Like the GRPI model, the Change Formula is one of the evergreen tools we turn to again and again when working with organisations or individuals. There is a bit of confusion as to who exactly is the „inventor“ of this formula, but this does not need to concern us.
Before we get started, let us point out that this model applies to changes of organisations and individuals likewise.
The formula describes the conditions which are necessary for change to occur in organisations and individuals. All conditions need to be present:
R – Resistance
Any social system or individual has inertia.
First, there is the personal resistance to change, which is nicely summed up in the saying attributed to Mark Twain, that „nobody likes change except for babies with wet diapers“. If we are honest, there is a lot of truth to it. In many ways, we like things to stay fairly constant and not have to go searching for our shoes each morning because they wandered off during the night to find a new place for themselves.
Resistance is the sign of a healthy system. If you try to change something and get no resistance, you are probably doing something wrong. We are creatures of habit. As long as there is no strong motivation to move, we like to stay where we are.
Secondly, there is the resistance of systems: business processes are defined, IT systems and tools cannot be changed every day, office spaces are as they are, corporate cultures prescribe a certain way of doing things, resources are tight, time is lacking and so on. Even if we would like change to happen, our surroundings will often make it much easier to stay in our tracks.
So: there is resistance to change. How can we overcome it? The three factors on the left side of the equation give the answer.
D – Dissatisfaction
At the beginning of any change, there needs to be a certain amount of pain. There needs to be the realization that the cost of not changing is just too high. This might be our doctor giving us a dire warning about what will happen if we continue with our unhealthy lifestyle. It might be a spouse telling us that either we change or they will be out of the door on the very next day. In the case of organisations, it might be the loss of customers, the best people leaving our company or the look at an ominous liquidity forecast (which is a pretty late indicator, though.)
It is an essential and necessary leadership task to create a sense of dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the status quo in a complacent organisation.It is one of the most essential tasks of any resilient organisation to constantly scan the environment and itself for threats and weaknesses – for possible sources of dissatisfaction. These need to be brought into the open – there needs to be awareness and there needs to be discourse. The sooner your scan discovers these threats, the earlier the organisation (this means: the people!) is able to move into „change mode“. This is never pleasant. Remember: it is about pain and we need this pain in order for change to happen. In this case, pain is our friend!
In practice, we find it much too often that leaders are scared to face this pain and to create „negative emotions“ in their organisations. This is like the proverbial ostrich sticking his head into the sand. Don’t be an ostrich: look for the pain and make your organisation feel it, too. Only then will people start to look for alternatives.
V – Vision
When dissatisfaction is high enough, there is an incentive to start looking for an alternative, for a „way out“ of the unpleasant situation. This is not easy, so there will initially be some amount of fear, anxiety, depression, anger or even apathy. It’s important that the leadership does not freak out at this point – this is a perfectly normal stage. We have come to a threshold: the old does not work anymore and the new is still unknown.
A good vision is like a powerful magnet which pulls people and the organisation into the future. Far too many leaders are afraid to put their names to a bold image of the future: this is the point where most change efforts fail. This is the hour of the shared vision. It needs to be attractive and emotionally desirable, realistic but challenging, an image of an alternative state of things which is much more attractive than the status quo.
A gazillion of books, essays and articles have been written about what makes a good vision and how to arrive at one, so we will not go into it here. As always, there is no one best way, but one thing is certain: it is absolutely necessary of the vision to be a shared one. People need to buy into it. Believe in it. Embrace it. It needs to be their vision, too. And it needs to be attractive and emotionally desirable; we cannot stress this often enough.
Only then will the power of the vision contribute to overcome resistance. Slides with lots of corporate mumbo-jumbo in Arial 11 will not do the trick.
F – First Steps
In the beginning, a new vision is nothing more than a castle in the air, an idea or a dream. There is a necessity to start making the vision reality ASAP. And we really mean as soon as possible. In practice, we witness much to often that after the solemn proclamation of a new vision nothing happens for much too long.
This is deadly. Not only will it kill off the belief in the vision, it will also undermine the credibility of the organisation’s leadership. And it will undermine the self-confidence of the organisation to move away from the status quo. Cynicism and sarcasm are the necessary results.
Start very soon, make small steps, pick low-hanging fruits, generate lots and lots of small successes and celebrate them! So, get started ASAP. When you start talking about your vision, know what the first steps will be. Talk about them, do. And do them. These do not need to be a giant leap for mankind, it is perfectly enough if they are a small step for a man. Manageable. Easy. How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece.
These small steps make it clear that there is commitment behind the vision, that there is earnestness in it. And, equally important: these small and quick steps create small successes. There more the better. This creates self-confidence and builds momentum. Talk about these successes, make them visible and celebrate them. Put a board with „achievements this week“ somewhere where everyone can see it, award prizes, throw parties, whatever fits your style.
Start moving without delay and keep moving without halt. Every journey starts with one first step.
To sum it up
We have yet to find a situation where this formula does not apply. We always have it in the backs of our heads when we work with transforming organisations, teams or individuals.
The three conditions provide the necessary energy and fuel to overcome inertia. You need all three of them. And you need to be prepared to deal with emotions – change is emotional, always. And you cannot climb the summits of achievement without going through one or more „valleys of tears“ along the way. If you are a leader, you need to accompany your people through this often highly challenging situations. There is no alternative.