Change management

show, don't tell


David Maxfield


The most difficult change challenges are those that involve humans (i.e., most of the change challenges we care about). How do you get a senior leader to invest her time and energy in your project? How do you get a resource manager to assign the right people to your team? Or, how do you get your team members to get their work done on time, on budget, and on spec?

Most of the time, most of us fail at driving change. A few fun facts: nine out of ten projects miss their timelines, budgets, or specs (The Standish Group, 1995); 75% of venture-backed firms fail (Gage, 2012); two years after coronary bypass surgery to save their lives, 90% of patients are back to their old behaviors (Deutschman, 2005); and a personal favorite—two out of three people can't even get themselves to floss (McCaul, 1997)!

Our team at VitalSmarts has been studying personal change since our graduate school days at Stanford back in the 1970s. Here, I'll summarize the three most important pitfalls and success factors we've discovered. Our research shows that these three elements can make you and your loved ones ten times more likely to succeed.

Verbal persuasion—lectures, sermons, data dumps, and rants—are the least effective way to change hearts and minds. We use verbal persuasion because it's convenient, not because it works. The reason verbal persuasion is so unpersuasive is because it relies on the credibility of the persuader.

All it takes to undermine verbal persuasion is to question the persuader's motives or abilities. If you think their interests might not be aligned with yours, you devalue their opinion. If you think they might not know their stuff, you devalue their opinion. We all see how these phenomena play out on network news shows. People listen for the facts they want to hear, and devalue the rest.

Solution #1: Show, Don't Tell

Personal experience is the gold standard for changing hearts and minds. People who have lived through an experience don't question whether it might happen or how bad it might be. For example, we set up a patient-care simulation where nurses thought a physician had not washed her hands. We were interested in whether the nurses would speak up and remind the physician. Only about 12% spoke up, but there was a subgroup of nurses that were four times more likely to speak up. Here is what set them apart: Either they, a family member, or a close friend had actually suffered a hospital-acquired infection. Their personal experience had transformed hand washing into a moral imperative, so they spoke up.

But notice that these nurses didn't have to have suffered an infection themselves. It was good enough if a family member or close friend had. This is the power of vicarious experience. Seeing or hearing about someone else's experience can be nearly as powerful as experiencing it yourself. When we describe a film or a novel as “moving” or as “transporting us,” we mean that it caused us to enter into it as if the experience were our own. A well-told story is a powerful tool for changing hearts and minds.

Mistake #2: We Fail to See Why We're Stuck

Getting someone to make a commitment to change—even a sincere and heartfelt commitment—is not the same as getting them to actually change. The problem is that people are hopelessly optimistic because they fail to see or anticipate the influences and obstacles that will make change difficult.

In our book, Influencer, we suggest that, “your world is perfectly organized to create the results you are currently experiencing.” The problem is that we're like the fish that discover water last. We are swimming in a sea of influences, and we don't even know it.

Solution #2: Educate Our Eyes

We need to recognize the hidden influences around us, the influences that are keeping us stuck. Once we see them, we can deal with them. We group influences into six sources: three that motivate and three that enable.

Example: Suppose your project sponsor is giving you verbal support, but isn't doing the hard work required for her sponsorship to succeed. What are the influences that might be working against her, making it difficult or demotivating for her? If you can't anticipate the obstacles she faces, you won't be able to create a solution that overcomes them.

  • Personal Motivation: While her motivation to support your project is sincere, it's too vague and distant to affect her behavior. Her short-term motivation is directed by her boss's priorities, responding to customer problems, and other more immediate motivators.
  • Social Motivation: Your sponsor doesn't see or interact with your team on a daily basis, so she doesn't see the impact that her poor sponsorship is having. Your success requires her to sell the project to division managers across the globe, and she doesn't want to draw down on her relationships with these powerful people.
  • Structural Motivation: There are serious pay bumps and career opportunities tied to her relationships with division managers, but the success or failure of your project won't affect her career. So, your project becomes a lower priority.
  • Personal Ability: Your sponsor understands the technical aspects of your project, but doesn't grasp the political and policy elements. Your project's success requires her to get the divisions on board, and she's not very skilled at this process.
  • Social Ability: Your sponsor needs to convince the divisions of the financial benefits of your project. However, she's the wrong messenger to convince them. She needs to involve someone from the finance team—someone who can answer the tough questions the division managers will have.
  • Structural Ability: Your current project-management system focuses on steps in the execution process, but doesn't track consensus forming, coalition building, and the other more political/social aspects of your project. As a result, your sponsor doesn't attend to these critical aspects—but still expects your project to move forward.

Most stubborn problems persist because of unseen or overlooked influences that are keeping us stuck. Once we see them, we can change them. However, if we don't change them, we'll remain stuck.

Mistake #3: We Rely on Quick Fixes

We often pick the most obvious obstacle to success, and direct all of our efforts toward overcoming it. It feels intuitive, like a quick fix. We make some progress, at least at first, but this early promise fails as unseen and unaddressed obstacles take their toll. Remember, most stubborn problems have multiple root causes, not just one or two.

Another mistake is to have favorite solutions, and to use them in isolation. For example, we assume carrots and sticks will solve every problem, or that training or technology will. As a result, we create one-sided solutions that address only a few of the obstacles that are keeping us stuck.

Solution #3: Overwhelm the Problem With All Six Sources of Influence

It takes solutions in all six sources to change a status quo that is held in place by all six sources. We ask people to develop at least one robust influence strategy in each of the Six Sources of Influence.

Example: Let's return to our inadequate sponsor. We identified obstacles in each of the Six Sources of Influence. Now the challenge is to develop solutions in all six sources.

  • Personal Motivation: Get her some direct experience, such as face-to-face meetings with the people who will benefit from your project's success. Give her a way to experience the problems that your project will overcome.
  • Social Motivation: Work with opinion leaders who are already a part of her trust network. Have them make their support more visible. Find supportive division managers and ask them to help to persuade their peers.
  • Structural Motivation: Document the financial benefits your project will create for the organization. Show how her sponsorship will achieve these benefits.
  • Personal Ability: Collect feedback from other stakeholders, especially from the reluctant division managers. Brief your sponsor on the political and policy elements involved in your project. Be prepared to suggest actions she can take to support the project.
  • Social Ability: Set up strategy sessions that include managers who are more experienced at the political and policy dimensions of the project. Have them help to craft the implementation plan.
  • Structural Ability: Schedule regular meetings with agendas that focus on the political and policy elements, not just the technical aspects of your project.

Notice that none of these solutions are, by themselves, especially novel or powerful. The power comes from combining the multiple Sources of Influence together—all at the same time. If this sounds a lot like common sense, then remember that common sense is often quite uncommon. Our research shows that fewer than 5% of project managers combine four or more of these Sources of Influence, but that, when they do, their chances of success improve by tenfold (Grenny, Maxfield, & Shimberg, 2008).

Deutschman, A. (2005, May). Change or die. Fast Company.

Gage, D. (2012, September 20). The venture capital secret: 3 out of 4 start-ups fail. The Wall Street Journal.

Grenny, J., Maxfield, D., & Shimberg, A. (2008). How to have influence. MIT Sloan Management Review, 50(1), 47–53.

McCaul, K. D. (1997). Adherence to dental regimens. In D. S. Gochman (Ed.). Handbook of health behavior research II: Provider determinants. (pp. 303–319). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

The Standish Group International. (1995). The CHAOS report.

© 2015, David Maxfield
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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