How pizza helps us understand individual change

    May 28, 2021 | Posted by David Lee

    A person I admire recently explained his view of change management as,

    “Taking people who are in a room eating pizza, dragging them by the hair to another room, and forcing them to eat a slightly better pizza.”

    This admittedly violent image for change is extreme, but it is a good representation of many change efforts I have observed and explains simply why so many of them fail. The typical approach to organisational change is top down with the assumption that everyone changes the same way and appreciates the result. Essentially, if we get the right pizza, we will all fall into line to enjoy it. The result is often something less, something we all can tolerate but not necessarily enjoy... like cheese pizza (I will eat it but will wonder if I could have something much better). Unfortunately, this approach to change is high risk where failure results in not only missing the benefits of the change, but also creating a culture that is resistant to future change.

    A standard assumption I often hear from leaders is that people will get on board with the change eventually if they value their jobs. In other words, eat what you are served or don’t eat.

    • So, if people don’t like the pizza or simply object to the way they are forced fed, they are out of luck?
    • What if someone is allergic to an ingredient?
    • What if their previous pizza was healthier?

    The level of energy and resources required to change in this manner generates a lot of waste, undermines trust, and achieves little for all the pains taken. Moreover, what is considered “success” leaves in its wake unforeseen and unintended circumstances. I have seen statistics stating that between 60-80% of all organisational change initiatives fail to achieve their objectives, but if we look at how many actually achieve sustainable results, the numbers are likely to be much worse. That said, it is widely believed with professional application of change management methods, these odds can be greatly improved, which is true, unless the situation is highly complex.

    Common approaches assume that change occurs linearly through successive efforts and that through process and persuasion / coercion, employees will ultimately support the change. In a complex environment, however, challenges are magnified because of the diversity in the system and the fact that many, many changes are often happening simultaneously, sometimes hidden from oversight. In this case, arriving at a consensus solutions only leads to dissatisfaction and frustration. As a result change will either have no application or undermine the interests of the stakeholders, it will likely create unforeseen impacts, or it will be one of many forces impacting employees that cannot be reconciled. As a result, many employees will openly reject the change or create shadow systems to maintain the status quo.

    By looking at change through this lens we have an opportunity to see that our assumptions about change… need to change. We can no longer consider change solely as an organisational intervention but as a series of individual interventions emerging at the base level – the individual, the team, or the group. We need to consider everyone in the organisation as their own pizza chefs.

    First, we need to agree on some key assumptions:

    • Change is normal, perpetual, and inevitable: Change is not a single event with a beginning, middle and end to be endured. Rather it is something that we can accept as part of normal operations and that is often happening on multiple fronts simultaneously.
    • Change comes from many sources (if we are lucky): Ideally change is not driven solely from the top but comes as a result of many factors and influences. Bottom-up change efforts should be just as recognised and valued.
    • Change is affected by both internal & external conditions: Change is activated, not only by what is going on inside the organisation but also what is changing in the external landscape.
    • Organisational change is enabled by individual change: Resistance simply means that people are acting under different assumptions within their own context. Identifying these differences and removing barriers allows for greater adaptation and drives better solutions. Finding a common purpose that allows people to see the value within their own context will allow change at the individual level enabling it at the organisational level.
    • A balance of dissent and cooperation is optimal: Dissent amplifies the differences and is to be explored. Where opportunities to cooperate are identified without sacrificing essential local requirements, value is created. Where cooperation would be damaging to one or more players or bring down the satisfaction of whole, other solutions are sought out. Consensus is failure.

    Under these assumptions, structuring for change requires a framework so that each individual or group can go through change in their own way. The Prosci model for individual change ADKAR is one such framework in that it enables us to understand where the individual is in their change transition and where we may help them remove barriers.

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    So, to stretch our metaphor, we may still make pizza, but people are encouraged to make their own small pizzas while experimenting with different ingredients. The dough, spices, utensils and oven are all provided (as part of the change framework), but each cook designs their pizza according to their own preferences, desires, and tastes. Some may decide that calzone is better while others may decide to use lavash bread to keep it healthy. A number of cooks may share recipes and partner on a pizza, or they may choose to make a single pizza with some ingredients on one side and different ingredients on the other. Once the pizzas are made, everybody gets to sample the results. We then look to see if one or two pizzas prove to be more popular, then make more of these pizzas to share. If no optimum is achieved, everyone continues to experiment within the pizza framework.

    Now isn’t that a nicer picture than being dragged by the hair for mediocre results? What is interesting is how it works. Whether looking at the way organisms adapt or how companies like Lego or Pixar create, this balance of top down and bottom-up adaptive change at the individual or group level is highly efficient, and it can be applied differently depending on the environment. Of course, change starts with an idea. Innovation is what adaptation is really about and Change Management is in inexorably linked to it. A truly adaptive organisation never ceases to innovate and remains in a continuous state of change. Integrating these two systems is the path towards efficient adaptation.

    Learn more

    For a deeper dive into individual change, read more about the cornerstone of the Prosci methodology - the ADKAR model. Download the eBook.

    Join us for our upcoming webinar, Project Management vs Change Management - An Integrated Approach on Friday 4th June. In this webinar, we'll explore the importance of these complementary disciplines that share a common objective – change success. Register here.

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    Topics: ADKAR, Getting Started with Change Management