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April 12, 2017

Managing a Culture of Change

4 mins read

In his book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Dr. Atul Gawande recounts the story of Dr. Ignac Semmelweis, who is credited with determining that childbed fever, a disease with a mortality rate of 20% for the mother, was transmitted by doctors who had not washed their hands.

Dr. Semmelweis reduced the mortality rate to 1% in his own ward, yet elsewhere doctors’ practices did not change. Among other kinds of resistance, his colleagues were offended by the prospect that they were causing their patients’ disease. It didn’t help that Dr. Semmelweis never published a study; he was offended that people would even question him.

Despite his dramatic success, he made many enemies. He would stand by the sink in his ward and berate doctors and nurses who didn’t wash their hands long enough. In correspondence he would insult other doctors who would question his theory; to one doctor he wrote, “Should you, without having disproved my doctrine, continue to teach your pupils against it, I declare before God and the world that you are a murderer and the ‘History of Childbed Fever’ would not be unjust to you if it memorialized you as a medical Nero.” Other doctors ignored him, or worse – they would actively sabotage his efforts to promote hand washing.

It took another 20 years before hand washing caught on, and even then it was thanks to Dr. Joseph Lister (of Listerine fame), who was able to make a more impassioned case.

There is an important lesson here for change champions; it’s not enough to be right… there is a cultural aspect of change that must be managed. There will be reluctance, resistance, and even sabotage if you can’t convince the people of the need to change.

When planning organizational changes, there are three steps to consider:

  1. Identifying what needs to change
  2. Identifying what you need to change to
  3. Managing that change

Often, people identifying problems will work through the first two steps, then think “the rest is just implementation”… which neglects the part with the greatest risk of failure! So how can you plan the management of a big change effort? My advice comes in the form of the tools offered in 3 books.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

This is a pop psychology book, to be sure, but one with valuable ideas about motivating people. This book suggests that our minds are ruled by two different systems—the rational mind and the emotional mind—that compete for control. You know this first-hand… the rational mind that tells you to go to bed, but the emotional mind that wants to stay up late; only to find in the morning the rational mind knows you need to get up, only to find the emotional mind wants to hit ‘snooze’ one more time. They liken these two minds to a ‘rider’ and an ‘elephant,’ and talk about tools for motivating both. It is filled with truthy anecdotes that may give you insight into real change problems you encounter on your team.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition

This is a dangerous book; I recommend it somewhat reluctantly… afraid that the techniques may be used against me! Have you ever agreed to something and almost immediately regretted it? You ask yourself, “why did I agree to buy that magazine subscription?” or “Why did I agree to pick him up at the airport that late at night?”… This book will give you insights as to why that happens, prepare yourself to defend against the techniques, and teach yourself how to use them to motivate others.

More Fearless Change: Strategies for Making Your Ideas Happen

You’re probably already intimately familiar with about a third of the material in this book. Do you routinely talk about holding “brown bags”, bringing in an “outside expert”, or talk about the ‘elevator pitch’ for your idea? How about finding a ‘myth buster’ or a ‘champion skeptic’? This book takes concepts you’ll recognize from the first two books, defines how they materialize in a team environment and gives them names. Giving them names is powerful; it lets managers communicate concisely about a plan and talk about how that plan will work. For instance, I can say “We need to hold a brown bag where our evangelist and champion skeptic have polarizing conversations… then we can get the early adopters together to plan baby steps, and then have a big jolt and use that success to find a corporate angel. Make no mistake… that isn’t just a list of empty buzzwords; every one of those terms has documentation on how to implement it, what the benefits are, and even how it can backfire with certain personality types within your organization.

At Excella, we specialize in transformative consulting, working with software engineering teams to modernize their software engineering practices and culture. If you’re trying to improve, we’d love to help you be better.

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