How to change behaviour in your disrupted organisation

When a company or industry is beset by massive disruption – as the traditional media have been for more than a decade now – it creates two massive challenges:

  1. Figuring out how the business has to change.

  2. Changing behaviours in the organisation to get the new things done.

As most people in the newspaper industry can testify, both of these are difficult and relentless. There’s no “one and done” in a disruption as massive as the digital revolution.

And, unfortunately, success at No. 1 is no guarantee of success at No. 2.

Over last three years, I’ve blogged frequently about No. 1. This time let’s look at No. 2.

There’s a principle that applies over and over again when you’re trying to change people’s behaviours, in business or anywhere else. I learned it in a business seminar 22 years ago, and it forever changed my thinking and behaviour. But, strangely, I’ve never heard or read about it anywhere else.

Here’s how it happened.

On December 9, 1992, my wife and I attended a business talk in Detroit by a psychotherapist and business change-management consultant named Morrie Shechtman. At that time, I was the third-generation publisher and editor of my family’s daily newspaper in Monroe, Michigan.

Shechtman’s talk focused on how massive increases in the amount of available information were accelerating change throughout business and society, and how business leaders must adapt their organisations to survive and thrive in that high-risk climate.

Back then, the Web hadn’t even happened yet. Now, in the digital era, information is multiplying even faster, and the forces of change along with it. IDC estimated in 2011 that 90% of the world’s information had been created in the previous two years.

Shechtman pointed out how individual behaviours were changing, how businesses and organisations were being torqued into new shapes, and how the structure of society was shifting, all driven by individuals making choices based on new information. And he laid out a number of facts and principles that made logical sense of these changes. It was brilliant.

His analysis has had a huge impact on me ever since. It has tremendously influenced my sense of what’s happening in the media business and across all parts of society. Here I blogged about the implications for the entire planet.

But in midstream, one of his points struck me as absurdly obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I thought he should have been embarrassed to say it. It went like this:

“The only thing that changes people’s behaviour is new information. People will go on doing what they’re doing right now, until they get new information.”

In the car on the way home, my wife and I discussed the insights we’d just gained. Then I remembered that seemingly obvious statement. I wondered if I had missed something important there.

Of course, new information changes behaviour. If people are sitting in a crowded theater and someone shouts “Fire!” their behaviour will change instantly. If someone tells you where you can get gasoline 10 cents cheaper, you will change your behaviour the next time you need a fill-up. If you hear about a great job opening in another city, you may apply for it.

So what?

I decided to come at it from a different angle. I asked myself, “Can I think of anyone whose behaviour I’d like to change?”

Well, yes. Back at the newspaper company, I was trying to transform our sleepy, slow-moving organisation into a fast-moving, dynamic engine that would develop new products to meet new needs among consumers and businesses and achieve new growth.

I answered myself: “Yeah, on any given day, about a third of our employees.”

That led to another question: “Why are their behaviours different from what you think they should be?”

Hmm. Well, according to Shechtman’s principle, it would be because … one of us has different information.

Why don’t they have the same information I do?

Uh-oh, here it comes…. Because I haven’t shared it with them.

Our employees were intelligent, well-meaning people. They weren’t doing things “wrong” because they meant to. They were doing their jobs in ways that made sense based on the information they had.

Meanwhile, I was doing my job, too. I was looking out into our community and our society and I was seeing big changes in the way news, information, and advertising were working. These changes persuaded me that we needed to make strategic changes in our operation, and that we needed different behaviours from employees.

Was I helping our employees to see what I saw? I realised, in those few moments, that the answer was no. At least not well enough, not often enough, and not broadly enough across the company.

This was transformative. In just a few short moments, I went from thinking those dysfunctional employee behaviours were their fault to realising they were, in large measure, my fault. I realised that I had to change my own behaviour if I wanted to change their behaviours.

I had to figure out how to lead by conveying new information all across the organisation, so everyone would know what I knew. And I had to invite them to bring their own information into our decision-making processes so we all would have the best possible information and could make better decisions.

I realised, too, that there’s a corollary to the Shechtman principle: Things that don’t change people’s behaviour very effectively are personal opinion, shouting, whining, threats, or force. People change behaviour much more readily when they become convinced that the facts require it.

Over the next few years, I changed the management processes in our company to include more people in seeing and understanding our internal and external situations. I had to work to at it, and as I did, I found that many of our people became better and better at making decisions, contributing to developing good strategies, and quickly mobilising to make change happen.

Shechtman was right. Our company moved ahead much faster and our productivity increased because a lot more of us could see where we needed to go, and why.

Since then, I’ve applied that Shechtman principle thousands of times. In organisations that need to find and adopt new behaviours – which is virtually all organisations – it’s constantly helpful.

I use it when I’m working with individuals or groups in problem-solving, brainstorming, and strategic planning. Often, this means starting the session with the information we have and discussing what it means.

Sometimes you have the information you need; you just need to figure out how to interpret it and communicate it. Sometimes you realise you don’t have it, and you need to figure out how to get it.

The needed information can take many forms.

For example, how is consumer behaviour changing? How are spending patterns changing? What is the competition doing? Which of our products are selling and which aren’t? What’s the likely return on investment? Has anyone else dealt with this problem, and how did it work out? If we do this, how would consumers respond? If we don’t change, what will our business trend lines look like?

So you try to get the facts. But one of the biggest problems of business disruption is that some people have an amazing ability to ignore facts and keep doing what they’ve always done.

The change-agent won’t often succeed by cajoling or force; getting the right information to the right people, properly interpreted, will work a whole lot better. But even then, not everyone will be willing to change.

Another part of Shechtman’s brilliant analysis dealt with how people differ in their responses to the need for change. I’ll blog on that next time.

For now, though, I’d suggest asking yourself:

  • Is there anyone whose behaviour I think needs to change?

  • What important information is missing from the picture?

  • How can I bring that information into the discussion?

About Steve Gray

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