Articles 2 min read

Change managers should kick the bucket by Sophie Rena

If you want change to stick you need to kick the bucket. This is something I often advise when I’m banging on about bringing about real – and lasting – organisational change. Unsurprisingly, it tends to lead to somewhat alarmed looks.

The story behind this is stolen shamelessly from my Change Management trainer (with thanks @rajivkhanna). Raj had returned home to India to visit his elderly parents. There he noticed that his parents were still using the traditional tap and bucket to wash. Recognising that it might be time to drag them into the twentieth century he set about helping them install a shower. Back at home in the UK a few weeks later, he asked his parents how they were getting on with the new shower. ‘Oh’ they said, ‘Doesn’t it make our bathroom look lovely and modern! We like it very much.’ On enquiring more deeply he realised that not only had they not removed the bucket but that it was, in fact, still the only way they washed. The shower remained lovely and modern – and un-used. See where I’m going with this?

If you consider the shower story as an analogy for change, there are several morals that, believe it or not, are very relevant for change management:

  • The first is about delivery. How often have we witnessed, as change managers and communicators, an organisation charge into full-blown delivery mode without thinking that the change might actually require a change of behaviour? Using the shower required the elderly parents to shed old habits and do something differently. It wasn’t enough just to install a shower and expect them to get on with it.
  • ­This leads to the second vital consideration for successful change: you need to SELL the change. A lot. In retrospect, Raj couldn’t help but think if he had explained the rationale behind installing the shower as well as the benefits (Faster! More hygienic! More economical!) his parents might have been persuaded to actually use it.
  • The third is the one that is usually least thought through in change and one of the most critical: to bring about lasting change you need to take the bucket away. Don’t underestimate the lure of old habits – faced with the option of having to adopt, and usually learn something new, most people are likely to fall back on what’s easiest. The parents liked the look of the shower but using it would require them to do something they weren’t used to and, well, with the bucket still there, it was much easier to stay with the tried and tested.

This idea that you have to remove the crutch, the familiar, before you can bring about successful change applies in most contexts. If you want to give up smoking, as my husband is working out now, don’t think you are going to achieve it using a vape and, well, smoking a ‘little bit less’. Again, if you are asking people to use a new IT system, you really need to consider removing that legacy system as well. We’ve all witnessed an organisation roll-out expensive new shiny digital toys such as Yammer, with much fanfare and excitement, only to find, a few months later, that the only enthusiastic adopters are the cat video and photography groups. Why? The reasons are many and for another blog but it’s likely those thirty years of hard-wired email habit might have something to do with it. As well as the dinosaur intranet no one can quite bring themselves to kill.

Change by definition involves loss of some kind: if you want to people to change TO something, you need to take away the thing they are changing FROM. Otherwise you risk your change unravelling. Who said kicking the bucket was easy?

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