Friday 29 July 2016

Which is the best driver of change, new thinking or new behaviour?

I visited Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario last week. At the local museum, I read about Francis Clergue, the entrepreneur who founded the area's steel, paper, and railway industries in the early 1900s. His motto was "To think is to act." His business philosophy recalled an age-old change management debate: What is the best driver of change  new thinking or new behaviour?

There is a school of thought aligned with Mr. Clergue's modus operandi: Changing how people think changes how they act and behave. If an organization's new purpose or strategy makes sense, people will adjust their actions and behaviour to support it. 

Communicating why a change is necessary and how it will benefit the business and its employees is an essential starting point of a large transition. Most employees have an opinion on how an organization should be run and sharing facts about the need for change makes room for consideration and agreement. People are more likely to support a change if it makes sense and the consequences of not doing it are known.

An example of this approach is a leader communicating the benefits of a new technology for the business (consolidation of databases; better analytics; greater efficiency; etc.) and employees (user-friendly navigation; prepopulation of data fields; mobile access; etc.) to get their buy-in and support. People are more likely to attend training and learn new processes because they know the system will be good for the business and its employees.

The "thinking to acting" approach is insufficient for successful change. There is no guarantee people will be motivated to change their behaviour just because they think they should. Also, people may not know how to align how they act with the change and therefore either do nothing differently or act in new ways that unknowingly hinder it.

The opposite approach is the reverse of Mr. Clergue's motto: "To act is to think." Getting people to act in new ways that support the change will, over time, change how they think about it. When people experience the benefits of doing things differently that are in line with the change, they will change how they think about it. Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, authored this approach: "Put in place small behavioural changes that lead (people) bit by bit to think about things differently." 

Specifying the actions and behaviours that people must follow for a change to be successful is an important part of transition. It defines what they must do to take on the change. It also enables measurement of how they are progressing and identifies who needs extra support or is resisting the change. 

An example of this approach is a leader who wants to increase collaboration among functional teams by asking people to do three things: offer help to solve problems owned by other functions; on every project, include a representative of each function that is impacted by it; and participate in a rewards program where people nominate peers in other functions who have helped them. People start to value collaboration when they see the benefits of it firsthand.

The "acting to thinking" approach is also insufficient. People often are resistant to change when they don't know why it is needed. If a change doesn't make sense, taking on activities or behaviours to support it can seem like a waste of time, or worse, a way to fail. People may choose to not change their behaviour because they think they know best or don't want to risk doing something new just because they have been asked to do it.

So, new thinking or new behaviour, which is the best driver of change? If I had to pick one I would choose behaviour. Since both are insufficient enablers, a better question is, "How can you best enable change?" Changing both how people think and behave provides the rationale and guidance needed to successfully adopt a change. As another historic figure, Abraham Lincoln, wisely said, "As our case is new, we must think and act anew."



  1. I love this article! Thank you Phil! The example of the leader wishing to create greater cross functional collaboration is a bit of a Think-Act-Think! The leader thinks about a few key strategies that might enable greater interdependence and likely shares those three ideas with others who THINK, based upon the explanation and trust in the leader, that applying these practices would be worth a shot! After "acting" in the defined ways, they take time to "think" and reflect on the effectiveness of their practice. The leader likely plans an activity that enables the team to reflect back on lessons learned! Nice lesson is change enablement!

  2. Hi Cathy, thank you for your note. The leader planning an activity that enables to team to reflect on lessons learned and benefits gained would help their thinking process, even if it was a single feedback question kicking off a regular management meeting.