As the old saying goes: “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”

People and organizations have only two alternatives: get better or get worse, improve or decay. And it’s a constant battle. Our choice is to manage this ongoing process and improve the things that can be improved, or ignore the process and decay. This principle is just as important in life-long learning as it is in organizational change.

The challenge for us as individuals, and for organizations, is how to keep on the “upward vector” of growth, innovation, improvement and continual learning. It can be done, but it takes positive, continuous energy and communication.

But first, we need to understand the dynamics of change.

Which Comes First: Process or Behavior?

Many leaders address the change challenge in a very clinical fashion, going first for the process, the policy or the procedure. Fixing or otherwise improving a process usually involves changing it in some way. But, which comes first: process or behavior?

Effective execution of strategy ultimately requires change first in the behaviors and attitudes of leadership – and of all employees -before processes can be changed. One failing in most business improvement approaches is the tendency to develop new or ideal processes on paper, without addressing elements of human behavior and human nature. Perhaps it’s an over-reliance on highly data-driven methodologies like Six Sigma or lean. In these scenarios, the expectation is if we can use good quantifiable data to demonstrate that a process change will result in an improvement, then people will automatically change their behavior. On the contrary, our experience and research tells us that behavior change requires time, effort – and most importantly – discipline.

For any enduring change to take place, behaviors (habits) need to change before processes can successfully be changed.

To understand organizational change, three simple behavioral laws emerge:

  • Any work behavior (verbal or physical) that works (pays off, is successful, gets us what we want) is repeated.
  • Any work behavior that avoids a negative experience (criticism, needless effort, appears inept, avoids something we don’t want) is repeated.
  • Any work behavior that leads directly to a negative experience (discipline, embarrassment, needless effort) is not repeated.

BOTTOMLINE: The often used blanket comment; “I don’t like change” is untrue. We generally like changes that affect us positively, but tend to resist changes that affect us in a negative way. In other words, “We don’t resist change, we resist being changed.” What people need is a new perspective on change, and how it will benefit them.