But we’ll need to do something different from what we’re currently doing.
THE SYSTEMS ASPECT OF CHANGE
Let’s begin at the beginning with my definitions of change and systems.
CHANGE: Change is a new set of choices within a system that cause the elements of the system to exhibit altered Behaviors while still maintaining homeostasis. No change can occur unless the system reorients (i.e. re-organizes, re-prioritizes etc.) itself in a way that incorporates and maintains its core accepted norms (i.e. homeostasis, Systems Congruence). In other words, all change must include a way for the elements to ultimately buy-in to, and incorporate, new functioning while maintaining the rules and Beliefs of the status quo.SYSTEM: Any connected set of elements that comprise a homeostatic entity, held together by consensual rules and Beliefs that then generate a unique set of Behaviors that exhibit its unique identity. All systems must maintain Systems Congruence or they lose their identity and become something else. Because change represents the disruption of the status quo in unknowable ways, systems defend themselves by resisting when feeling threatened. In order to facilitate congruent change, it’s necessary to get the agreement, and a recognized path forward (There are specific, sequential steps in all change processes.), of all of the bits that will be effected by the final solution to ensure it maintains its core identity, Beliefs, and rules.
As a lifelong student of systems thinking and theorizing (50+ years), I’ve recognized that change is often approached with an eye on altering activity and Behaviors without addressing the vital need for the core system to maintain homeostasis. And when we tie our understanding of the functionality of a system to its Behaviors and attempt to push Behavior change before eliciting core Belief change, we
- overlook the ability to facilitate the system down its own path through to it’s own version of congruent change
- are relegated to managing the fallout when the stable system reaches Cognitive Dissonance and is forced to defend itself.
Herein lie the problem: until or unless the full complement of relevent elements (that not only created the problem but holds it in place daily) agrees to congruently alter, and get buy-in from, the elements that caused the problem and will be effected by any change, it will resist change regardless of the underlying problem that needs fixing. The system is sacrosanct. And it applies whether trying to get a teenager to pick up his socks, a diabetic patient to exercise, a team to work harmoniously, or a person to figure out if/when she needs to buy something. In general, outsiders cannot effect congruent change because they cannot know the core elements that have created and maintain the status quo, nor how to re-orient them congruently around any proposed change. It’s an inside job.
With our focus on changing Behaviors, we’ve overlooked the need for a system to maintain Systems Congruence – the foundational rules, Beliefs, relationships, etc. that define the system. Outside influencers – regardless of their initiatives or rationality or persuasiveness or authority – can never understand a system they’re not a part of. Change must begin by teaching the system how to change itself. I’ve written this article to:
- Explain how current approaches to change management lead to resistance,
- Introduce the elements of change and need for buy-in,
- Introduce a route to change that can achieve goals without resistance while maximizing leadership and creativity through buy-in and congruent change.
In my forthcoming book (tentatively titled Facilitating Change) I’ll explore this topic thoroughly. In this article I’ll introduce the important elements and lay out my thinking. And I look forward to your feedback.
ALL PROBLEMS START WITH SYSTEMS
Most influencing professions (leadership, coaching, consulting, sales etc.) begin with a goal to be met, adopt an outside-in approach that uses influence, advice, ‘rational’ scientific ‘facts’, and various types of manipulation to inspire change – while ignoring the fact that anything new, any push from outside the system, any dissimilar element not already within it, represents disruption and Cognitive Dissonance. We put the cart before the horse, attempting to change Behaviors and elicit buy in before the system is certain it won’t be compromised and knows how to make sure it survives. Until the necessary steps of change are completed and the system knows it will maintain Systems Congruence, the identified problem will continue as is: it’s already built into the system:
- The full complement of elements and that created the problem and represent the status quo must be assembled and recognized [Note: this applies to making an individual decision since each of us is an individual system.];
- Everyone/everything within the system must accept that it’s not possible to fix the problem with known resources;
- All of the elements (people, policies, rules, relationships, etc.) that will be effected by a new solution – i.e. change – must begin by understanding, buying-in to, and accounting for, the ways they’d be changing to ensure the path they design for better funtioning leads them to homeostasis.
Until all that happens the system will resist change (or buying, or learning, or eating healthy or or) regardless of the level of need or the efficacy of the solution. And because of the unconscious, historic elements involved, for congruent change to occur, those inside the system must design their own route to acceptable change. And as outside influencers we actually cause our own resistance by pushing our agendas, when we can actually lead Others through to their own change.
By assuming a Behavior addition/subtraction is ‘rational’ or necessary, without accounting for whatever workaround the system has already adopted and built in to its daily functioning, we end up with far more failure and resistance than we should have given the efficacy of our solutions. Indeed, it’s necessary to elicit buy-in for each element that will be changed: to maintain congruence throughout the change process, systems must
- Maintain Functional Stability. Systems must maintain homeostasis. Their current functioning, even when problematic, has been finely honed over time, waking up every day maintaining the Behaviors, rules, goals, etc. that created the problem to begin with. Change is not so simple as shoving in a new Behavior. Remember: a system doesn’t judge itself as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It just is. And it keeps ticking over the same way day after day.
- Achieve Buy-In. Whether consciously or unconsciously, a system will resist anything from outside that threatens the status quo, regardless of the efficacy of the change. For successful change to occur, the system must recognize exactly what fallout will occur when anything shifts or is added, and how each affected element must modify itself in a way that maintains the integrity of the system (i.e. Systems Congruence). I can’t say this enough: the system is sacrosanct, quite separate from whatever reasons an influencer uses to change it.
- Maintain Underlying Rules and Beliefs. Great data or solutions, important needs or dangerous consequences do not influence the change if they run counter to the system’s homeostatic Beliefs and rules, overt or covert. (It’s why your Uncle Vinny still smokes with lung cancer, and why training doesn’t cause new behaviors.) Note when we attempt change a set of Behaviors without changing the underlying Beliefs that created those Behaviors to begin with, we cause resistance. And here’s a tip: when you start from inside out, from eliciting any change within a system’s Beliefs and rules (i.e. rather than ‘Eat your broccoli,’ start with ‘I’m a Healthy Person.’), new behaviors will automatically accompany them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way ‘round: when we attempt to push a new Behavior into the system – say, asking a heart patient to change her diet or exercise program – before eliciting Belief change from the entire (and largely unconscious) system, we will achieve resistance as it may be seen as a threat. It cannot be otherwise.
The issues are the same regardless of the focus, whether it’s a company resisting reorganization, a patient refusing meds, a user group resisting new software, a buyer who hasn’t figured out when, if, how to buy, or a group not taking direction from company leadership. As outsiders we too often push for our own results and actually cause the resistance that occurs.
It’s possible to use our positions as outside influencers eschew our bias and be real Servant Leaders and teach the system how to traverse each step of its own change.
CASE STUDY: SYSTEMS ALIGNMENT
Here is a case study that exhibits how to enable buy-in and congruent change management by facilitating a potential buyer through her unique systems issues en route to a purchasing decision. Note: All change situations (whether coaching, leadership, software implementations, family problems, healthcare initiatives, etc.) must go through a series of steps to change to achieve buy in. Until now, we’ve left Others to manage the route through to the steps of change on their own as we push, advocate, advise, influence, manipulate for our own agendas and then we blame them when they resist – not to mention potentially not even reach their own internal route to change.
I was with a client in Scotland when he received a call from a long-standing prospect – a Learning and Development manager at a prodigious university with whom he’d been talking for 11 months – to say, “Thanks, but no thanks” for the product purchase. After three product trials that met with acclaim and excitement, an agreed-upon price, and a close relationship developed over the course of a year, what happened? The software was a perfect solution; they were not speaking to any other providers; and price didn’t seem to be a problem.
At my client’s request, I called the L&D manager. Here is the conversation:
SDM: Hi, Linda. Sharon Drew here. Is this a good time to speak? Pete said you’d be waiting for my call around now.
LR: Yes, it’s fine. How can I help? I already told Pete that we wouldn’t be purchasing the software.
SDM: I heard. You must be so sad that you couldn’t purchase it at this time.
LR: I am! I LOVE the technology! It’s PERFECT for us. I’m so disappointed.
SDM: What stopped you from being able to purchase it?
LR: We have this new HR director with whom I share a leadership role. He is so contentious that few people are willing to deal with him. After meeting with him, I get migraines that leave me in bed. I’ve decided to limit my exposure to him, discussing only things that are emergencies. So I’ve put a stop to all communication with him just to keep me sane. He would have been my business partner on this purchase.
SDM: Sounds awful. I hear that because of the extreme personal issues you’ve experience from the relationship, you don’t have a way to get the necessary buy-in from this man to help your employees who might need additional tools to do their jobs better.
LR: Wow. You’re right. That’s exactly what I’ve done. Oh my. I’m going to have to figure that out because I’ve certainly got a responsibility to the employees.
SDM: What would you need to know or believe differently to be willing to work through the personal issues and figure out how to be in some sort of a working relationship with the HR director for those times your employees need new tools?*
LR: Could you send me some of these great questions you’re asking me so I can figure it out, and maybe use them on him?
I sent her a half dozen *Facilitative Questions to both teach her how to design a route to her own sanity and a path to healthy collaborative partnership with the HR Director. Two weeks later, Linda called back to purchase the solution. What happened?
1. While the university had a need for my products solution, the poor relationship between the HR director and the L&D director created hidden, ongoing dysfunction. The information flow problem could not be resolved while the hidden problem remained in place – details not only hidden from the sales person (outsider) but used as a deterrent by Linda (who didn’t know how to resolve the problem other than to walk away because her own internal system had been violated). So yes, there was a need for the solution and indeed a willing partner, but no, there was no systemic buy-in for change.
2. I stayed completely away from attempting to resolve the problem by sharing, gathering, pitching information or my reasons why change (i.e. buying my solution) was necessary. (Not only is information not needed until the system knows what information it needs – if you haven’t figured out what type of car you want to buy there’s no need to hear a pitch about a Lamborghini – but the bias involved in sharing it and gathering it restricts success. There’s plenty of time to offer our solutions when we can pitch it relevantly, according to the way the system is set up to use it.). The only viable route was to help her figure out her own route to a fix.
3. This was not a sales problem (It’s always a ‘systems change’ problem, rarely a ‘coaching’ problem or an ‘implementation’ problem) – the Behaviors/outcomes were merely representing a broken system. I had to facilitate the change by enabling Linda to resolve her own system. This is how current change management models fail: they attempt to rule, govern, constrict, manage, influence, maintain the change, rather than enabling the system to recognize and mitigate its own unique (and largely unconscious) drivers and change itself congruently.
4. There was no way for the system to fix itself as long as the L&D director – merely one piece of the systemic puzzle that created the problem to begin with – didn’t know how to develop additional choices for herself. Her choice to do nothing was an ode to Systems Congruence.
5. In Linda’s unconscious decision to forgo a problem fix to maintain her own personal homeostasis, she unconsciously weighted her personal criteria above her criteria for doing her job. In order to buy the solution, she’d need to find a way to ensure personal Systems Congruence.
Linda was willing to separate her work-related decision from her personal issues and reevaluate her choices once she realized there was a way to maintain her internal homeostasis AND fix the problem.
Rule: Until or unless people grasp how a solution will match their underlying criteria/values, and until there is buy-in from the parts that will be effected from the change, no permanent change will happen regardless of the necessity of the change, the size of the need, the origination of the request, or the efficacy of the solution.
Current change management models assume that a ‘rational’, information/rules-based change request and early client engagement will supplant the system’s need for homeostasis.
Focusing instead on effecting Behavior change as per the route, goal, assumptions, needs of the influencer. Indeed, even when change agents attempt to include clients into the software design or change implementations, their questions and info sharing strategies are largely biased by their personal outcomes and unwittingly overlook the interdependency of core Beliefs, historic roles, unspoken rules and relationships, and unconscious drivers within the user’s unconscious system.
Rule: Whether it’s sales, leadership, healthcare, coaching or change management, until or unless the folks within another’s system are willing to adapt to, and adopt, the requested change using their own rules and Beliefs, they will either take no action or resist to maintain the homeostasis of the system. The system is sacrosanct. And information push, rational argument, leadership directives, or any outside-in model threatens the system.
HOW BELIEFS, BEHAVIORS, AND BUY-IN EFFECT SYSTEMIC CHANGE
Fortunately, it’s possible to highlight each pivotal element of change and get buy-in before attempting a change initiative. It requires an understanding of what, exactly, is a Behavior, and why starting by attempting to change the Behaviors/output of the system can only cause resistance.
Behaviors are merely Beliefs in action – the physical transaction that exemplifies the underlying rules and values of the system. In other words, they’re the means a system uses to operate and perform its purpose – the end point, and certainly an ineffective place to begin change.
Think of it this way. If you want your forward-moving robot to go backwards you might tell it why moving backward is beneficial, order it to move backward, offer scientific proof why moving backward is best, or push it. But until the internal programming is changed from the core, it cannot change regardless of how you position your request or push the robot backwards. Indeed, you might even break the robot in your attempts to get it to behave the way you want it to behave.
Since it’s not possible for an outsider to lead from inside, we must teach the system how to lead itself, much like a GPS system leads a driver to a destination without actually being in the car or noticing the landscape. Like a GPS system, we begin by leading the system through its own idiosyncratic route to design its own change (i.e. like I helped Linda figure out her core issues (i.e. not our products) and how to communicate with the HR director) to ensure Systems Congruence, buy-in and leadership from within. Here are my rules to facilitating congruent change and buy-in:
1. Enter with no bias. Help the system define the elements that created the status quo and must buy in to the change. These include anything – jobs, people, initiatives, relationships, departments – that the new solution will touch. Rule: Entering the decision-navigation portion of the change experience with bias or a personal outcome will impede the process and create resistance. Change agents must listen for systems without a biased ear (see my new book on this topic – What? Did you really say what I think I heard?) and eschew attempting to introduce information until the system is set up to change, knows what it needs to know (usually quite different from what we think it needs) and has achieved buy-in.
2. Help the system recognize all of the parts – the people, rules, relationships, presuppositions, workarounds – that created and maintain the status quo. Rule: Until or unless the system recognizes all of the factors, knows how they have contributed to the problems in the status quo, and ensures that they buy in to the change, it will not be able to give agreement.
3. Help the system figure out how to reorganize around the new change so it will not face disruption and will have all of the pieces in place to accommodate the change. Rule: The change cycle is the time it takes for the system to figure out its own trajectory so there will be minimal disruption during the change process.
BUY-IN: A REAL WORLD EXAMPLE
Joseph, a coaching client of mine, was a CMO in a small company (around 150 employees) had a problem: He wanted to implement a new customer-service initiative but had just joined the company and was fearful of making waves. He initially wanted to design the project, issue edicts, and fire those who didn’t comply with the initiative. After casually speaking with a few people about it, he got huge resistance.
He called me in when he realized he had to choose between enforcing the Behaviors and outcomes he had in mind, or creating the structure and teaching the employees how to become creative leaders who would design their own congruent process. I helped him build a creative structure for congruent change, which meant giving up some of the details of his plan while maintaining the congruence of what the outcome looked like. Joseph put together a list of his baseline criteria and then left open the financials, job descriptions, activities, and other decisions:
1. Maintain the company’s integrity, professionalism, and level of service;
2. Design a mix between technology and human interaction;
3. Provide customers with better access to more data, have ease of use for any information they needed, and meet their needs more proactively;
4. Create award-winning service that would differentiate the company from all competitors and keep customers over time.
He called a meeting with the entire company – even groups that the change process wouldn’t necessarily touch – and told them that he was thinking about expanding the customer service operations. He asked everyone to take a few hours to discuss, think about, and brainstorm what it could look like if they had an unlimited budget (which they didn’t have, but it would eliminate the money piece from their brainstorming), and said he’d meet with them the next week to get their ideas.
He told them that this process was highly important, and he wanted it to be part of people’s daily discussions over the next week. He asked that each group have a spokesperson and historian to keep track of all ideas.
The next week, Joseph met with employees again and asked for their input. He captured the ideas by audio and put them all up on an interactive website for the new ideas and told people to add their thoughts. He then sent them back to consider the ideas offered and generate even more.
At the next meeting, he asked workers to take all of the ideas now floating around and use them to brainstorm what the new initiative would look like, who might do what, what would have to change, and what the change would look like for those involved. He asked them to consider:
1. What jobs would change? What jobs would be added/subtracted – and what would happen with the people whose jobs might be affected?
2. What needed to stay the same internally, no matter what? And how could this be included in the new initiative?
3. What might be the possible fall-out from the staff and from customers?
4. What could get in the way of a successful change initiative?
Eventually, employees got into teams and developed solid implementation plans. Those folks who had to change jobs or had their work significantly restructured in a way that might cause resistance joined a management team or focus group and became part of the solution. And throughout the process, I listened carefully to hear points of discontinuity so we could stop and go through their internal examination of their steps to change.
Did Joseph get everything he wanted? Well, yes and no. The new organization ended up far exceeding anything he had conceived. It had more creativity and leadership. It also cost more than he realized (time and money) to put everything in place. But it elicited buy-in from everyone: there was no resistance because everyone had bought in to the idea and made it their own. And over a short amount of time, the change paid for itself.
This is only one method of facilitating change and avoiding resistance. I’ve developed a Change Facilitation model, used often in sales as Buying Facilitation®, that uses a unique skill set to enable core change. I’ve trained this to Senior Partners at recognized consulting firms, farmers in Iowa, tech people in Hong Kong, coaches in Kansas. It’s a generic model that influencers can use to elicit real change. I’m happy to discuss it with you (Sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com).
Before introducing any change initiative, give up the need to push the change, listen without bias, and enable Others to traverse their route to discovery:
- what elements created and maintain the status quo,
- who needs to be included (often a larger group than anticipated),
- recognize what would get in the way of success and what needs to happen to mitigate that interference,
- figure out how to manage the workarounds in place that attempt to mitigate the problem,
- notice levels of buy-in and help those who resist shift their personal criteria to become part of the group,
- get agreement, steps, criteria, and Behaviors for an intact, non-resistant, functioning system that welcomes the new initiative. Then introduce the change.
Until now, we’ve assumed that resistance is a normal part of the change process. But we’ve effectively been pushing our own biased needs for change into a closed, hidden system. We’ve ignored the rule of systems and forgotten that the change we are suggesting will encounter a status quo that is trying to maintain homeostasis. But as we’ve explored above, it is possible to get buy-in without resistance. We don’t have to throw out the many wonderful change models out there. But we first need to get buy-in, and then the change will be welcomed rather than spurned or sabotaged.
Sharon Drew Morgen is an original thinker, systems theorizer, and developer of a change facilitation model used in sales as Buying Facilitation®. She is an award-winning blogger (www.sharondrewmorgen.com), and the author of 9 books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, and the Amazon bestsellers Dirty Little Secrets
and What? Did you really say what I think I heard? Sharon Drew has trained Buying Facilitation® to coaches, leaders, healthcare providers, in many global corporations such as KPMG, Wachovia, Bose, Kaiser, Morgan Stanley, IBM. She is currently working on a new book tentatively titled: Facilitating Change: the route to congruent decision making, buy-in, and compliance.