The ‘Six-Month Rule’ of Organisational Change – It’s All Personal!

It is said, “All politics is local”. Picking up on that aphorism, I think it is equally true that all change is personal.

So Much Known – So Little Followed!

There is a substantial body of research and theory about organisational change management (OCM) dating back to the mid-1950s or even earlier. Most OCM findings seem to resonate with people who are facing, or who have faced, organisational change. And yet, nearly all of the findings and recommendations from the body of OCM knowledge seem to be woefully lacking when it comes to increasing the success of change management initiatives. If this were not the case, why do so many change initiatives fail to meet their objectives?

For IT professionals, even the terminology can be confusing! I had a long, and I thought, enlightening conversation with a CIO some years back about the challenges and importance of managing change. About an hour into the conversation, it became apparent that he was talking about technical change management – configuration management, release control, testing and all that good stuff, while I was talking about the so-called ‘soft’ stuff (which is so hard!) of organisational change management!

How Have You Dealt With Change?

Ultimately, to effect change such as that involved in the introduction of a new work process or new tool, or increasing collaboration across silos, or improving team effectiveness, individuals must leave behind habits and behaviours ingrained over many years and adopt new ones. Think about changes you have tried to make in your personal life – how many have truly succeeded? Be it weight loss, increased exercise, learning a new skill or any other change, chances are you’ve had way more failures than successes.

A couple of years ago, after 60 years of reasonably successful brushing of my teeth (I still have most of them!), my dental hygienist suggested a slight change to my brushing regimen. This did not require new skills, or new equipment, or any difficult physical movement. It just required changing a habit of literally, a lifetime. How long would it take to institutionalise this change – to make the new way of brushing my new habit?

For me, it took concentrated effort for about six months for the new brushing regimen to become habit – leading to my ‘Six-Month Rule’ for behaviour change. And during that period, I slipped a few times. I did not suddenly decide to go back to my lifetime’s brushing habit, or decide to give up on the new approach suggested by the dental hygienist – no, I just lost focus in the early morning when I got up, or the late evening when I went to bed, and – voila – I was back in the old routine! It took conscious effort, as well as all sorts of reminders to help me stick with the change long enough for it to become institutionalised! (For those facing a tooth-brushing change, try a piece of string or rubber band around the handle of your toothbrush as a gentle reminder!)

The Six Month Rule – And Why Changes Fail

With business attention spans getting ever shorter, how can an organisational change that will take at least six months to shift behaviours be expected to stick? No wonder the “this too shall pass” response to dictated change is so common – by the time the changes may be starting to take hold, top management has moved on to the next big challenge or opportunity!

And my ‘Six-Month Rule’ applies to changed behaviour demanded of someone who believes in that change.  Supposing for a moment, that my tooth-brushing routine change was not something I believed in? Or that it required I learn a new skill? Or, as with an adjustment to a golf swing, it actually degraded my golfing abilities while I adjust to the new swing? (Visions of me walking around with gobs of food all over my teeth, apologising and explaining, “Sorry about the filthy teeth. I’m learning a new way to brush – it should all be cleared up by Christmas!”) It’s no wonder that the response to so many corporate change programmes is, “This too shall pass!”.

Most of what we do during a day’s work is based on deeply ingrained habit. It’s not necessarily the ‘best’ way, or even the ‘right’ way – but it’s the way that is familiar too us and, most importantly, predictable. And it is these deeply ingrained behaviours that are so hard to change and that often derail organisational change initiatives.

Lessons Learned, Questions to Ponder

We can all learn lessons about organisational change management – whether we are leading them or simply participating – by looking into ourselves and identifying what we need to be doing differently, and how are we going to accomplish that. Achieving change at the personal level is crucial for most corporate change programmes. While it is easy to depersonalise change at work as “something that’s going on around me”, the reality is that if we don’t change ourselves at some deep, personal level, the desired change will not take hold.

So, first ask yourself, “Do I want this change to succeed? What might be in it for me? What if it fails – how might I be impacted?” Then, assuming you decide the change is positive, ask yourself, “What do I need to be doing differently? What will that look like and feel like? How will I go about making the personal changes happen? How will I recognise success or failure, and what consequences will I hold over myself?”

I welcome your thoughts.

Vaughan Merlyn

Formicio Insight Article: The ‘Six-Month Rule’ of Organisational Change – It’s All Personal!

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