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Data & Analytics, Risk Management, Governance & Policy

3 minute read

What Abbott and Costello Taught Us About Change Management

Nov 2, 2021

Written by: Stephanie Lennon

Life’s only constant is change. It’s a tricky word, fraught with implied emotions depending on the catalyst for and expected result – or fallout – from it.

Yet change is as inevitable as the singing of Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh-inning stretch.

Psychologically, we crave it. We patronize new restaurants, visit different cities, meet new people, switch careers, relocate and seek out the latest media and gadgets. We get bored easily.

So why are change programs automatically regarded with suspicion, and what makes “Change Management” so hard? Taking a cue from Abbott and Costello’s infamous “Who’s on First?” baseball skit, it comes down to three key elements:

  • Who’s driving the change?
  • What value is promised by the change?
  • Does anyone even know change is needed… and as importantly, why?

Who’s on First

Humans sit atop the food chain, and we love to be in control. There’s a wide divide between deciding, “I want a new job” and someone else (a boss, spouse, parent) telling me I need one. The former is empowering and exciting. The latter is often annoying, frightening or, in some cases, devastating.

Consider the difference between leaving a job and being let go. The net result is the same: separation from the company. How someone processes the change couldn’t be further apart. The one who leaves by choice is usually excited to move on. The one who’s let go is often hurt, angry or resentful.

The same is true for more mundane changes within the workspace. If I come up with an idea to make my work processes better, I’m invested in the outcome and excited to reap the benefits. If someone else tells me I have to work differently, I grumble that someone else thinks they know my job better than me. Maybe I worry that the new motions will be uncomfortable or that I won’t be good enough.

To succeed in implementing change, the desire must be fully triggered from within the people whose lives are most impacted. The more they’re a part of designing and bringing about the change, the better.

What’s on Second

The second critical element is communicating the intent of the change and its perceived value to those impacted. The sought-out changes I mentioned above generally have an aspect of newness, adventure, fun, comfort or luxury. The benefits of visiting a new city or getting the newest iPhone are clear.

How do you make the compelling case for improved processes in a work setting?

As ideal as it sounds, “Better Processes > Better Efficiency > Better Profits” won’t be very compelling to most employees.

Somewhat better is: “Better Processes > Better Products > Experiences for Our Customers.”

But that’s still a bit removed from the average employee. The best would be: “Better Processes > Better Work Life for YOU.”

How does the change you’re striving for affect the individual who has to behave differently? If they can’t see what’s in it for them, at best you’re lucky to get compliance – never mind commitment. It’s fraught with risk. Too often the fear of repercussions is the motivating factor rather than the anticipation of reward. When people work in fear, you never get their best. So how do we get to a happy place?

Tap into the pain and involve the ones feeling it most. Poor processes aren’t appreciated by the people who have to perform them, unless there’s an implied benefit such as job security.

As Jack Welch repeatedly said with his GE Work-Out philosophy: Ask the process performers. They know where the problems, risks, failure modes – and solutions – reside. Engage the team in building the better factory. Reward them for their efforts. Empower associates to make their work lives better. Make it personal.

(As a side note, “reward” as referenced in the previous paragraph does not mean “cut half their coworkers’ jobs” as a reward for making better, faster, more reliable processes. That’s a sure-fire way to discourage future innovation.)

I Don’t Know’s on Third

What if your employees don’t even know there’s a problem to be solved?

The most powerful change-inspiring actions an organization can take are to be transparent and educate. How will employees know what they’re fighting for without access to customer complaints, department financials or regulator feedback? If they don’t recognize the risk, how can they prevent or mitigate it? 

How can you rally your bank around sound data management practices when call center agents don’t know that they’re major data producers? Or when analysts who create pivotal strategy recommendations blindly consume data without knowing if it’s reliable?

We’re wired to seek meaning and purpose in how we spend our lives. Innately we all need to know that what we do – or don’t do – matters every single day. The need for improvement must be recognized before it can possibly be brought to pass.

Bringing It Home

Effective change management is driven from within. Those who would improve their department must:

  1. Ensure every associate knows what’s on the line, and by extension, what’s in it for them to reduce the risk and drive positive improvements.
  2. Involve associates in improving their own space, from problem identification to solution design and implementation.
  3. Empower each person to feel they’re in charge of their change.

Change is personal, and the desire to change comes from within. As leaders internalize this and tap into their people’s inner change manager, home runs will follow.

If your organization can use some help in managing change, reach out to Spinnaker. Because while change today is faster than it’s ever been, it’s also the slowest it will ever be.