Two Powerful Questions at the Heart of Change

In part two of my interview with Erika Andersen, we explore the fascinating questions at the heart of her latest book, Change from the Inside Out.

Two Powerful Questions at the Heart of Change

Erika Andersen: Business Thinker, Keynote Speaker, Founding partner of Proteus. Author of Change from the Inside Out and four other best-selling books.

Also, read part one of our interview with Erika Andersen at How Can We Be More Capable of Change in Today's World?

Erika Andersen

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What question is at the heart of your book?

Erika: This question is perhaps my favorite question that you have about the book. I write books because I get curious about something. I feel if I could answer whatever I'm curious about, the answers I find would be helpful for people because they are questions about things that are important—for example, the topics of leadership, management, and organizational development.

To give you some context about this book, we at Proteus have had a change practice for over a decade, and we have had a five-step model that we use to help organizations through change. So, what I got curious about in 2018 as I watched people going through various changes were two questions.

Two Questions

The first question was, “Why is change so hard for us?” Most of us don't like change. And then the other question I had was, “What actually happens when an individual human being goes through a change?” What is that process, emotionally and psychologically? I felt that if I got clearer about the answers to both those questions, it would be a service to humanity that would be really helpful to people.

I can talk about the answers that I found to these two questions, which, as you know, are in the book.

Why is change so hard for us?

For the first question, “Why is change so hard for us?” I looked to history. So much of who we are arises from who we have been. I thought, imagine that there is a person 100, 200, or 500 years ago. A thousand years ago. Any person, anywhere in the world—Estonia, United States, Asia, Africa. If you think about that person's life, it would have been unimaginably stable to us.

That person almost certainly would live where their parents had lived. They would grow up in the same place. Eat the same food their parents ate. Go to the same church their parents went to. Do the same work their parents did. And even the unusual circumstances would have been predictable: a bad year for crops, somebody has a baby, somebody dies. But it's just within that relatively small range, just as I said, unimaginably stable. So that's human life all along.

And in that human life 100, 200, or 500 years ago, almost without exception, when a real change came, it would have been a danger and a threat. Perhaps a war, famine, flood, or plague. And the best bet, almost without exception, would have been to come back to that previous known state as quickly as possible. When I thought through that, I thought, gosh, no wonder we are conditioned by thousands of years of human history to think of change as a bad thing and to want to get back to what we knew before as quickly as possible. And until the 20th  and 21st centuries, that served us pretty well.

I start the book with the story of getting a TV when I was a little kid. That's when TV happened. Then ten years later, getting a color TV. So, in the 50s and 60s, that was the pace of technological change. You had years to get used to something before you had a change. And now that level of technological innovation from black and white to color TV happens every time you update your phone!

So we have to rewire ourselves. That was my conclusion I came to an answer to that question. We're in a situation that human beings have literally never been in before, and we have to rewire ourselves to undo this conditioning of thousands of years, which worked for us until the last forty years or so.

What actually happens when an individual human being goes through a change?

And then, as you know, the answer to the second question is what we came to call the Change Arc. As we observed and talked and thought, what I saw is that when a change comes at us–this is not true for everyone, some people like change but for most people, it's nerve-racking. When a change comes at us, the first thing that happens is we want to know some stuff, and it's very predictable what we want to know.

We want to know three things:

  • What does this change mean for me?
  • Why is it happening?
  • What will it look like after the change has been made?

First, we want to know What does this change mean for me? What am I going to have to do differently as a result of this change?

Second, we want to know Why is it happening? And I believe that's because most of us have such a strong preference for the status quo. It's like, give me a good reason to change. We want to know the “why.”

And the third thing that we want to know is What will it look like after the change has been made? If you think about this, it really makes a lot of sense, given what I said about history. When I was researching the book, I stumbled on this one really interesting fact: many psychologists now believe that fear of the unknown is our deepest fear. Given our history of stability and sameness, that makes sense. It feels like walking into a dark alley in the middle of the night. If I don't know what you are talking about. So we want to know, give me a picture. Paint for me what it will look like after this change happens.

We immediately start trying to gather this information. And in organizations, that gets characterized as resistance. People start asking those very natural legitimate questions, and leader think, “Why are these people so risk-averse?” But no, they're just doing what we've learned how to do over all these years.

The thing that makes it more complex and problematic going up the Change Arc, at the peak of the arc is what we've come to call mindset shift. As people start asking those questions, they generally start asking with a negative mindset about the change.

They generally begin by assuming that the change will be difficult and that it will be costly, and that it's going to be weird.

And difficult means I don't know how to do it, and other people are going to make it hard to do. There are going to be lots of obstacles to doing this. So that's difficult. And then costly–this is so interesting. Costly means it's going to take from me things I value. Making this change, people assume, it will take something from me I value. And it can be kind of obvious, simple things like time or money. We always talk about. "Oh, it will take too much time to learn this. Or oh, this will cost us so much." But it's more likely to be invisible intrinsic things like identity, reputation, relationships, power, and freedom. All the big things that we think change will take away from us.  And weird just means “that's not how we do things around here.”

Then we noticed, and this is the most interesting thing to me:

When someone starts to be open to a change, it's not generally because anything changes externally. It's because their mindset changes.

And they start to think to themselves either on their own or by being helped to see it, that the change could be easy or at least doable and that it could be rewarding. It could give you more than it takes away. And that it could even be normal. And normal in this context means something that other people we think of as our peers do and something that people we admire and want to emulate and think of as leaders do, which is why it's so important for leaders to model change. That helps make it normative.

But what we notice is that almost the minute someone starts primarily thinking that a change could be easy, rewarding, and normal versus difficult, costly, and weird, they start being open to learning and doing the new behaviors that the change requires.

It was really fun when I felt like I cracked that code because I've looked at every change I'd ever made, and I realized, "Oh, it's really true. I ask those things, make that mindset shift, and then I'm willing to do it." And I started noticing that in other people. I have never shared the Change Arc with anyone in these last two or three years since I figured this out and had them go, "Oh, that's not how I go through change."

So, asking those questions was a wonderful place to start the book, and finding the answers was exciting. And then another thing that really got me very excited was our change model.  My business partner, Jeff, and another consultant, Cari, came up with our five-step change model in 2007. When I looked at it relative to the Change Arc, I realized that the model was very lined up with the Change Arc before we even consciously understood the arc.

I see our model as a way to make sure that you attend to both aspects when you're trying to do an organizational change: To plan well and do all the technical nuts and bolts things necessary to make any big change, while cascading as many people as possible in the organization through their Change Arc so that the change gets adopted.

Step 1: Clarify the Change and Why It's Needed

The five-step change model that we talk about in the book starts when a small group starts to think about it. Usually, it's a senior group, and we think of that as the change initiation group. The first two steps of the model are for that group on behalf of the organization. The first step is to clarify the change and why it's needed. What actually is changing – because that's another thing that happens in organizations. It's often pretty foggy about what's changing, what's actually changing.

And then why is it needed? You can create a simple statement, which can be used throughout the organization of why we're doing this, that is meaningful to people. And that aspect is really important. Often, the senior team is thinking about a change, and they realize that it will make the company more profitable. Okay, that's probably meaningful to them because their compensation is tied to profit, and they might even have equity in the company. However, for some person making $15 an hour on the line, independent of how profitable the company is, that's probably not going to be important to them. But there are other things that could be meaningful to that person: it will allow you not to have to do some busy work that you find frustrating. The client will like it better. You will have time to be more creative. These are probably “why's” that are meaningful to the person on the line. You have to think about that so that your elevator pitch to the organization is meaningful to them. So that's the first step. What's the change, and why is it needed?

Step 2: Envision the Future State

And then the second step is to envision the future state; what will it look like when the change has been made and then create measures of success toward that. To say “This is our envisioning of it.” How will we know when we've gotten there? How are we going to measure the success of the change? And you notice that those first two steps encompass those three things that people first want to know about the change. So the change initiation group is getting clear about those three things on behalf of the organization. Then, as you start bringing people into the tent, ultimately the whole organization, you can clarify those things for them –which usually don't get clarified for people.

Step 3: Build the Change

And in the third step, you start bringing people into the tent. Usually, in an organizational change, you create a specific change team to plan, manage, and drive the change. Because usually, that's not the senior team. They’ve got to keep doing their day jobs. You create that change team, bring them up to speed, and help them through their own Change Arc. Let them know, here's what the change is. Here's why it's needed. Here's what it will look like. And then help them get clear about their role in planning and managing the change.

You also think about other stakeholders in this step. People who aren't on that initial team or in the change team who can get in the way of success if they don't support the change. Sometimes it's surprising people like, "Oh wow, given this change, if we don't get The General Counsel on board, they could really get in the way." You think about how you can connect with them and help them understand the change and get them through their Change Arc. Once you've got these two groups of people in the tent, then you plan the change.

Any change, no matter how big it is, is really – the technical side of it–just a project. You make a project charter, you do a work breakdown structure, you do all that, but you do it well, and you do it thoughtfully. The change team does it, so they own it. That's step three.

Step 4: Lead the Transition

And then step four. This is the step that almost never happens, and it's why organizational change doesn't work very well. In the fourth step, the first thing you do is figure out who will be most affected by the change and then talk to them about what's going to be changing for them. You help them understand the change, what it is, why it's happening, and what the future will look like. Based on that, you figure out with them, what's going to be ending and beginning for them. Then you ask: ”Help us understand what's going to be difficult and costly and weird about this for you,” and then you create what we call a transition plan, which is distinct from the change plan. It's the plan to help people through their Change Arc. In the transition plan, you give them as much control as you can and as many choices as possible. People in organizational change feel victimized. They feel out of control. To the extent that you can, give them choices, take their input, take their ideas. For instance: When do you want to do this? How should we do this? What's the messaging? How should we communicate it? To the extent that you can get them involved in making those choices, that helps them move through their Change Arc.

And then the final lever you use to build this transition plan is, you think about how you can give them support. The most important thing is to start by just listening to them. What are they worried about? What are their fears? What are their hesitations? Listen, listen, listen. If you listen all the way through someone's upset, they're ready to move forward. Then you can say, okay, here are the practical kinds of support we have. Here is the training, the workflow, the mentor, and how we're going to involve you in the data migration or whatever it is. Once you've given that support of listening, people become ready to hear about that practical support you’re going to provide to make the change. Also, in this fourth step, you implement the change plan and the transition plan simultaneously. As you're doing the nuts-and-bolts things to make the change, you're giving people the support they need to make their mental and emotional changes, so the change can be adopted.

Step 5: Keep the Change Going

The last step we call keep the change going. This one's really important because lots of times, once you get to the point where the nuts and bolts of the change have been implemented, everybody's like “we’re done.” They just walk away. The bad thing about that is almost every major change has unintended consequences. Even if you've done everything right and done it well, there will be things that didn't work and that you're going to have to redo. Any change plan is a “best guess.” We really don't know what it will look like in reality. A great example of this that I give in the book is a company that decided to improve the production process for their core product. Part of that improvement was to automate the production line. They did that, and it worked really well. They did it right and helped people through their Change Arc.

But then they were in step five; they were looking at one of their measures of success, cycle time. They wanted to get products through the line faster. And they noticed that it wasn't improving. They looked, and they realized that what was happening was that the first steps in the production line were still being done by people. Then it would go through the automation part, which sped it up, but then it would go back to human beings. They couldn't work any faster than they had before. So product was piling up at the end of the automated part of the line. So they had to make a secondary change to double the people on the line after the automation part. It had to go back to humans, but they put two people on the line there instead of just one, and their cycle time improved.

Now, they really did it right. They thought about it as a mini change. They planned and helped people understand it. They involved them in answering how we should do this and how do we want to assign people to this? They did it right, and it worked. But too often, those things arise, and they're not addressed. The change seems to fail, lose credibility, and people are upset. They feel like they’ve gone through all this stuff, and it didn't work. That fifth step is critically important so you can keep tweaking. One great thing about it is that usually, the tweaks are in response to feedback from people, and that helps them own and feel like part of the change.

The other thing that you do in step five, and this is really important, lots of times as you're making a big change, you see that there are organizational impediments not just to this change but to all change. For example, systems that are just a mess or that are really clunky, or structures that are going to make any change hard, or sometimes it's a cultural thing. You see that change negativity is baked into the culture. And so step five is a chance to address those issues in your organization–because the book's subtitle is: making you, your team, and your organization change capable. As you're making this change, you know that this is not the last change. If some part of the organizational set-up, whether structural or systemic, or cultural, is change-resistant, it will continue to be a change impediment. And if you resolve it now, you'll be helping yourself with all future changes.

What has been the most intriguing or surprising feedback you've received about your book?

Erika: It was a positive surprise. My new publisher who I love, Barrett-Koehler, does this very cool thing when they accept a manuscript. My editor had a few suggestions, but then they send it out to three or four people who are experts in the field of the book to get their review. This is the fifth book I’ve published; I never had that experience before, and I love feedback.

Their feedback was fairly minor but very helpful. But the most wonderful thing was– it made me so happy. One woman has been a change agent for her whole career and now teaches in a university. She said, "I wish that I had had this book 30 years ago when I was starting my career. So much has been clarified for me by reading this book."

Who has had the most influence on you and your work?

Erika: I could name literally 100 people. But if I had to pick one, I would say my dad. My dad was just a wonderful human being and modeled so much of what I'm saying. He really listened to me. He was really curious about me as a human being, and as I got to be a teenager, we had so many great conversations.

There were many things that we disagreed on. For instance, I was, from the get-go, much more progressive and liberal politically than he was. He never dismissed me. He never shut me down. He really listened and listened deeply. And then would say, “I have a different point of view. Here's my point of view.” But it wasn't like, I'm the grown-up, and I'm right, and you're wrong.

He was not only curious about me but just curious about life. I learned about the power of curiosity from my dad. He was curious about everything. When I was young, I remember maybe eight or nine, we were on vacation. We were in a diner, and he got started talking to the waitress. It turned out that the waitress and her husband had a farm, and she was waiting tables because it was hard to make ends meet with the farm.

My dad said, “I hope I'm not taking you away from your other customers, but I really am interested.” And he asked her all these good questions, like how could she balance being a waitress and farming? He was genuinely curious, and even as a little kid, I thought this was so interesting. She loved it so much. He loved talking about it. They made a great connection, and I saw this happen dozens of times. I watched my dad and I thought, what an amazing way to get smarter, make connections, and build trust. I learned a lot from my dad, foundational things that have served me now for the last 70 years.

What question do you wish more people would ask you?

Erika: I love almost all questions. I'm going to answer this in the opposite. The only questions I don't like are questions that I know people think they already know the answer to. That's fake. That's not a real question. But if it's a genuine question. I love it, and I'll engage.

What's the number one (or two or three) takeaway you'd like people to get from your book?

Erika: The most important thing I want people to take away is that we can rewire ourselves to become more capable of change. We are capable of managing our self-talk, and that's the main task we all have to do to change our response to change. By knowing that this mindset shift is the heart of change-capability when a change comes at you, you can immediately look for ways to see the change as potentially easier, or at least doable, rewarding, and normal.

And you do that by managing your self-talk. You notice that you're saying to yourself, for instance, "Oh, this is going to be such a complete pain in the neck. I hate this." But then you can say to yourself, “Hold up. What if I asked myself, ‘How could it be easy? How could I make it easy? What could it give me versus what it's taking away? How could I see this as normal?’” You just coach yourself. You change your self-talk. I would love for people to know that that is absolutely possible.

And the second thing I want them to know is this will really help you thrive in this world of non-stop change that we live in and are going to live in now.