Tom Silver

Tom Silver

Our perception of change is highly influenced by our experience of it. Whether change presents an opportunity or threat may be determined by the success or failure of our efforts.

I love change. Perhaps a little too much. I often find myself in conversation with clients, listening to their concerns about how employees will embrace new ways of working and worrying about how leaders will take more interest in their project. In these situations, I must frequently remind myself that where I feel optimistic and energised by the challenge ahead, others feel discomfort. My resilience to change is high, but I believe I’m in the minority.

Don’t get me wrong – I still feel that spine shiver when I walk into my ‘flexible working space’ and someone is sat at my hot desk. I say it’s mine, even though it clearly isn’t, by definition. The scenario serves as a useful reminder for how it can feel to experience change.

Despite these occasional shivers, I remain optimistic about change, willing to experience it, and able to persevere through the tougher times where change feels less than positive. I believe my resilience is derived from a mixture of my experiences which have shaped how I perceive change.

Join me for a moment as I explore what I believe makes us resilient to change.

Threat or opportunity?

Our resilience is partly determined by our outlook in life: do we perceive events as threats or opportunities?

I regularly interview potential new hires for my team and often find the interviews as valuable learning experiences. One recent interviewee presented a compelling case for mitigating against potential pitfalls that could occur in a typical change project scenario. Upon reading her slide, I realised that as change professionals we are all quick to see problems and want to mitigate them, yet when do we think of the opportunities presented and the power to exploit them?

Summary: those who perceive opportunities are more resilient.

As change professionals we are all quick to see problems and want to mitigate them, yet when do we think of the opportunities presented and the power to exploit them?

Unlearning change

The Marshmallow Challenge is frequently used in team building exercises when testing creativity, collaboration, and the power of prototyping. Participants attempt to build the tallest structure possible that can balance a single marshmallow at the top, using only dry spaghetti and tape.

What’s surprising is that groups of young children tend to outperform business executives. They are said to prototype more until they find a solution that works, rather than planning one perfect solution. What this shows is that over time as human beings, we unlearn creativity.

Similarly, when do we unlearn our ability to change? As children we are used to learning new things, growing, and adapting. Perhaps as we age, we form habits that we find hard to let go.

I recently changed to a new phone with a very different operating system. When discussing this with my friend, he suggested that he was happier to stick with his existing phone, lacking the brilliant features that a new one would provide, because of the short-term pain it would cause him in having to learn how to use it. Instead of a willingness to try, to prototype, to adapt, he is unwilling to break the habit of using a familiar phone.

Summary: those who are willing to form new habits are more resilient.

Success or failure?

If the opportunity presents itself, and you’re willing to form a new habit, what else defines your resilience to change?

Part of the answer is the result of our previous efforts to change: did we succeed or fail most often?

When we tried to change, did we succeed or fail most often?

When I first asked myself where my passion for change came from, I looked to my childhood for any significant clues. Until the age of eleven I had lived in fourteen different houses – an excessive amount for most people in their lifetimes, I’m sure. My parents frequently moved through both purchased and rental properties, taking opportunities to move up the property ladder and relocate for work and to be closer to good schools.

For me, moving house became the norm. One would argue that I strengthened my ability to form new habits, and therefore had a better chance of retaining my ability to change.

However, I believe my perception of change would have suffered if these moves had been for the worse, not for the better. They represented a desire to improve, a fearlessness to change, and each move was a success.

In the world of work, multiple failed technology implementations can create frustration and induce fear. The more people try to change and fail, the less resilient they become. Success breeds success, after all.

Summary: those who experience successful change are more resilient.

The cost of change inequality

Our perception of change is highly influenced by our experience of it. Whether change presents an opportunity or threat may be determined by the success or failure of our efforts. This has significant implications on how we judge upcoming change and how far we can withstand difficulties when implementing change. Our resilience is determined by how we perceive the cost of change.

I believe the cost of change is multifaceted. The simplest way I have found to explain it is to use this inequality:

Perceived Effort < Belief in Benefit

Where the belief in benefit is greater than the perceived effort, we are willing to change; the cost of change is reduced.

Notice that the belief in benefit needs to outweigh the perceived effort, as both are yet to occur. As change happens, strong belief can continue to overcome the actual effort one must put in. Techniques such as highlighting successful outcomes for early adopters increase the belief in benefit and decrease the cost of change for those who are about to experience it.

Unfortunately, where belief in benefit fails to turn into actual benefit, high effort levels lead to increased change fatigue.

The cost of change is relative to the individual. For me, the cost of change is usually low. My positive experiences of change, and having worked closely with multiple clients to learn what works and what doesn’t, substantially increases my belief in benefit and lowers the effort I perceive. Conversely, someone with high change fatigue will have a high cost of change, and their resilience will suffer as a result.

Summary: those for whom the cost of change is low are more resilient.

To develop resilience, change leaders must address the beliefs and experiences that staff carry with them through their personal and professional lives.

The ‘people’ factor is always most crucial when looking to deliver and embed numerous changes within an organisation. For these changes to succeed and to enable staff to continue to be effective in their day-to-day roles, resilience to change must be high. In developing this resilience, change leaders must address the beliefs and experiences that staff carry with them through their personal and professional lives.

I wonder, when delivering change, how much focus do we put on building resilience versus accepting the levels of resilience already present?