The Psychology of Change: Why don’t people follow the damn process?

“We’ve invested heavily in defining and implementing good processes, practices and methods, the problem is we can’t get the people to consistently follow the process. Why is this?”

I hear this lament from Service Desk Managers and ITIL SMEs about the service desk and support staff, I hear it from PMOs about Sponsors, Business Owners and Project Managers and I hear it from Agile Coaches about their teams, Product Owners and Executives. One CIO recently confided in me that they had made a huge investment in building project management capability across his group. They had invested in significant training methods and tools to help improve project delivery across the organisation. He was pleased with this investment but conceded that things could be better.

“I suspect what we need” he said “is to get people to follow the process.” So, why don’t they?  If the change is well thought through, produces the results we are after and is executed according to plan, why don’t people follow the process? There are many potential reasons why. Here are some to consider:

  • They may not have the skills they need to successfully execute the process. Sure we trained them so they have a theoretical understanding of what’s required but there is a big difference from knowing what to do and doing it in practice. Just think about driving a car. You can read the road code as much as you want but time and practice is required to convert learned knowledge into executional skill.
  • There are conflicting signals within the environment. Many times “improved processes” may improve outcomes but add time, complexity and cost. At the same time organisations are under budget constraints, wish to improve time to market and build agility. It is possible that inadvertently you have set up a lose lose for your people, where if they  follow the process as you wish, they may end up violating these other important criteria. When it comes to conflicting signals always remember that what you do is far more important than what you say.
  • Too often clearly defined processes are simply code for task based procedures manuals which tell a person how to do the job rather than focusing on what needs to be accomplished. When this occurs the process removes choice from the person and treats the people as if they are a machine.  Follow the tasks as prescribed, no variations. Most people however like to choose how they do their work and will naturally work from their strengths if given the choice.  In 2017 if a job can truly be reduced into a set of simple repeatable tasks then perhaps we should look to use machines rather than continue to try and make people act like machines.
  • New behaviours almost always seem strange at first and behaviour change needs to be supported and encouraged through consistent feedback process and measurement systems. If there is a lack of feedback to the participants on how well they are executing to the new expectations then learning is likely to be inhibited and behaviour change is likely to be slow or non-existent.
  • The changes are not designed to help the practitioners to succeed, rather they are designed to help management to manage and control. When this occurs there is no real incentive for the practitioners to follow the process as it does not help them to be successful. Indeed if there are conflicting signals, as discussed earlier, these new requirements may in fact make it harder for the practitioner to succeed as it represents additional work for no gain.  

There are many more potential reasons why but in the end they all come back to one simple problem. When it comes to change programmes our standard approach is to overtly attempt to change people. Too often the outcome of this approach is resistance to change. You hear that a lot. Change would be easy if only my team didn’t resist change. Indeed resistance to change is almost always cited in the top two reasons why change and innovation is so hard (see for a local NZ example).

In my experience this is not true.  Most people don’t resist change, they love change, they do however resist being changed and there lies the problem. We are so busy trying to change people that we don’t consciously design our work environment and supportive programmes in a way that makes it easy or perhaps even highly likely that our team would want to change naturally.  

People will willingly change when three conditions are met.

  1. They have the knowledge they need to make the change.
  2. They have developed the practical skills they need.
  3. It’s personal and supports them to be successful.

When these three conditions exist then change will occur naturally. As a leader, the most effective thing that you can do is to create an environment that creates these conditions. You can start by:

Making the change personal:

  1. Linking the change to their goals or purpose. If necessary consider refining your team’s goals to include the new behaviours and outcomes.
  2. Clearly defining what “success looks like” through the definition and implementation of observable success measures.

Ensuring the team have the knowledge they need by:

  1. Training them in the required skills and theoretical knowledge.
  2. Relating the knowledge to both the organisational outcomes you are seeking and to their specific role and circumstances.

Supporting the team to develop the practical skills they need by:

  1. Providing a safe environment to practice the skills.
  2. Providing feedback and coaching to support skills development.


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