Change that endures



Project management and change management are inseparable. But frequently, insufficient attention is given to the process of managing the change and the individuals affected by the change, beyond the initial stages of the project.

The paper provides the conceptual foundation for a guided design session that will develop a model for conducting change campaigns that deliver sustainable results. Drawing on recent discoveries in neuroscience, as well as the extensive body of influence and change management literature, the session will challenge conventional thinking on how change should be managed if it is to deliver sustainable results.

During the session, participants will use a case study to briefly identify the primary organisational and mental barriers to change, consider why change campaigns often fail to deliver long term results, and then collaboratively develop a new approach for sustainable change campaigns at an individual as well as an organisational level.


Change is an inevitable part of life, leadership and project management; in fact, most projects are created for the specific purpose of introducing some form of change into an organisation. Consequently, the two disciplines are inseparably linked, and the ultimate success of projects is often determined by the effectiveness of the change management process. Many projects ultimately fail because of poor change management—while the projects may have a sound business case and deliver to the triple constraint, they fail to change the behaviours and mindsets of the users, and consequently fail to deliver real benefit to the organisation.

One question that has challenged leaders and philosophers across the ages is how to get people to change—and how to make that change stick. Each unsuccessful project has multiple causes, but common to most would be one of two factors:

  1. The project manager forgot or ignored the impact of change and the importance of managing that change. This includes situations in which the responsibility for managing change was “outsourced” to a third party, such as an organisational change agent, possibly as a separate (albeit related) project, rather than being treated as an intrinsic part of the existing project
  2. The project and/or change manager used a traditional “carrot and stick” approach to managing change. As this paper will outline, lasting change requires a significant reorientation in how change is positioned in the minds of the change audience as well as the change leaders.

Both approaches carry a significant risk. Getting people to engage in the change is fundamental to success. As social observer and trainer Dale Carnegie (1936, p.18) once stated: “There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything…. And that is by making the other person want to do it.”

It is equally important to introduce change in a way that the results can deliver sustainable results. This paper explores some of the crucial barriers to change, briefly examines the actual change process, and draws on the growing discoveries in the field of neuroscience to suggest an approach that is designed to build lasting change through the development of Influence Equity™. The paper provides the conceptual underpinnings for a guided design session that examines a specific case study, identifies and evaluates alternate change and influence strategies, and develops a “change campaign” to deliver the required outcomes.

Barriers to Change

The Italian political observer Nicolo Machiavelli warned in 1515 that implementing change is a challenging endeavour:

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. (Machiavelli, 1515/2004, chap. 6)

Introducing change is seldom simple, and the more significant the change required, the more challenging the process will be. Attempts to bring about change need to overcome various barriers, ranging from institutional and organisational factors, culture, human nature, and the way in which the change is introduced. But far the most significant barrier is the process of change as it affects the human brain.

Barriers Caused by Institutional and Organisational Factors

Organisational Culture, Structure, and Politics

Culture (“the way things work around here”) and structure shape the ethos of an organisation; some will be more flexible and adaptable to change, while more structured and politically active organisations would create significant resistance to any type of change.

Continual Restructuring

The frequency and scale of change being imposed on modern workers also presents barriers: constant change has dulled the senses and led to a somewhat cynical view of the value and durability of change. It is widely expected that when new executives come on board they will make sweeping changes in an attempt to justify their appointment. Many of these changes are dictated without further thought to their consequence, or their value to the organisation.

Anecdotal evidence given to the author suggests that many organisations restructure themselves in some way every 12–18 months. Employees, jaded by constant and seemingly random change, often adopt an attitude of waiting out the tenure of the new executives before resorting to life “as it once was.” A shrug, a sighed “Whatever…,” and they continue doing what they have always done. Or they might pretend to go along with the change at a surface level, but without any commitment to making the change permanent.

Unclear Purpose and Sponsorship

Change for the sake of change is often counter-productive. The absence of real drivers for change, or incentives for the organisation to pursue such change, can inhibit progress.

It is essential to have clearly defined benefits resulting from the change being proposed, and executives need to support the initiative in word and deed. This means understanding the true problem that the change seeks to address, and selling the solution to the people. And of course, the appropriate level of executive sponsorship is equally critical in driving the change initiative.

Resistance to change could be related to a misunderstanding of the change and its implications, or because users don't believe the rationale given for the change. Top-down initiatives that don't consult and engage in open communication run a major risk that the initiative will not be adopted and owned by the people affected; in these cases the approach, rather than the change itself, creates the barrier.

Inconsistent Communication

There is frequently a gap between directives and actions (what people say, and what people do). This inconsistency is a very common problem in many organisations, and often appears in the reward structure, both direct and indirect. A change initiative to develop a paperless work environment is more likely to fail if it requires masses of status reports to be printed in accordance with official corporate policy. Yet such inconsistencies happen with alarming regularity.

Other Factors

The above are by no means the only institutional factors. Other possible factors include the scarcity or availability of resources, and a range of historical factors, particularly a history of failures in previous change initiatives.

Barriers Inherent in Human Nature

Another set of barriers originates in the how humans deal with change. Research by Rock (2006) suggested that 20–30% of population accept and thrive on change, while another 20–30% are inherently opposed to any change and cannot see past their own losses. Around 50–70% are sceptical of change: while they may see the logic, they can't translate it into personal benefit and are unsure of the implications for their own future.

Speed at Which People Pass Through Various Stages of Change

Since Kübler-Ross's groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying (1969), change experts have developed numerous models of the change process (see, for example, Davis & Dean, 2000; and Bridges, 2003). One feature the various models have in common is that change consists of various stages, through which all people must pass, but they do so at varying speeds, and from different starting points, depending on the type of change, their perception of the value and magnitude of the change and its impact, their past experiences, and characteristics related to their personality types, behavioural patterns, and levels of tolerance for ambiguity, and even their position in the organisational hierarchy (these dimensions of change are explored more fully in Oschadleus, 2007b and Oschadleus, 2007d).

In any change scenario it is quite probable to find that some people are still in the denial phase, while others have already proceeded through to acceptance. There is no such thing as an “average” employee where change is concerned; consequently, any change campaign that does not take individual drivers and motivators into account is more likely to encounter major obstacles.

Failing to Understand the Losses Involved

Another common barrier is the lack of understanding and appreciation at senior levels of the whole change process and the losses involved. Some losses are tangible—jobs, time, expertise related to the old way of doing things, and so on. But other losses are intangible, and affect the attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and expectations that make up an individual's worldview. “These inner elements of ‘the way things are’ are what make us feel at home in our world. When they disappear, we've lost something very important, although to someone else it may seem as though nothing has changed” (Bridges, 2003, p. 25). Failing to recognise and acknowledge these losses destroys the morale and trust of the people affected by the change.

The Way the Brain Functions

All the above are barriers to change. But in recent years neuroscientists have become increasingly aware of the functions within the brain that inhibit our ability to change. The way in which humans assimilate data and learn from it have profound implications for how sustainable change should be introduced.

Research into the functioning of the brain (see, for example, Taylor, 2004; Schwartz & Begley, 2002; and Rock, 2006) refers to the mental schemas or maps that are developed and refined over time, and against which all information is processed.

At the risk of over-simplifying an immensely complex process, this aspect of the brain could be likened to a computer's random access memory (RAM) and hard drive. The prefrontal cortex (RAM) is the fast, agile working memory, which supports and promotes higher intellectual functioning and is capable of holding multiple threads of thought. It consumes a considerable amount of energy, and overburdening it leads to fatigue and anger. Consequently, the brain tries to move repetitive processes to the equivalent of a computer's hard disk, in this case the basal ganglia, which requires no conscious thought and thus far less energy; this region controls automated, routine activities.

As the brain recognises patterns in the millions of signals it receives every second, it creates memory maps of groups of related inputs. These become literal hardwired neural paths through which signals flow. The more frequently a group of signals is used, or the more intense the experience when a particular neural pathway is activated, the stronger the path and the more likely it is that future signals will follow the same path, in much the same way as water follows a specific path through the mountains.

These maps are stored in the basal ganglia, and responses to certain stimuli become instinctive and habitual—people act on autopilot. The more ingrained a thought process, belief, value or attitude is in the subconscious mind, the more complex the web of interrelated beliefs, thoughts and values that underpin it; and consequently, the more difficult it will be to alter that belief. This is a common theme in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) techniques and much of the modern “influence literature” (see Oschadleus, 2007b).

The process is made even more difficult because of an inbuilt error-detection system within the brain's orbital cortex above the eyeballs—any changes in the environment generate strong signals that alert us to unusual activity by activating the fight or flight responses rooted in the limbic system (including the amygdala), which is the emotional centre of the brain. This region controls our fear circuitry, and pushes us towards emotional, impulsive behaviour. Even attempting to alter a routine behaviour sends out messages in the brain that something is not right and needs to be fixed. These messages are designed to distract our attention and override rational thought, enabling the brain to activate reflexive self-preservation tactics.

Trying to change the neural paths and override the brain's warning signals requires considerable effort. The equivalent image would be trying to hack a path through a dense jungle, when a well-worn pathway already exists. In many change situations the effort of making the change requires too much energy to warrant the potential benefit, and the change is not sustained. However, it is essential to invest the effort, since working memory is shared between the prefrontal cortex and limbic system: arousing the emotions leads to a corresponding decrease in logical thought and vice versa.

Principles of Sustainable Change

Hierarchies of Change

As alluded to earlier, change can be implemented using a wide variety of techniques. Mortensen (2004) identified a five-level hierarchy of persuasion categories that have varying degrees of effectiveness over time (see Exhibit 1). Approaches that seek to control people (such as with force, fear, or threats) or to coerce them (through pressure, manipulation, or intimidation) deliver short-term results. Because the change drivers are externally enforced, such initiatives usually build up resentment and opposition, leading to rejection of the change, either immediately or over a period of time. Attempts to promote compliance (through providing incentives and offering rewards or benefits) are more effective, but as with the previous categories, they rely on external controls. Once that control is removed, people are likely to revert to earlier behaviours.

Levels of Influence

Exhibit 1: Levels of Influence

At the other end of the scale, change initiatives that focus on building cooperation (through convincing, encouraging, and coaxing) and commitment (rooted in respect, honour, and trust) have a far greater likelihood of introducing sustainable and lasting change because they seek to engage the people being impacted by it. The reason these changes are more effective is that they affect not only behaviour, but win over the “hearts and minds” of the people being influenced.

All the methods have useful applications in the right circumstances. The question for the change agent is to assess which will deliver the sort of results required for the change being undertaken. The short-term changes simply require someone with appropriate authority or the right set of environmental factors to generate the change. However, the longer-term changes require considerably more effort in planning and implementing the necessary change. Unfortunately, many change initiatives are still rooted in the “carrot and stick” approaches of the behaviourist school of thought.

Behaviourists, led by luminaries like Skinner and Watson in the 1930s, believe that change can be driven by rewarding positive behaviours and punishing wrong behaviours. Drawing on Pavlov's behavioural training experiments, this approach—sometimes referred to as “laying out the M&Ms”—suggests that if we lay out the candy and select the right combination of motivators (incentives and threats) we will obtain the desired results.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Humanist School, led by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, pointed to the need for building trust and rapport in order to identify people's emotional needs and values, and use these to build self-esteem as a lever to convincing changing behaviour. The use of empathy, they believed, enables us to identify people's hidden capacities and inspirations that enable people to reach their potential through self-actualisation. However, this is a very time-consuming process with no guarantee of delivering the desired results. And as Rock and Schwartz (2006) pointed out, it as often as mechanistic as the behaviourist approach, since it assumes that if people receive correct feedback about what they are doing wrong, and the right incentives are in place, they will automatically change.

The Power of Environment

Attempting to change people's beliefs is consequently very difficult. It is also difficult to change people's perceptions and the filters through which they gather and process information. But, suggested Mackay (1994, p. 224): “If we want people to behave differently, we must create the conditions under which it will be both easy and attractive for them to do so.”

This thought is echoed in numerous studies cited by Gladwell (2001). For instance, Princeton Theological Seminar conducted an experiment imitating the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan to test the responsiveness of seminarians to people in physical need. To their surprise the researchers found participant's espoused values and beliefs were less significant in predicting who would stop to help, than their concept of how much time they had to get to the other building (see pp. 163–165). The issue of time is extremely significant, and we will come back to it shortly.

Gladwell (2001, pp. 152–155) also cited the frightening experiment conducted at Stanford in the 1970s in which 21 student volunteers where split into two groups, one of uniformed guards and the other prisoners confined to solitary confinement cells. The two-week experiment had to be cancelled after only six days because of the extreme behavioural changes that the environment had brought on in both groups of psychologically “normal” students. On a more positive note, Gladwell showed how the concept can be used positively, in what he calls the “Broken Window” principle. Using examples such as the crime wave in New York in the 1990s and problems on the city's rail network, he demonstrates how small changes in the environment had major impacts on restoring law and order in the city. In essence, when people see certain behaviours accepted within their society, they are more likely to behave in similar fashion.

Cialdini (1994, 2001), a noted author on principles of influence, offers a similar concept as one of his six universal principles of influence, namely the principle of social proof: people want to behave in keeping with those whom they respect. Consequently, it seems change leaders should ensure that the environment is redesigned in keeping with the change that people are expected to make. And, of course, change leaders should set the example by modelling the new behaviours they seek.

People Must Change Twice

De Brabandere (2005) suggested that changing the environment is only half the job. For real change to occur, people must also change their perception of reality. In effect, people have to change twice.

The first change (Type I) has to do with reality. It is the change that occurs within a system that remains largely unchanged because it is regulated by itself. This change is continuous, and may not be consciously noticed; for example, a relationship may deteriorate imperceptibly over a period of time, until suddenly, one day the parties involved recognise that something is different. This sudden, often unexpected, flash of insight produces a change in perception, and breaks at least one of the rules of the system (a hypothesis, belief, or judgment), bringing with it a new representation of reality. Known as Type II change, this is the change that is fundamental to delivering lasting change.

Changing Twice

Exhibit 2: Changing Twice

Insight is the central driver allowing change and learning to take place. What this means is that we have to work to change the physical reality of change, thereby enabling people to gain that flash of insight through which they are able to generate their own change, own it, and therefore sustain it.

Conditions that Foster Insight

The question for change leaders then, is how does one create the conditions under which individuals can achieve insight. Rock and Schwartz (2006) suggested that there are four stages in the process of gaining insight:

  • Develop an awareness of the dilemma: From a neuroscience perspective, a dilemma means having conflicting mental maps that have to be resolved by creating a new metamap, or by reconfiguring existing maps.
  • Reflection: Allow them to think of solutions. Rock and Schwartz cited an increasing body of literature that illustrates the power of positive, solution-based stretch-thinking, which allows the brain to create new synaptic connections, and consequently new neural pathways. The focus here is not on deductive reasoning or logical analysis of data with our working memory (the prefrontal cortex), but in making links across the whole brain. The “Eureka” moment will often occur when the brain is not consciously attempting to solve the puzzle or make the connection.
  • Insight: When the insight occurs—that is, when the brain makes a new connection—it produces a rush of energy, a buzz of gamma-band brain waves. This only happens when people make the connections themselves; it cannot be passed on by others.
  • Action: The energy produced by new insight dissipates quickly, and the idea can easily be subsumed under the weight of all the other thoughts that occur each day. Consequently, it is important to get people to take tangible action as quickly after gaining insight as possible, even if the action is simply to commit to doing something later.

Rock (2007) also highlighted four primary threats to the optimal functioning of the prefrontal cortex, and which transfer the brain's attention to the emotional centres, namely:

  • Uncertainty - The brain requires a certain degree of certainty in order to perform effectively. This correlates with the 1908 Yerkes-Dobson Law, which states that performance improves as stress levels increase, up to an optimal point, after which performance decreases.
  • Perceived lack of autonomy – When people believe they have no choices, they perform less effectively than when they perceive that they have the freedom of choice. The concept of freedom in the workplace is explored in considerable detail in Lebow and Spitzer (2002) and Ayers (2006), and is seen as one of the key differentiators in “The Toyota Way” (May, 2007).
  • Perceived lack of fairness – To the brain, the perception of fairness is a primary reward, equivalent to food, pleasant touch or memory, money, and the sight of loved ones. Of course, fairness is a relative concept, and is based on people's experience, expectation, and so forth.
  • Perceived loss of status – To the brain, status is equivalent to survival, and the things that make people feel important are extremely important drivers. At a neurological level, telling someone the answer to a problem enhances the perceived status of the person responding and decreases the perceived status of the person being told. Consequently, directive management can be perceived as a threat to the status (and survival) of employees.

The key factor to help people get these moments of insight is to not do the thinking for people, and not trying to solve the problem for them. Rather, it is to help them reflect more deeply and then support them in their ability to create new connections by keeping their attention focussed on the solution. It sounds—and is—simple in principle, but has profound consequences for how we manage people and how we manage change.

At the heart of this approach is to relinquish control, to step back, and to give employees greater time and freedom to make their own mental connections and choices. And the key tool is communication—clear, concise, succinct, and generous communication, which questions, plants seeds, and directs focus.

The Principle of Influence Equity™

It is appropriate at this point to refer to the principle of Influence Equity™, the ability we have to influence others over time (see Oschadleus, 2004, 2007a, 2007b). How we communicate change is an essential component in how successful we will be. Aristotle (350 B.C./1984) identified a combination of three elements necessary to make a speech persuasive, namely:

  • Ethos – the moral character and credibility of the speaker
  • Pathos – the ability to invoke in others a passionate desire, or to place people in the required “frame of mind”
  • Logos – the logic or proof of the argument

The more closely aligned these three elements are, the higher the trust a speaker evokes in the audience, and the greater the ability the speaker has to persuade and influence them. This is true not only of orations, but also of a change management program; a “change campaign” that demonstrates character and credibility (through concern for the individuals affected by it) is able to inspire and enthuse its intended audience, and if it develops a clear, logical reason (in the eyes of the recipients) for the change, along with its associated benefits, it is far more likely to achieve its objectives.

Guided Design Session Objective: Developing Sustainable Change Campaigns

Change is an inevitable part of projects, as it is of life in the 21st century knowledge economy. The challenge that project and organisational leaders face is how to overcome the barriers of constant change, and how to ensure that the changes people undergo are not dependant on the external controls of the relatively stable 20th century economy, but are sustainable and appropriate to the dynamic nature of the modern world.

This paper has outlined recent developments in the field of neuroscience that challenge the traditional concept of systematic, process-oriented change management plans. This will form the starting point for the guided design session, in which participants will consider the implications for change management, and will generate new insights into how sustainable change occurs. These insights will form the basis for new initiatives in managing change at an individual, team, and organisational level.


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© 2008, Jürgen Oschadleus
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Global Congress proceedings – Sydney, Australia



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