Originally appeared January 2009
Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter
Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas
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Are your strategic reviews like New Year’s Resolutions?
Have you noticed how similar strategy reviews are to New Years’ Resolutions?
How many times have you held off-site meetings, documented a shiny new strategy, launched it – and then everyone has carried on doing the same old things?
It frustrates managers, and it frustrates their teams too – in fact when I talk with staffs in all kinds of businesses, I often hear at some point: “We’ve had so many new initiatives launched that run out of steam – this is just another one – nothing will actually change”.
The force field that defeats willpower
Resolutions are up against a powerful force: people are creatures of habit. And because organisations are made up of people, organisations are creatures of habit too.
The force of habit shapes behaviour like a magnetic field organises a pattern of iron filings. If you try to move the filings without realigning the force field, the filings get pulled back automatically.
What determines the shape of the organisational ‘force field’? There are a number of factors which can be uncovered by a systematic diagnosis, but particularly powerful – and often overlooked – are unintended consequences, eg:
- It’s more rewarding to do the old thing. For example: the new strategy might call for an emphasis on an updated service to unfamiliar clients, but people stick to order-taking for old products with clients they know well, get better short term numbers, then get a bigger bonus than someone who tried to do the right thing.
- The change takes more time and effort, but goes unrecognised, so people think “Why bother’? It’s extra work for nothing”. As one manager said to me “Around here, praise is the absence of criticism” – not very motivating.
- The changed behaviour involves risk, and (whatever managers may say) people just don’t believe they can make mistakes without suffering consequences. For example: I’ve come across railway bosses who say they want people to treat safety as the highest priority, then whack them for causing delays – naturally the employees take time-saving short-cuts if they think they can get away with it. Read some transport accident reports – this happens a lot.
Look at the workplace as your people see it
To figure out why resolutions on behalf of employees go awry, and get clues as to what to do about it, put yourself in their shoes, and ask the following questions:
- What really happens to me if I try and put the new action into practice?
- What is the immediate consequence?
- What are the knock-on consequences? For me? For others?
- What’s really in it for me?
- What are the risks? Are they worth the potential benefit?
Then return to your own shoes, and ask:
What do we have to do to ensure that the magnetic field is working FOR us, and there are no unintended consequences constantly pulling people back to the old ways?
Copyright 2008 Andrew Bass. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint as long as you include attribution.