It’s easy to for people leading performance improvement change efforts to get passionate about needed change, talk it up, feel like others have bought in, see the vision, will go the distance, etc. It’s also dangerous. Let me suggest why. It is a dangerous… mistake, because I don’t think vision or a compelling business case or whatever might sound like a higher aspiration actually drives change. I think it focuses a change effort, but it doesn’t drive it, and a dangerous mistake to think or believe that performance improvement efforts are “self funding.” Instead, I’m suggesting that discomfort and what’s identified as the cause of discomfort is the engine that drives change. Nothing else. Without discomfort, things don’t move. Even drivers like the need for high achievement, power, competition, or affiliation on some level get activated to drive behavior by tying into discomfort or anxiety. Anxiety about not being good enough, making enough, ahead enough, having it taken away, losing the opportunity, being under-recognized, not being in control… and the list goes on. So, if we reduced that to something real simple, it might sound like this:1. Discomfort is the engine to drive change and activate behavior, and 2. Other emotional needs or cognitive patterns, such as the need for power or achievement or vision, give it focus or a direction, but are not the engine that drives the process. So where’s the danger? The danger comes in two parts. First in the excitement of the passionate, change agents can forget or overlook this important rule – “Whoever is in power will want to get rid of the biggest discomfort first depending upon the level of induced pain required to remove the discomfort.” Note that I didn’t say they would get rid of discomforts in order of the impact on holding the company back. It’s much more personal than that. People in power, who can authorize spending resources on change, want to get rid of discomforts if the solution or change process doesn’t cause them too much pain in the process. It’s a personal trade-off. It is for all of us. And I’m also suggesting that there’s some type of rating or selection process to compare relative discomfort levels of both problems and solutions ascribed to current outcomes, activities, people, etc.
Here comes the second rule, and more to the point about danger. “The identified source of discomfort can change very rapidly. It can feel like a game of pin the tail on the donkey.” In this game of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” change agents, because of the predeliction to wanting to tell the truth, are by definition a source of both relief and DISCOMFORT. I probably didn’t need to put that in caps, but I did just to make sure you got it. Ok, so the danger is that as a change agent, 1. You’ll tell too many discomforting truths to the people in power, such that you’ll look like a bigger personal discomfort than the problem you intend to fix. When that happens you get sidelined or removed, or 2. You’ll get the high level discomfort abated while in the process of working on larger systemic issues, and suddenly the biggest discomfort is you, your fee, your truth telling. You made the mistake of fixing too much or creating personal comfort up front. Now you stick out like the biggest discomfort. Ah, you’re the new person with a donkey tail on your back. Very likely, someone in power is having to defend you, your idea, the process, the cost, because it is now the biggest identified discomfort, not the performance you are focused on resolving. Now the very effort to reduce discomfort is identified as the biggest discomfort, and guess what? Change process is over… can you hear the relief? Quick take-away, as I’ve taken longer than I wanted to write this entry.
If you’re driving change, remember your fundamental job is to manage discomfort, keep your idea on it, and how it is labeled or focused. Make sure you aren’t identified as the biggest source of discomfort… because you or the process you are driving is likely a relatively painless discomfort to remove.