Actually, People Love Change

“People resist change.”

I heard this about 10 times at a workshop yesterday where I gave a keynote.  After about the fifth time, it got me thinking.  When I went up to give my talk, I asked people to raise their hands in response to these questions:

  • Who has moved away from the town or city that you were born in? (almost everyone) Who has moved to a different country? (about half)
  • Who has gotten married? (almost everyone)
  • Who is a parent? (more than 3/4)
  • Who has moved into a job that is different from the first one you took after you finished higher education? (everyone except the handful of PhD students who have just finished their higher education).
  • Who didn’t raise their hand at least once? (no one)
  • So, why do we say that people hate change?

It turns out that people don’t hate change at all.  In many cases we actively seek out change.  We move to a new city or country, we get married, we have children, we take a new job.  These aren’t just changes – these are massive changes.  And we often seek them out.

People don’t resist change.  At least, they don’t when they expect the change to make their lives better.

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The kind of change that people resist is the kind that makes them worse off.  Like letting 10% of your staff go, and expecting the rest to do the same amount of work with far fewer people and resources.  That’s not good change, nor is it inspiring.

Sometimes in a crisis you do have to make that kind of change – it’s the only way for your organisation to survive.

But most of the time, people will embrace change – they just need to see what’s in it for them.

If you’re trying to change things, here are some tips:

  • Solve a real problem. If you meet a genuine need, you don’t often find resistance to change.  Well, you will, from the competitors who lose out, but that’s different.  This is another kind of change that people love.  When the polio vaccine was developed, people lined up to get it – even though getting a shot is no fun at all.  It solved a real need.
  • Turn up the purpose. Inside an organisation, change is often resisted because it is not clear how the new way of doing things will make things better.  This is especially likely to happen when the organisation does not have a shared purpose.
    Here is Nilofer Merchant on the importance of vision:

    I see executives regularly saying that they want to “transform the business” or “win the market”, but they can’t point out an end destination. And when I ask, I usually get that, “just leave me alone” look. But here’s the deal. “Transform the business” could mean just about anything, especially to the people who weren’t in the core room where the discussion and debate happened. It leaves too much interpretation up for grabs. It is fuzzy. And fuzzy doesn’t help. Fuzzy means no one can help you do it fully because they need to keep checking in. Fuzzy doesn’t turn on the spark of creativity to generate ideas on how I can help you. Fuzzy creates a dependence, rather than allowing interdependence and action by everyone.

    Her solution? Articulate a clear vision.

  • Connect. You can’t meet genuine needs if you don’t understand the people that will be affected by the change.  Your best strategy is to connect with them, and build that understanding.

I’m not trying to oversimplify this.  Innovation is hard – if it weren’t, everyone would do it.  Change is hard – if it weren’t everyone would adapt easily.

But if you’re finding that people are resisting the change that you’re proposing, that’s a very strong sign that you don’t understand what they need, and you haven’t  articulated a clear vision of the future.

Deep in their hearts, people love change.  That’s why we actively seek it out when we want to make our lives better.  If people are resisting your change, you’re not meeting their needs.

You should change that – it will make your life better.

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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18 thoughts on “Actually, People Love Change

  1. That’s a very good point Tim – I think you’re right that people are willing to change if they perceive potential benefits for themselves.

    What makes it challenging might be the fact that risks tend to outweigh benefits when it comes to leaving the familiar. Or as Peter Sims puts it in his book: in average, people show a two to one “fear-of-loss to pleasure-of-gain” ratio.

    One consequence from this: benefits and visions need to be pinpointed for all stakeholders.

    • Hi Ralph – you’re definitely right about the fear of loss issue. I think that at the heart of this is the issue of control. All of my examples are ones where for the most part you control the choice, but people tend to resist change that is imposed on them. The sneaky part of the post is that this has huge implications for managing if you genuinely want to create change.

  2. Often seen management complain that staff are “change weary”. Almost without exception it’s that staff are weary of change being done to them, rather than with them. Having the right “vision” isn’t always a panacea, it can still exhibit problems of doing change to, rather than with.

  3. We had to implement a massive, business critical change in our software system just a couple of days before Christmas. It was clear to the whole team why we need to do it and what are the benefits. This change was cheerfully taken on and delivered by the team.
    This experience strengthens your point about a “shared vision” – the clearer, the better.
    Changes in processes are way harder as people have to change themselves (or at least the way they’re working).

    - Matthias