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Three simple principles to increase the chance of success in your change projects

Do you want to change a certain habit or ensure that your team remains engaged during a change project in your organization? Several studies claim that about 70% of change projects fail. There are numerous reasons why these projects don't go as planned, including organizational structures and procedures, resistance to change among individuals, poor communication, or lacking the right leadership to facilitate the change. What I've observed is that many of these issues often boil down to three main problems: the projects being too large, too complex, or too vague. This holds true not only for large organizations but also for individuals endeavoring to alter their behavior.





Understanding how our Brainflix works.


I like to use the metaphor of Brainflix to explain the functioning of our unconscious brain. Much like the app Netflix, which offers a vast selection of movies and series, Brainflix represents a platform of habits, routines, and actions controlled by our unconscious mind, which has been running since birth. Our mind manages multiple programs simultaneously, handling tasks such as regulating heartbeat, processing emotions, and performing cognitive functions without our conscious awareness. The capabilities of our brain are truly astounding.


While many of the programs running in our lives operate smoothly, our unconscious brain's efficiency in automating tasks can lead to unhealthy habits when outdated programs are at play. For instance, our evolutionary brain's preference for high-calorie foods no longer serves us well in societies with abundant processed foods, contributing to issues like obesity. Moreover, impulsive behaviors driven by immediate rewards can lead to financial recklessness, risky actions, or addictions.


Too vague, too complex or too big.


As human beings, we can consciously decide to change aspects of these behaviors, and it's entirely possible to cultivate new, healthier habits. However, if these changes are too vague, complex, or extensive, they often meet resistance. Many of our New Year's resolutions (and organizational change projects) fall into one or more of these categories. For example, stating "I want to live a healthier life" is vague, complex, and significant in scope.


When changes are overly vague, complex, or significant, our unconscious brain tends to resist, resulting in a fight, flight, or freeze response, ultimately maintaining the status quo. While we may exert willpower to enforce a new habit temporarily, the automatic pull of old behaviors eventually takes over again. A simple strategy to address many of these challenges is to make changes—both personal habits and organizational changes—more specific, smooth, and small.


Make it Specific


A straightforward approach to initiating change is by asking yourself: Can I visualise the desired behaviour? If the answer is affirmative, it indicates that the change objective is sufficiently specific. For instance, if your organisation aims to prioritise sustainability, clarity is key in outlining the expected actions from employees. Simply stating a desire for sustainability lacks clarity; specifying actions like "reducing energy consumption" remains ambiguous. However, setting a clear expectation such as "every employee turning off lights & computers in the evening" can be easily depicted with a mental image, enhancing clarity and facilitating implementation.


An intriguing perspective is to place trust in locals. Just as we rely on locals for restaurant recommendations while on vacation, we can extend the same trust to our employees. Encouraging them to articulate specific tasks and habits necessary for fostering a more sustainable, agile, or client-oriented organisation can yield valuable insights. For example, individuals in the accounting department may propose different actions compared to those in the sales team. Imagine providing employees with a personalised commitment list, allowing them to select five actions from a pool of fifteen potential ones. Such an approach not only empowers employees but also increases the likelihood of tangible, meaningful change taking root within the organisation.


Make it Smooth


Our unconscious brain tends to shy away from complexity, struggling to find a starting point and often succumbing to resistance. When it comes to change, there are three psychological resistances: reactance (a need for autonomy), skepticism (a need for security), and inertia (a need for energy). Acknowledging and understanding these resistances allows us to proactively consider how to positively influence these factors. It's essential to recognize that our brains naturally gravitate towards simplicity and autonomy, yet they resist change due to ingrained psychological tendencies such as the need for autonomy, security, and energy. By acknowledging these resistances upfront, we can develop strategies to address them effectively, paving the way for smoother transitions.


For instance, to enhance customer and employee satisfaction, empowering frontline employees with a client budget allows them autonomy in addressing client needs. The Ritz Carlton exemplifies this by allocating a "Wow" budget of $2000 per client, enabling employees to decide how to address client challenges independently. This approach not only increases employee satisfaction by giving them autonomy but also enhances customer experiences as employees can respond to individual needs promptly and creatively.


While providing employees with increased security may not always be feasible due to rapid changes, embracing humility as a leader and involving employees in decision-making can be an effective strategy. Creating a platform for employees to express concerns and focusing collectively on solutions rather than problems fosters a culture of engagement and empowerment. By acknowledging that leaders don't have all the answers and encouraging open dialogue, organizations can tap into the collective intelligence of their teams to navigate uncertainty and drive positive change.


Moreover, when individuals understand their tasks and harbor no concerns yet fail to act, nudging them in the right direction can be beneficial. Nudging involves subtly influencing behavior or decision-making without impeding freedom of choice. For example, altering default options in a meeting reservation system to 45 minutes instead of an hour resulted in 80% of meetings adhering to the shorter timeframe, fostering a more positive organizational atmosphere with time for interpersonal connections. This demonstrates how small changes in default options can lead to significant shifts in behavior, ultimately contributing to a more productive and cohesive work environment.


Make it Small


When a change project looms large, individuals often feel overwhelmed, resorting to familiar habits to avoid the stress of where to begin. This pattern is mirrored in organisations, where grand ideas lead to extensive planning, meetings, reports, and expanding initiatives. The antidote? Embrace small experiments. Why experiments? Because, in experimenting, the focus is on the process, not the outcome. The goal is to discover which processes best foster lasting habits.


Actions should also be small—super small. Conditions for small actions: cost less than one euro, completed within five minutes, and started within 24 hours. If these conditions aren't met, it's likely still too ambitious. While having big dreams is commendable, the key is to take small, manageable steps. The journey toward a goal is composed of numerous small steps, sometimes with ups and downs. Celebrate small successes along the way. Enjoy the process, and acknowledge your achievements, even those from the past, as a source of energy for current endeavours.


Consistency in small daily actions trumps sporadic intensity. James Clear's quote, "Every action you take is a vote for the person you wish to be," underscores the power of identity in habit formation. Small steps connect you to a desired identity, reinforcing habits. Consistency in small actions aligns with the brain's programming, creating a chain reaction of positive habits. For instance, incorporating a daily five-minute walk may influence healthier lunch choices, illustrating how one small experiment can trigger a cascade of positive changes. Embrace the power of small experiments for lasting transformation.


We hope that these three principles can help you to increase the success rate of your change projects - personal behaviour or organisational change projects. If you want to dive deeper into this topic, Cyriel Kortleven - the author of this post - has a very insightful keynote on this topic.

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