Why is change management so hard?
I believe it’s because most humans fear the unknown. Change jeopardizes daily routines, modifies inter-personal relationships, and – most of all – forces us to deal with the unknown.
The classic Who Moved My Cheese? tells the story of four creatures in a maze and how they react when their routine is changed (i.e., their cheese is moved). The book makes the case change itself is neither good nor bad; it has always happened and you should expect it always will happen. The only real danger is ignoring change. If you do so, you will eventually run out of cheese.
I’ve previously argued the sudden change of big bang performance management won’t shock the proverbial frog into jumping out of the pot. Instead, sustainable performance improvements coming from changing behaviors and Grinch-like heart growth.
Changing the behavior of one Grinch is hard but changing a larger group is substantially harder. It’s too easy to suffer from “group think” and allow organizational inertia to set in. A colleague recently suggested the following experiment to explain why change in large groups is difficult:
Place ten monkeys in a cage. Hang a banana on a string out of their reach and place a set of stairs under it. As soon as any one of the monkeys tries to climb the stairs to get the banana, spray all of monkey with cold water. The monkey will immediately stop climbing the stairs.
Whenever a monkey tries to get the banana, repeat this same process. Pretty soon, none of the monkeys will try to climb the stairs. This is classic Skinner negative reinforcement.
Now, replace one of the monkeys with one that has never been in the cage. This new monkey will likely try to climb the stairs to get the banana. However, the other monkeys will stop him – they don’t want to get sprayed with the water.
Next, replace another of the original ten monkeys. The new monkey tries to get the banana but the others won’t let him. Even the first newcomer tries to stop him, even though that monkey doesn’t know about the cold water.
Keep replacing the original monkeys with new ones, one at a time. Every time the newest monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys stop him. After a while, most of the monkeys have no idea why they shouldn’t climb the stairs but the group refuses to allow anyone to do it.
After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Regardless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.
Why not? Because, as far as they know, that’s the way it’s always been done. It’s institutional memory at work.
I doubt this experiment is factual and, if it is, it’s probably not an ethical way to treat monkeys. In addition, humans are not the same as monkeys; reasoned arguments can influence behavior even when the wisdom of the crowds suggests otherwise. Regardless, the experiment is a vivid reminder of organizational inertia and can explain why it’s hard to introduce change to large groups.
If it was your job to discover new ways to get the bananas, what would you do?