Wreck it Ralph and Change Management

By Michealle Gady,
President and CEO 

Ever heard the statistic that 70% of change initiatives fail?

When I did, I had an immediate mental image of Surge from Ralph Breaks the Internet. In an early scene in the movie, WIFI – the internet – is introduced to the arcade game characters. Initially, they are curious and intrigued. Then, Surge appears, and he says, “It is new. It is different. And, therefore, we should fear it.” He then proceeds to put up caution tape to keep everyone out. With few exceptions, most of the game characters agree and walk away, no longer curious or interested, but fearing what it means for them.

In fact, the entire movie is about change. Venellope is looking for something new and more challenging. Ralph fears losing her friendship if she finds that new thing. He goes to great lengths – he breaks the internet – to keep things as they are.  

But, is that it? Is fear of new and different the reason that 70% of change initiatives fail? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was thinking about it the wrong way. Instead, I decided to focus on why change succeeds. What are the things that happen, what’s the environment that is needed, to make change a success?

After thinking through successful change initiatives that I have been a part of, here is what I’ve come up with. These are key components of any successful change initiative. And, honestly, having one or two is not sufficient. All of these must be a part of your change initiative to have authentic, sustainable success. 

1.     Start the conversation in the right place.

When we talk about change, almost everyone starts with “what.” What will the change be? We then all quickly move to the “how.” How we will carry out the change.

Are we starting the conversation in the right place?

Where is the right place?

Ever ask a child to do something? Can you please put on your socks? Can you please pick up your toys? Can you hop in the car so we can leave?

Invariably the immediate response is: Why?

If you haven’t already, watch Simon Sinek’s video Start with Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Action. In the video, he talks about a very simple concept that he calls the Golden Circle.

Understanding the what and the how is pretty simple. We know what we do in our daily jobs. We all know how we do it.

At Atromitos, we help organizations—mostly in the health care and nonprofit industry—navigate change and plan for the future. That’s our what. We know how we do it, we use a variety of processes and tools to effectively manage change [aka change management].

 But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by why I don’t mean “to make a profit” or “to get a paycheck.”

 That’s an outcome.

 By why, I mean: what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of the bed in the morning—and why should anyone care?

This means that the “why” for change must be something that inspires.

At Atromitos, our why is that we believe in the power to do better. We are passionately and fearlessly committed to helping our partners do big things: work smarter, dream bigger, and achieve their full potential.

Think about that situation when you have asked your child to put on their shoes because you need to leave. They ask why? And you respond because I have to go to the grocery store.

The why is uninspiring.

When this happens in my house, I get grumbling and feet dragging and immediate negotiation on how he can do anything but what I just asked him to do.

Now, returning back to the Golden Circle. What this example demonstrates, is that most of us communicate from the outside of the golden circle in. We go from the easiest thing to define (what) to the hardest (why).

In his Ted Talk, Sinek illustrates exactly what communicating from the outside in versus the inside out looks like. Sinek uses the example of Apple. He says, if they communicated like everyone else, from the outside in, their commercial might sound like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. Want to buy one?”

Sinek then shows us how Apple actually communicates: “Everything we do,” he says, “we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

Apple communicates from the inside (why) out (what).

You have to start with why. That’s the right place to start the conversation.

This idea isn’t Sinek’s opinion. It’s not mine.

It’s all grounded in the tenets of biology. If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, it’s actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. Our neo-cortex corresponds with the “what” level. It’s this part of the brain that’s responsible for all our rational and analytical thought and language.

The middle two sections make up our limbic brain, and that’s what’s responsible for our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making - and it has no capacity for language.

In other words, when we communicate from the outside of the golden circle in, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures.

It just doesn’t drive behavior.

When we can communicate from the inside out, we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do. This is where gut decisions come from. The kind where you might say, “I know all the facts and figures, but it just doesn’t feel right.”

Why in the world would we us that verb, it doesn’t “feel” right?

Because the part of the brain that controls decision-making doesn’t control language.

And it’s those who start with “why” that have the ability to inspire those around them to succeed in change.

2.     Manage the change through Emotional Intelligence

As Surge demonstrated for us, fear is a common emotion among a group of people encountering change. But there are many other emotions that are present: excitement, optimism, confusion, anger. In fact, in any group of people, we see: 

  • Initiators (We need to make this change!)

  • Supporters (Yes! Let’s do it!)

  • Reluctants (I don’t want to, but I will if I have to.)

  • Resistors (No. I will not.)

In any group, more than 50% of the people will have some level of opposition to the change. More than half. But that still leaves a good percentage of the group that is ready for or at least accepting of the change.

We cannot manage people’s emotions. We can’t even manage our own. Emotions just are and we are each allowed to have the emotions we have. What we can manage though are behaviors, which are the outward manifestation of emotions. Someone is feeling angry and they yell or bang their hand on the table.

The act of being aware of, controlling and expressing our own emotions, coupled with an ability to empathize with others and understanding the effect we have on others is emotional intelligence.

 Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, identifies four competencies for Emotional Intelligence:  

  • Self-awareness

  • Self-management

  • Social Awareness

  • Relationship Management

What this means is that we need to be aware of our own emotions and manage our behaviors as we experience these emotions. In the case of our friend Ralph, when he learned that Venellope wanted to stay in a place that he did not want to stay, his fear took over and he intentionally sabotaged the place Venellope wanted to be – he broke the internet! He did not demonstrate any of these competencies.

I love change! To do new things, to do things better! For me it’s energizing and exciting. These are positive emotions, but effusively expressed, they can be overwhelming to colleagues, especially if they are experiencing fear and struggling with the change. Emotional Intelligence does not mean that I do not experience these emotions. Instead, it’s incumbent on me to be aware that I respond to change this way and to manage my behavior as a result of these emotions.

We also must anticipate and be prepared to handle the behaviors of others involved in the change. These may be our peers, superiors, and/or subordinates or our children, partners, parents, or friends. We need to understand that they too have emotions and that they will have different emotions in response to the change and therefore will have different reactions – or behaviors – as a result.

When we empathize, we put ourselves in their shoes and try to see the situation from their perspective. We attempt to anticipate how they might react to the news and come prepared to manage that reaction. As an example, ever work with someone who has what seems like an unending list of questions? These questions may be motivated by fear or they may be motivated by a deep commitment to doing things the right way. We may not fully understand the emotion driving the behavior, but we know it is there and we know that the behavior will be to question.

In this instance, manage the behavior by preparing for those questions. Come ready to answer them. Be patient and understanding. If the questions are of a nature or length that continuing to engage in the Q&A is disruptive to the meeting, acknowledge that the person has many questions, commit to taking time after the meeting to sit down one-on-one and go through them, and then actually do that.

 This is managing change with Emotional Intelligence and it can make all the difference in the world in moving those who are reluctant or resistant to be a supporter.

3.     Strong Project Planning and Project Management

You have to have a plan! And, you have to have someone responsible for that plan! This seems basic. It’s not.

So often, leaders proclaim a change to be made. They vaguely wave their hands and say make it so! Then assume it will be done. Those who have to implement the change run to their respective corners and furiously get to work. They make to do lists. They start talking to their teams; who each then start making to do lists. And very quickly we have each person running in different directions – or running into each other.

No matter the size of the change, it is necessary to have a single accountable person who can sign off on things, who makes sure progress continues, who can resolve conflicts, etc. You must also have a roadmap that clearly shows how you will get from point A to point B. This means that everyone involved in the change needs to take the time to plan. The bigger the change, the more involved the planning.

In the planning process, it is imperative to know that this isn’t a to-do list and a schedule of activities. It is so much more than that. Through this planning process you identify the objectives, the scope, what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, how it needs to be done, what resources are needed to do it and, how long it will take to do it. When identifying who is has to be involved in any particular part of the plan, we like to use a RACI approach and identify who is Accountable, Responsible, and who must be Consulted and Informed.

In the planning process, you need to articulate the governance and oversight structures. What is the budget available for the initiative? This needs to be documented in the project plan. Nothing worse than getting part way through an initiative and realizing you are out of money!

Not only does a plan help you know where you are going and how you are going to get there, it also helps you track progress. As you work through the plan you identify what is complete, in process, and to do. You can also quickly determine if you are heading off course and make necessary corrections.

Strong project planning and then ongoing plan management assures that the change initiative starts, progresses, and ends on time, with everyone working in the same direction. This is critical to assuring successful change implementation.

4.     Communication! Communication! Communication!

 “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw

We see it all the time – effective communication is probably the single most difficult thing that any organization (and often individual people) have to do. So much so, there are any number of internet memes available to bring some levity to a complex problem that no one has resolved. (Just Google communication is the hardest thing meme; you’ll have hours of entertainment.)

 We’ve written about the importance of communication previously. So, I won’t repeat, I’ll just link.

What I will say is that communication must be honest and transparent. How did Venellope and Ralph save their friendship? It took a catastrophe, but eventually they talked to each other…openly and honestly. They listened to each other. They acknowledged the fears and concerns of the other. Through this open and honest communication, Venellope took Ralph from being a resistor to a supporter.

 It takes work and commitment to effectively communicate with people. It takes work to listen to them and then show them that you listened. Listening does not necessarily mean that you do what they say, but, in the instance that you cannot do what was asked, it does mean that you acknowledge what they said and explain why you cannot do it. We need to think about communication like the tides, it comes in and it goes out, it comes in and it goes out, over and over.

Now, go watch Ralph Breaks the Internet; you’ll never be able to see it in the same way again.