What’s So Hard About Change?

Change is hard.

Conventional wisdom has it that eighty percent of major change initiatives fail.  Most business leaders assume that performance might be true for the other guys, but their change is different, their change is obviously necessary, and their change, therefore, will be flawlessly implemented.  At the conceptual stage, where the proposed change is something that will happen sometime in the future, it is generally not hard to reach agreement that this change will be for the better. Once it comes time to actually do things differently, it often becomes another story. While it is easy to support changes that others need to make, once an individual sees that he/she is expected to also alter his/her comfortable routine, the proposed change begins to seem not so necessary after all. What gives?

No Quick Fixes

One adage in change management is that people will change, but they don’t like being changed. This is true, but even in situations where we have complete control over a change, we often don’t like it. For example, I recently undertook a DIY project involving replacement of the drain pipe for a bathroom sink. The process of getting there is another story, but suffice to say the drain pipe was successfully replaced (Yay!), but the layout of the under sink cabinet was altered. Where we had had a wastebasket on the left and a storage basket on the right, those positions had to be reversed due to the altered location of the plumbing.

One does not give much thought to the process of throwing a tissue into the wastebasket. It’s an easy task done by habit, no thinking required. Ah, but now when I open the left cabinet door to toss the tissue, I find the storage basket. There’s no explanation required… I’m immediately reminded the wastebasket is now on the right, and I know why, and I know that that is how it must be. It’s a simple fix to close the left-hand door, open the right-hand door, and toss the tissue. But I’m irritated. I’m annoyed. Something I have long done successfully without thinking about it is now a fail – my fail. And the next time I fail again. And again. It’s not just learning to open the door on the right; it’s unlearning to open the door on the left.

Getting Over the Hump

We all deal with those minor changes in our household routines from time to time. We admonish ourselves to remember the changed circumstance the next time, and we all return to our old habitual routine repeatedly until we can finally establish a new habit that accommodates the change. Most of our tasks at work are more complex than tossing out a tissue, but we still learn to do a number of them without having to think much about it. When our work routine is changed, it feels very disruptive. Whatever unlearning of old tasks must be accomplished, it takes time. Whenever we are reminded “Not that way. Now we do it this way”, we get irritated and annoyed. We’re less efficient. Something we used to do correctly without thinking we are now doing wrong. It is hard to feel the love for this change.

The first step to successfully managing change is recognizing it is never a matter of simply flipping a switch. If we go back to the wastebasket example, we may find some additional clues for managing change. After all, we are managing this one ourselves. The reason the change is being made should be clear ( OK, I get it – I understand that the arrangement of the pipes is different and this is the only way those two baskets will fit). There must be some tolerance for the process of unlearning the old and learning the new; it will be less efficient for a while. People will have a gut-level negative reaction to having to stop and think about something they previously accomplished on auto pilot. There will be a strong temptation to revert to the old way of doing things because this new way is obviously not as good. There must be a common understanding that the change will happen; it is not optional. This ties back to the business case for making the change. The wastebasket no longer fits on the left side of the cabinet. We cannot go back. Therefore we must unlearn/learn and get over the performance hump!



Jon Tveten
We engage client organizations to clarify focus and create alignment, in the process helping them build high-performance cultures that deliver results for employees, customers, and investors. We bring an organizational model and methodology and help our clients discover the expertise, knowledge, and solutions that their people can deliver.
Jon Tveten


Business results from an organizational systems approach. Find your focus, and tune your organization to deliver results.
Bureaucratic drag: bloat/friction/insularity/disempowermt/risk aversion/inertia/politickng @profhamel @MicheleZanini https://t.co/oWXHjUjz08 - 2 years ago
Jon Tveten

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