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Dan Heath: Find the 'Bright Spots' to Generate Change

Dan Heath
Change is hard. People resist it. But for a flexible workplace culture to take root, organizational change is going to have to occur. And it doesn’t have to be dreaded, said change expert Dan Heath during his Nov. 9, 2011, keynote address at the Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond conference held in Washington, D.C.

The conference, sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute, served as a forum to support HR professionals’ efforts to learn strategies and gain insights into building more-effective and more-flexible workplaces.

Heath, co-author of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Crown Business, 2010), made a compelling case for effecting change successfully. He observed that companies tend to go about implementing change the wrong way. “Instead of emphasizing ‘What isn’t working and needs to be fixed?’ ask ‘What is working, and how can we clone it?’ ” he said.

Heath went on to say that human beings are hardwired to analyze problems, but not success. However, analyzing success is the only sure way to create more of it, he pointed out. He called this philosophy “finding the bright spots.”

Bright spots are not best practices, Heath explained, noting, “The question is not 'How can my organization be like my best peer?' The question is 'How can my organization be like itself at its best moments?' ”

'How can my organization be like itself
at its best moments?'

—Dan Heath

The old way of implementing change within an organization is to plan, then execute. “When we want our employees to move in a new direction, we try to educate them. We call them together and project a 72-slide PowerPoint—which is a flawed approach,” he said.

“The optimal way to effect change is to get people to see, feel and then change. Employees need to see that something can be done differently, feel what that would mean for them, and then make the change,” he said.

Moving the Elephant

Heath used the rider and elephant scenario as an analogy for organizational change. The rider, representing what he called the “rational conscious deliberative,” may want to get moving. But if the elephant, representing “emotional unconscious autopilot,” doesn’t want to, there will be no momentum.

So what should HR do to move that elephant?

Building on research in psychology, Heath revealed a simple three-part framework “that will help you change things in tough times, whether the change you seek is at work, at home or in society.”

Direct the rider. The rider, perched atop the elephant, is our rational side, the aspect that attempts to control the change process. The rider’s control is precarious, because he is tiny compared with the elephant. This leads to resistance. “But often what looks like elephant resistance or rider weakness is really just lack of clarity. You must give the rider clear direction with which it can steer the elephant,” Heath said.

Directing the rider could include techniques such as shrinking the change. “When change is too big, people get spooked,” Heath noted. But successful change begun on a small scale often snowballs, he said. As an example, he cited George Mason University's summer rollout of a work-flex option on a small scale before including more and more employees.

Motivate the elephant. The elephant is our emotional, instinctive side, which will take any quick payoff over a long-term reward. The elephant is usually the first cause of any failure to change, because the change we want usually involves short-term sacrifice in pursuit of long-term benefit, Heath said.

As an example of motivating the elephant, he told the story of an employee who recognized that the company he worked for could save $1 billion over 10 years by centralizing purchasing. The employee shared the information with colleagues, but nothing changed. Finally, he decided to appeal to their emotions. With the help of an intern, he collected work gloves from each of the company’s factories, noting how much each glove cost. He and the intern then took each of the 424 different kinds of work gloves they had acquired and unceremoniously dumped them in a conference room. Colleagues were invited to come and see, and each of them walked away with the same question: “We really buy this many pairs of gloves?”

Soon afterward, purchasing became centralized. “Change comes from people analyzing and then thinking, but really the process is to see, feel and then change,” Heath said.

Shape the path. The final piece to getting the rider and elephant moving is to change the path, Heath said. The path is the culture or the environment, and it can offer resistance. The solution: Make the desired behavior contagious.

“We do things and act in certain ways because we see other people acting in those ways. This is why culture is such a powerful force inside organizations,” he said. The behavior must be visible to achieve far-reaching results.

For example, in qualifying what counts as excellent performance from workers, whether they're working inside the office or telecommuting, “the business will learn so much about what makes its fundamental operations tick that it will reap incredible unintended consequences,” Heath said.

This HR-driven initiative will become core to the business, he added.

“If you want change, failure is part of the deal,” Heath emphasized. Don’t quit directing the rider, motivating the elephant or shaping the path if it doesn’t work the first time, he added. Parents don’t watch their toddler fall while trying to stand and say, “Well, I guess he’s not cut out for walking,” he noted.

To accomplish anything great requires struggle, Heath concluded, but if you’re willing to endure that and adapt, great change is possible—and HR can and should be the change drivers.

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.

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