Better Drives Change ... Doesn't it?

By Peter de Jager

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Every new road, upgraded computer application, cancelled project, corporate reorganization, downsizing, or relocation (to mention only a handful of endeavors) have something significant in common. They are all attempts to improve something, to make something – a product, a service, or a process – better.

This might seem like an extremely mundane observation; of course a change is supposed to better something. Why do it otherwise? The observation that “Better Drives Change” (BDC) becomes even more obvious when we factor in our personal experiences. When we embrace change, we do so because we see the benefits; and, when we resist a change, it’s because we don’t see sufficient benefit to compensate us for the inevitable effort it takes to learn how to do something new. 

So, we’re forced into the conclusion that BDC is almost a basic Law of Change.

There’s one small problem with this notion, though. It doesn’t seem to hold true. While it is true that all change is an attempt to make things better, it’s also true that many change initiatives fail … some in spectacular, epic, and costly flame outs.

If BDC is true, then why doesn’t the organization embrace our latest attempt to make things better? 

This isn’t a new question; we’ve asked it numerous times in the past. In the 1903 book, The Laws of Imitation, Gabriel Tarde articulated it brilliantly: “We need to determine why, if 100 innovations are conceived simultaneously, ten will spread while ninety will be forgotten.”

An answer to that question, even a weak answer, has the potential of reducing a 90 percent failure rate of change initiatives to something more acceptable, and certainly more profitable.

The notion that BDC is a true observation is difficult to erase from our thinking. Many moons ago (1983), I was tasked with introducing the IBM PC into an organization. I was incredibly naïve (my excuse is I was young – I’m older now). I believed that this would be an incredibly easy task. How could someone not want a PC on their desk? It was the latest technology. We would provide all the training. It would increase their skills. It would at least double their productivity. It would make their job easier. It would make them more valuable on the job market. The benefits were endless. It was inarguably BETTER! What was their problem?

As I said above, I was naïve – painfully so. I encountered resistance to the notion of using a PC at every turn. It made no sense. “Better” did not seem to drive change to a significant degree.

The fact is, there’s lots of evidence that “Better” isn’t the primary driver for change. If it was true, then how do we explain the following?
Scurvy is a terrible condition. It’s the consequence of a lack of Vitamin C (a nutrient not “discovered” until 1932), and we need this vitamin to produce collagen – which is basically the glue that keeps our cells together. Without it, we literally start falling apart. Our ligaments loosen, we develop suppurating wounds, our gums recede from our teeth, which then fall out and litter the decks of sailing ships around the world. Estimated deaths due to scurvy, according to available records, were astounding; in excess of two million sailors died because of a lack of available Vitamin C. On a long sea voyage, it was not unreasonable to expect 50 percent of the sailors to succumb to scurvy. It was a serious problem.

In 1601, Captain James Lancaster conducted a simple experiment. Three ships set out on a voyage. On one ship, the sailors were given a daily dose of lemon juice; on the other ships, no lemon juice. The result? On the lemon juice ship, no one suffered from scurvy; on the other ships, a 50 percent death rate. Conclusion? Lemons prevent scurvy. With respect to scurvy … lemons are much BETTER! Lemons save countless lives. 

The British Admiralty did not mandate the use of lemons on naval ships until 1795 – almost 200 years later. Better, even incredibly Better, is not sufficient to drive change. Are our projects “better” than lemons? If not – why do we expect others to embrace them?

Over the last three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to ask a single question of about 1,000 audiences. “Thinking back to your last major change, what was the primary reason it failed or succeeded?”

The answers to that question suggest an answer to Tarde’s question. In order of increasing frequency, here are the top three responses formatted as “Successful/Failure.”

Good Planning/Poor Planning – This makes sense, and offers no surprises. If we’re attempting to build a new hospital, change a process, or even learn a new language – then it makes sense to approach the change with some sort of plan. Randomly attempting to move forward is doomed to failure.

Good Communication/Poor Communication – Once again, this is not very surprising. Ask anyone what we can do to increase the likelihood of succeeding with a change initiative and the response is, “Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!” This advice is perfectly aligned with the notion that “Better Drives Change,” since it’s obvious that we must at least attempt to communicate why we think it’s “better.”

The language used in the above responses is consistently “good X” versus “bad X” – indicating a consensus of thought. Planning and communication are important concepts, and good or bad change hinge on these activities.

But, the most frequent response to the question posed, is slightly different; the language used isn’t a “good” versus “bad” phrasing. It’s more personal …

Involvement/Top-down Dictated – There is consistent, strong, emphatic consensus that we are far more likely to embrace a change when we’re involved in creating it. On the flip side is an equally strong agreement that we reject change that is forced upon us.

This is perhaps the answer to Tarde’s question and to the conundrum surrounding “Better Drives Change.” Not only must a change be for the better, but we must be involved in creating that change – it can’t be forced upon us, regardless of how good it is.

Consider the child who decides on their own (100 percent involvement in the change decision-making process) they wish to ride a bike versus the one who has no interest (zero percent involvement). In the case of the former, we can’t stop them from learning to ride, not even broken bones will hold them back. In the case of the latter, nothing – no amount of force, or cajoling – will succeed in getting them to wheeeee on wheels down the street.  MW

PETER DE JAGER breathes change management. If you’d like to have an informal conversation with him regarding your change management issues, contact him at .

as published in Municipal World, June 2015





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