Removing Barriers to Change

Removing Barriers to Change

As marketers, we face lots of challenges: inefficient proposal processes, difficulties engaging leadership time and attention, and fighting for department budgets, to name a few. I bet each of you has at least one thing you’d like to change within your department or company. Throughout my career, I’ve encountered my share of resistance to change across a variety of industries, including digital printing, advertising, and engineering. To understand more about why change is so difficult, I completed the Coursera series Removing Barriers to Change by University of Pennsylvania Marketing Professor Jonah Berger. This free online course discusses the barriers to change and how to become more effective in inspiring change with others and your organization. 

First, it’s important to understand you need to overcome status quo bias. Status quo bias is the preference for maintaining one’s current situation and opposing actions that may change the state of affairs. It’s based on emotion and states that people are often uncomfortable putting themselves in a situation with an uncertain outcome. Research suggests that potential gains need to drastically outweigh potential downsides to get people to take action. If the proposed change barely outweighs the potential losses, we won’t make the change.

We often think that to change people's minds, we just need to push them a little harder and provide more information or facts to help our cause. But this approach often backfires, because when we push others, they push back. How can we overcome this natural human reaction? We lower barriers and remove roadblocks because we can’t simply push people over them.

Before attempting to implement change, make sure you fully understand the problem. Spend time learning about all aspects of the problem and who and what contributes to it. Why hasn’t change happened already? What is preventing it from happening? Who are the decision-makers here?

Professor Berger uses the REDUCE framework to help us craft strategies to overcome status quo bias and become catalysts for change. These strategies are defined as follows: 

  • (Reduce) Reactance: instinct for people to push back
  • (Ease) Endowment: attachment to the status quo
  • (Shrink) Distance: perspectives that are too far away from our current state are too hard to sell
  • (Alleviate) Uncertainty: seeds of doubt slow the winds of change
  • (Find) Corroborating Evidence: some things just need more proof

Today, I’ll focus on two of the five strategies to overcome resistance to change: reducing reactance and easing endowment. Reactance is the tendency to dig in and push back against a recommended course of action. People have a need for agency and autonomy and when we encourage them to do something, it impinges on their ability to see that course of action as driven by themselves. To counter this barrier to change, we need to encourage people to persuade themselves by allowing for agency and guiding but not imposing a path. There are a few key ways to do this: provide a menu; ask, don’t tell; and highlight a gap. When providing a menu, you give others autonomy and also bounded choice to move in a direction toward your goal. Ask, don’t tell is pretty self-explanatory; you ask questions to shift the listener's role to problem solver rather than listener. Highlighting a gap is pointing out a disconnect between someone’s thoughts and actions.

The endowment barrier is the ownership we feel once we have something, even if that thing is not really that great. We become attached to things we already have, and we tend to place more value on them. Ways to ease endowment include surfacing the costs of inaction, burning the ships, and framing new things as old. Surfacing the costs of inaction involves pointing out the risk of doing nothing and how small differences can add up over time. Burning the ships is removing support for old systems. Framing new things as old involves presenting a change as a return to the way things used to be. 

To illustrate some of these concepts I’ll share a challenge I’m currently working on that involves the implementation of a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. Our current process for maintaining client contact information was becoming unstable and it was difficult to keep current because all contacts were contained in one massive list. My goals for a CRM included maintenance of client contact information along with a way to assign those contacts to different internal managers. Adopting a CRM represented a significant change from the status quo and required new processes for several departments. I surfaced the cost of inaction by making it clear to my management team that the current software system was unusable and would no longer export contacts reliably. I suppose I also burned the ships because I told the team adding even more contacts would further create instability and we could no longer support its use. This got me approval to move ahead with my research and budget allocation. To get buy-in from those that would need to maintain the system, I provided a menu by presenting several options so they had autonomy to evaluate the pros and cons of each. Though I did get the management team to agree to move ahead with a CRM, I did not immediately get buy-in to assign those contacts to internal managers as that would require a large investment of time. I used another technique to catalyze change here – asking for less. Sometimes when you want to achieve a big goal, you need to break it into smaller steps to get people moving in a direction. 

I highly recommend this course for anyone that wants to understand more about why we resist change and what can be done to overcome it. Once you understand the barriers to change, you can work to identify them in your own organization and formulate a plan to ease them. Some self-reflection is important, too. Can you identify your own resistant behaviors? Self-awareness is key and vital to success in our personal and professional lives. 

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