is taken off, the shape does not change.

Mostly that is all about how you design and manage behaviour.

When I have seen change work, behaviour has been overtly managed in a number of ways:

  • Progressive. While people are clear about the need for change, and the end point, the actual changes to behaviour are progressive, in small doses, and the easier ones are done first. This enables you to bed in the foundations of the change, and build the habit that change is actually not as painful as could be expected, and the benefits make the pain worthwhile.


  • Track progress. While changes happen progressively, tracking progress overtly builds in the confidence that the next step will not be the end of the world, and look how far we have come! As I watch my kids play video games, I am surprised at the compulsion that emerges from the overt tracking of progress through the stages of a game, how it becomes almost addictive. I speculate that this behavioural characteristic is not isolated to video games.


  • Offer rewards. This can be tricky and backfire, as the reward must be associated with the changed behaviour and the human outcomes of that behaviour. Offering rewards, that are not connected do not result in further motivation, and I have seen them counter-productive as they alter behaviour to chase the rewards, rather than the outcome. The best example is the difference between offering public acknowledgement of great work done (almost irrespective of the outcome) Vs offering money for a change. People may chase the money, but it will rarely result in the changed behaviour becoming a part of the status quo.

The take-out is that, as in selling where most people like to buy, but hate to be sold to, most people will resist being controlled, but are happy to be guided, mentored, to be led.

When you need an experienced hand to help, give me a call.


Photo credit: Brad Rose.