Decoding the secret of process change

Jeff Cole

What if I told you that there is supposedly a secret to successful process change? And those who know that secret sway the odds of success in their favor every time? If you’re like me, you want to know what that secret is and how to apply it right away. How can we successfully get the people in your organization to follow your new processes?

We’ve all heard the statistics that over 70% of change projects fail to meet their objectives on time or on budget – if they even get there at all. (This stems back to an AD Little study of Fortune 500 firms in 1992…)

So, what is the secret of avoiding this failure and how do we apply it?

To fully understand the secret, we first have to agree on three fundamentals for process change:

Read on...this secret will open new doors!

  • We live in a PhD-level world of complexity, but many of our change problems are at a grade-school level (Sally won’t talk to Amy. Billy doesn’t play well with Tommy, etc.)
  • Humans in organizations are busy and tend to follow the path of least resistance. Exceptions to this rule include the powerful force of "habit". Some people may do things out of habit that are not necessarily the fastest, easiest or best ways of doing things.
  • Sometimes the secret to winning is simply avoiding those things that cause certain failure.

So when all the professors in their tweed jackets are done talking, all the charts and graphs have been drawn, and the PhD-level of process fog has lifted, we are left with a simple fundamental truth about process change. It makes sense and it couldn’t be simpler.

The secret: If humans in organizations are not following your new process it is due to one or both of these reasons: Ability or Willingness. Period. Simple. Done.

Think about it. Process change involves stopping the old way of doing things and engaging in the new way. If people are both able and willing to do so, you win. Miss out on either of those key attributes and you lose.

Ability is the easier of the two to address. Ability issues arise from people who can’t follow your process because they lack the knowledge, access, forms, tools, permissions, clear instructions, or other enablers required to fulfill their role in that new process. They are trying, but not succeeding. Identifying and correcting ability issues is often a simple matter.

Willingness is more difficult to address but can be done. If you chose to, you could eat a healthy diet, exercise and get enough sleep. We all know we should eat right, but most don’t do it like they should. Why not? In many cases -- willingness. People tend to follow the path of least resistance.

Look around you at the vending machines, fast food, convenience stores, and supermarkets. It is exceedingly easy to obtain food that is not good for you. It is often harder to get healthy food.

Lesson learned? Make following your new process the path of least resistance. Make doing things the old way either impossible or much harder than the new way.

If you’re sitting on the couch watching cartoons and all that is available to eat in your home is carrots and juice, you’re more likely to grab those and keep watching. That’s much easier than going out into the rain and driving to the gas station for a Snickers bar.

Also be aware that willingness issues often come disguised as ability issues with phrases such as "I didn’t have the time," "I forgot," "I was double-booked", "there’s too much on my plate," etc.

Set yourself up for process success. Think through all possible ability issues and ensure you have tied up all the loose ends on those. Design your process rollout so that following your new process is the path of least resistance (and following the old process is difficult) and you should see many of your willingness issues evaporate.

Identify target groups who may have willingness issues and monitor their process compliance for the first 30 days or so as the new way becomes a habit for them. Human nature will then kick-in and aid you from there!