Recently, at work, we have gone through some major organizational changes.  We have moved away from an IT organization that was a collection of functional silos – Architecture, Design and Analysis, Application Delivery, Release and QA, and so on –  to more integrated groups aligned with our business units.  As we move towards more cross-functional, self-organizing agile teams, colleagues have noticed that many of us feel a bit disoriented.  Many don’t know what to do, many have a negative reaction to the changes and then there are some who have already accepted the changes, and are impatient that there team mates are too slow to change.

Reactions to Change

As we experience change, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined and categorized our psychological reactions to it:

We find  that people react to change differently and they might be anywhere along this change spectrum, including in the “pit of despair”.  And each need different type of support.  For those in shock and denial need information and communication.  Those who have self-doubt and inching towards acceptance, need emotional support.  And those who are exploring and understanding, need direction and guidance.

The Rider and The Elephant

The Elephant and the Rider (credit aashish vaidya)

Another framework to understand and initiate change is developed by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book Switch.  They note that our brains have two independent systems at work:

First, there’s what we called the emotional side.  It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure.  Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system.  It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.

The Heath brothers adopt the terminology of the Elephant (the emotional side) and the Rider (the rational side) introduced by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.  This isn’t necessarily a new concept, as you find variations articulated by Plato, Freud and many others.

When we are in midst of change, like moving our software development from waterfall to agile methods, or getting better at adopting and refining agile methodology; or for that matter any other type of change effort, we need to understand both these aspects of our brains – The Rider and The Elephant.  This is how the Heath brothers define it:

The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy.  So if you reach the Riders of your team but not the Elephants, team members will have understanding without motivation.  If you reach their Elephants but not their Riders, they’ll have passion without direction.  In both cases, the flaws can be paralyzing.  A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes.  But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.

It is possible to get our rational side to exert control over our emotional side, but that can prove exhausting for the Rider.  To illustrate this point, Dan Heath in this FastCompany video and article, and also in the book, recount a study about radishes and cookies.

Will to Change is Finite

College students (the usual guinea pigs in these types of studies) were asked to fast for 3 hours and report to a study about food taste perception.  They were then led to a lab that smelled amazing from freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.  In the middle of the room were 2 bowls – one filled with cookies and another with radishes.  Half the participants were asked to sample the cookies but not radishes and another half to eat radishes only.  Then the researchers left the room.  The cookie eaters probably had no issues resisting the urge to eat the radishes!  However, despite the temptation, the radish-eaters showed amazing willpower and did not eat any of the cookies.  Here is where another set of wily researchers came in and declared that the taste perception study was over.  But, they were doing another study about problem solving.  At that point, they asked the participants to solve a puzzle.  Unbeknownst to the participants, the puzzle had no real solution.

What the researchers were trying to find out was whether there was difference in a way the cookie-eaters and the radish – eaters approached the puzzle?  Well, it turns out there was.  The cookie-eaters made 34 attempts at the puzzle and persisted for 19 minutes.  The radish-eaters made only 19 attempts and gave up in half the time.  Why is this?  Well, study shows that the radish-eaters who were tempted to eat cookies but did not, simply ran out of self-control.  So when another challenging task – solving an impossible puzzle was giving to them – they were simply exhausted.  Of course, your takeaway from study shouldn’t be , eat more cookies and not radishes.  But, it should be that the will to change is indeed finite.  The Heath brothers say, “what looks like laziness is often exhaustion.”

IT organizations, when they decide to change from traditional waterfall software development, or initiate any other major changes, find many team members, managers and business partners show reluctance to these change efforts.  In many instances, it is because their Elephants are genuinely spooked at the spectre of losing the clout they have built in an organization or potentially losing their jobs, or myriad of other real and imagined fears.  Change induces a fight or flight response.

Many times, we share information about changes, appealing to the rational brain, but we don’t really address “what is in it for me” part of the equation.  That is, we don’t engage the emotional side.  And so the changes simply don’t stick.  Our rational side tries hard, but in the end, the willpower dissipates. This is due to skittishness of  our emotional side, which is “often looking for the quick payoff”, at the expense of long-term gains.  Change management saps our willpower, if we don’t find a way to motivate our emotional sides.

In my next post, I will continue to explore more on the change management theme.

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