Will Rogers was one of the most revered public figures in the early 1900s, and much of his popularity was due to his tremendous understanding of and connection with people. As a keen student of human nature, Rogers unsurprisingly identified a fundamental key to successful change in his statement: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble; it’s what we know that ain’t so.”

How many changes have been hampered by individuals who rigidly hold onto the current state because of something they “know” that ain’t so? For example, when U.S. auto manufacturers first observed lean production, they refused to believe their own eyes. “You can’t build cars that way — not enough inventory.” They struggled to understand a world that didn’t fit into their view of reality even when faced with clear evidence.

Our collection of deep-seated beliefs and assumptions create our view of the world. Often these beliefs and assumptions are so deep-seated that we don’t realize they are in play. When faced with evidence that conflicts with our beliefs, we look for flaws in the evidence rather than flaws in our beliefs.

This collection of beliefs and assumptions create our paradigm or view of the world and can be painfully difficult to change. When taking an organization through change, it is important to accept that much of the resistance that occurs can be traced to the inherent difficulty in releasing paradigms. As enlightened change agents, we need to understand paradigms and how best to change them.

Paradigms are held in place by three factors:

  1. Background – What one has been taught and accepts as true (e.g., “The world is flat.”)
  2. Experience – “This is the way I have always done it,” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  3. Knowledge – New information.

Often we attempt to change paradigms solely through new information, such as when the car executives toured the lean production plant. Since their background and manufacturing experience conflicted with this new information, they challenged the information as incomplete or inconclusive.

On the other end of the spectrum, a person’s background is built over his lifetime, so short of going back in time to make changes (or the onset of amnesia), there is not much promise of changing paradigms there.

That leaves the middle factor — experience. This is where we get the most powerful element in changing a paradigm. Once someone has a new experience that disproves their assumption, they can no longer argue with the evidence. If you get creative, you can almost always find a way to provide a new experience that can effectively change a paradigm, even when faced with a strong resistance to change. Some strategies include:

       1. “Just try it.”  Often we don’t need you to believe it or agree with it — just try it. Fear of the unknown is a powerful obstacle. Just make it easy for them to try it and see what the results are. When implementing visual control boards in a plant, the operators were pushing back. The enlightened supervisor appealed to the operators with: “Just give it a try. We’ve got nothing to lose, and we may learn something.”

        2. “Give it your best shot.”  Appealing to a person’s ego can be a powerful factor. Consider the example of the experienced mechanic who didn’t want to use the new laser alignment tool. The enlightened supervisor appealed to the mechanic’s self-esteem with the request: “You’re my top mechanic. I would like you to use the new procedure. Give me your best effort, and let’s see what the results are.”

        3. “Let’s learn together.”  A consultant was brought in to help a plant reduce changeover times. The supervisor (unsurprisingly) resisted. The consultant proposed: “Let’s videotape the changeover, and then we will review it together. If we don’t find any opportunities, then so be it.” Needless to say, the supervisor found all sorts of opportunities.

Too many times, change is approached with a heaping dose of 1950s parental encouragement, i.e., “Because I said so.” Maybe not intentionally or with those words, but the eagerness to get things moving often leaves insufficient room to let people learn for themselves. By changing the process to include discovery and experience, you build successes and momentum.

About the Author

With more than 20 years of experience in organizational design, change management and delivering sustainable improvements, Scott Franklin is a well-respected authority on organizational change, specializing in the leadership responsibilities of change management. Scott is a Prosci-certified change management professional and a certified trainer for Prosci’s change management programs. He brings specific expertise in the areas of creating a combined learning organization in parallel with a strengths-based organization while simultaneously creating a culture of execution. You can reach Scott at changemgmt@LCE.com.