Fear of change: Pain, perseverance, and gain

October 7, 2009

Most people are afraid of Pain and gainchange most of the time.  That fear leads us to resist change — even changes that could make our lives simpler, our work  more productive, our struggles with technology more muted.

As a consultant, it’s often my job to plan changes.  How can I minimize that fear, and ease the transitions, as I try to make change as painless and productive as possible?

My short answer is that I can acknowledge that the fear is real, and often well justified.  Change does bring pain — and pain is something most of us want to avoid!

But let’s put this in perspective.  Almost every change follows the pattern shown on the graph above, that shows how productivity goes up and down when a change is introduced.

  • Productivity immediately falls.  In fact, it often falls much more quickly than shown on this graph.  I call the amount of drop the pain. Think about getting a new cell phone.  At first it’s awkward to receive or make a call. Then we may find ourselves even more challenged when trying to enter or update contacts, or generate text messages, etc.
  • It takes a while for productivity to rise back to even the level where it had been.  I call that length of time the perseverance.  In the cell phone example above, that time may be measured in minutes, hours, or perhaps a few days.
  • Ideally, productivity doesn’t stop rising after the perseverance time has passed.  It keeps going up for some time, but then levels off.  The amount of increase over the initial productivity is what I call the gain. (Note that this picture is slightly inaccurate — as the gain  shown is a bit less than it should be).  Following our cell phone example, the increased “productivity” may not be easy to measure, as it may not be just about faster dialing or address book maintainance.

We will have pain, perseverance, and (ideally) some gain with every change. However, the size of these parameters may be very different.

  • Recently, our bank started using new ATM terminals that accept and read individual checks during each deposit, and that can print an image of those checks on the receipt. I stumbled during my first deposit, got it almost right on the second, but by the third time I was delighted to walk away from my quick and easy ATM transaction with a much better receipt than I had been used to getting.  Pain was minimal, perseverance was short, and the gain was visible and real.
  • About a year ago I moved into an office with a programmable thermostat to control heat and air conditioning.  I’m still experiencing pain and confusion working with this device, so evidently the perseverance time is quite long.  The supposed gain — more effortless temperature control on my part, and some energy cost saving for our landlord and for the nation — doesn’t seem to have fully arrived yet.

The thermostat example illustrates an important principle —  the gain itself does not typically ease the pain.  In engineering change, one must anticipate and allow for a “reasonable” amount of pain, and for  an “acceptable” perseverance time.  This is important and true no matter how great the gain.

  • I’ve been involved with the design of a new hospital telephone and messaging system.  Calls pop up automatically on computer screens, and the operators have instant access to a database of patients, medical staff, coverage instructions, etc.  The “gain” here is clear.  But hospitals installing such a system have a minimal threshold for “pain”.  For reasons we could easily understand and accept, a few hours of pain was about the limit — and that only if the productivity drop was minimal.  Emergency calls always need to be handled quickly and accurately — and the presence of a brand new computer system is never an acceptable excuse.  We had clear limits for the amount of pain and the perseverance time that would be allowed.
  • I’ve also worked on the design of sophisticated scheduling software for factories — that helps staff decide when to order their various raw materials or components, and when to schedule each fabrication or assembly step.  Here the threshold for pain was much greater, and perseverance time might be measured in weeks rather than minutes or hours.  Managers and line employees needed time to adapt to the new scheduling processes, and that was okay.

In planning for change, decide how much pain is acceptable and what level of perseverance can be required. Let this understanding guide both the design and development of any new technology, and the training and support to help everybody embrace the changes in the best possible way. The promise of great future gain does not typically ease the current experience of pain.

One Response to “Fear of change: Pain, perseverance, and gain”

  1. The evolution of social media in business is another great example you can use. The ‘pain’ of changing from management-driven to crowd sourcing; the perseverance of changing the business structure and reallocating the marketing mix (not to mention learning new tools) – then the gain of a more effective, efficient and profitable company. Good one, Arthur.

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