Why is Change So Damn Hard!?

Why is Change So Damn Hard!?

One of the primary things that Product Managers are constantly working on is change — changing the way people view our customers, changing the way our customers view our product, changing the culture of our company to be more agile, changing peoples’ minds about what’s important and what’s  not…the list goes on and on.  And, not surprisingly, nearly every Product Manager eventually comes to the realization that change is hard.  I mean really, really hard.  And sometimes it seems like even the smallest changes are the hardest to get people to commit to and deliver on a regular basis.  So why is change so hard?  Here are a few of the common reasons…

Humans are Creatures of Habit

One of the biggest issues that we run into as Product Managers when trying to drive change in our organizations is the simple fact that human beings are primarily creatures of habit and routine. Studies have shown that up to 40% of the things that we do every day, we do in exactly the same way, at roughly the same time, and often in the same mindset.  This is an adaptive trait — engaging in common tasks and approaching common situations from a clean slate every single time is simply a waste of our mental and emotional energy.  And, for the most part it helps us out – we know how to get to work and don’t have to map it out every morning; we know how we like our coffee so we don’t have to think too hard when we approach the barista in the afternoon; we know where we usually park so we don’t have to engage in a search and rescue exercise every time we leave our office.  But, there is also a flip side to this predilection for habits — it’s really hard to convince people that their habits need to change — after all, it’s worked just fine before, hasn’t it?  And, even if you can get past that bar, getting people to change their habits requires a really high level of commitment as a change agent — you’re not fighting the person’s conscious mind, but rather their subconscious tendency to revert to their habits.

People Revert to Type Under Stress

As if habits weren’t enough, most work environments add stress on top of previously-existing habits.  The expectations that we have on others to perform to high levels of achievement and competence on a regular basis, with limited resources, and with tight deadlines can all wind up seriously backfiring on us.  That’s because, no matter how good the intentions are, and no matter how much someone wants to change, when push comes to shove and the pressure is on, our minds naturally revert to behaviors that worked for us before — even if they weren’t habitual.  Again, this is an adaptive response on the part of the human mind — when we are stressed, we want nothing more than to relieve that stress.  And the easiest way that we know to relieve that stress is to repeat behavior that has worked successfully in the past, and has in fact relieved that pressure.  That’s why we can’t afford to sit back and relax once things seem to be heading in the right direction — as change agents we must be watchful for increases in stress, pressure, and expectations, and work carefully with those in our organization to ensure that new habits are established and old habits are left in the past.

Change Introduces Uncertainty

We’ve looked at how the past can affect peoples’ ability and interest in changing behaviors and culture, but there’s an equally important forward-looking consideration to manage — uncertainty.  Any time that we’re proposing a change in approach, a change in culture, or a change in process, we’re introducing uncertainty into the organization.  There’s literally no way to avoid this — change naturally produces uncertainty.  We can’t ever be 100% certain that what we’re trying to do will effect the outcome that we want or promise — this is why we make lean changes to confirm small hypotheses, after all.  So we simply have to accept and reinforce the fact that if we never change, then we never improve.  Sure, there’s a little bit of uncertainty involved — but would you rather be certain that you’re consistently underperforming, or take on the risk that you might wind up being more productive through controlled and transparent experimentation?  We can’t prevent uncertainty from creeping in, but by acknowledging it as a legitimate concern and identifying the different ways in which you’re working to mitigate those risks, you can push people to look past their hesitancy and toward a future in which everyone is better, happier, and more effective.

Change is scary, for a lot of reasons and to a lot of people — and as Product Managers we need to be cognizant of these patterns and concerns so that we can help people through them, so that the entire organization comes out better on the other side.

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