Working Wider

Stop Change Management!
… and Start Designing Attractive Change


“Change management” scares me.  It’s like selling a poorly designed product or service.  Someone has to twist your arm to buy it.

We have to manage change when it’s not attractive.  Change management becomes code for convincing others to change. The less attractive the change, the more change management required.  It smacks of hierarchical thinking and subtle coercion that fuels Dilbert and “Office” satires.

When change is attractive, people change without being managed.  People change every day.

Firms that work wider are shifting how change is led and where it’s defined.  Traditional hierarchies push major change down whereas these firms have a new citizenship model that creates change at the firm’s center and its edges.  They use attraction to pull others rather than push.  This piece offers three suggestions for designing attractive change.

1. Use design thinking – you’re more likely to address the personal as well as business factors stakeholders use to assess attractiveness.

2. Reduce what people lose – you increase attraction more than by pushing what they gain.

3. Frame the change as a “new product introduction” – tap the common language, knowledge and experience base of new product introductions to create and position attraction

Design Thinking

Design thinking is the holistic methodology product designers at firms such as IDEO, Frog, Apple, etc. use to create attractive products.  It has three core elements:  empathy, creativity and analytics.

Empathy engages all our senses with the user while omitting our ego.  Relative to designing attractive change, it requires immersing yourself in others’ experience with today’s realities and as life would be in the potential future state.  Suspending personal judgments about what is or should be is essential to being empathetic.

Creativity injects style, panache and point of view into any change effort.  This adds attraction by blending collective and personalized opportunity.  It means tapping into something unique such that people extend their expectations of themselves and others.

Analytics provide the compelling rationale.  Empathy and creativity can’t fix flawed logic.  Analytics use evidence to surface, filter and connect today’s flawed practices with how we will re-tool for tomorrow.

Design thinking helps create attractive change because products and change live in a non-hierarchical marketplace.  Customers don’t have to buy; they have to be attracted to buy.  Firms employing the new citizenship model recognize this is also true for leading change beyond traditional boundaries.  Here’s how it can work.

Example: The leader of a division within a large medical device company wanted to shift from a technology driven to a customer driven sales strategy.  He was frustrated by the lack of progress he’d achieved pushing his general managers to be more customer oriented.  After a few interviews, it struck us that his people lacked a rich understanding of their customers as they made few distinctions between them.

As a first step, we asked people to develop detailed descriptions of their customers using “personas”.  Much like actors who create detailed backgrounds of their character to better understand their motivations throughout a movie, a persona details a customer’s professional and personal life choices.  To inject some creativity, we asked people to document their personas using a gingerbread cookie body outline and drawing as much of their description inside it with minimal words. One team took on research-focused MDs while another defined the persona for MDs who seek maximum income.

Next, they were asked to outline the elements of an ideal sales strategy for each persona, compare that to today and share it with others.  Quickly, it became clear that emphasizing technology had little impact on revenue seeking MDs unless it increased the number of procedures they could do in a day.  Research MDs had less interest in procedure time or existing technologies.  They wanted to participate in defining next generation technologies for the firm to pursue.

The combination of the fun they had drawing the gingerbread men and empathy evoked as they created their personas unleashed a much more positive attitude towards the change.  Buttressed afterwards with sales and customer satisfaction data, the activity spurred the adoption of customer-centric sales strategies.

Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative & Don’t Mess With Mr. In-Between

When leaders encounter resistance to change, their first reaction is to push back and repeat their rationale.  It’s as comical as watching a traveler repeat what they just said only louder when their foreign language skills are marginal.  Pushing people is an invitation for them to push back.

In a hierarchy, a leader can resort to the “cram down” but even then, not too often.  What the new citizenship model recognizes is that a cram down is not an option beyond traditional boundaries.  With limited pushing potential, reducing resistance becomes more critical.

Attraction is a function of what a product or a change costs relative to what it provides.  At a lower personal price, the same change can become attractive.

The price people pay for change cuts across and into their life experience.  When you change your golf or tennis swing, the first few strokes are less controlled or comfortable than your current form.  Your self-image as a player drops as balls sail out of bounds.  Perhaps others are watching and don’t know you’re trying something different – now your klutziness is on public display.  The world of business adds the obvious issues of potentially losing authority, status, opportunity, resources, etc.

When a change is first proposed, people assess it based on their past experience.  If their recollection is negative, the change is threatened just as selling a new computer is threatened by “I had a Dell once.  It was a horrible machine.”  Asserting the performance of the new product rarely helps in this situation.

You might think we can’t change past experience but that’s not true.  We do it all the time. It’s called selective memory.  We forget details, especially around painful events.  In a serious accident, we often don’t have any recall.  I’m willing to bet that that Dell had some horrible problems but not everything about it was horrible.

Returning to design thinking and starting with analytics, it’s therefore often helpful to have people retell their story so that you can help them fill in the blanks.  Turn up the empathy and listen for keys that might trigger a creative twist.  Here’s an example.

Example: When a company engages me to help accelerate product development, the first response from most employees is fear.  There’s enough pressure in business as it is and everyone remembers past situations where cutting corners got them into trouble.  They equate increased speed with increased risk.

My favorite strategy is to conduct a couple of post-mortems of recently completed projects.  The public goal is to identify time sinks, identify concurrency opportunities and eliminate non-value added activity.  By mapping the project history using Post-its™ and the entire team, what we’re really doing is overcoming selective memory with detailed and agreed upon evidence.  When the conversation pace picks up and people discuss past events as though they were happening today, you’re there.

After the map is built, there are always one or two examples of uncommon speed without downside.  We often delve into those to demonstrate that speed and risk are not inextricably locked together. With an entire wall of past evidence before them, it amazes me how quickly the collective conversation turns from fear and resistance to the potential of safe and faster development.

Introducing Attractive Change as a “New Product”

Drawing on the groundbreaking work by Everett Rogers in Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore characterized the challenge of introducing new products as having to cross a chasm of acceptance before they can scale to mass adoption.  So-called early adopters embrace new products before others because they have critical needs that are not served by existing products.  They are willing to put up with faults such as higher costs and lower reliability.  Moore argues that getting across the chasm depends on targeting and meeting the needs of potential early adopters.

The same applies to change.  There are some individuals and groups that will benefit more from a change more than others.  Likewise, early change adopters are more willing to overlook gaps and hiccups if their critical needs are met.  They are also a source of early corrective feedback and testimonial that enables broader adoption.

Define the minimum viable change requirements with these early adopters in mind.  If your effort can’t attract people who are hungry, then the chances of it scaling are slim.  The power of the product metaphor is that you can build on people’s experience regarding definition, design, execution, promotion and selling the change.


Most models for change assume one is working within a hierarchy.  Leaders are expected to have a vision, strategy and execution plan for change.  This all makes sense until the playing field changes.  Today, more and more leaders find themselves defining and leading change across wider boundaries where hierarchical power gives way to influence, reputation and one’s ability to attract others.

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