A Framework to Change Old Processes or Implement New Ones (Part 2)

Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash

My recent book, Implementing Onscreen Editing (Hart 2019), recounts my personal experience with two onscreen editing implementations (Hart 2011, 2012), and summarizes two important papers that describe how to change processes and people from a robust practical perspective. In this two-part article, I’ve broadened that perspective to include other changes in the technical communication workplace, with a focus on the essential human aspects of change.

If you and your team face process changes, you should recognize that many explicit and implicit barriers affect such changes, and you must understand them before you can work around or through them.No “one size fits all” method exists to successfully implement process change. All methods must be adapted to your unique context.

In Part 1 of this article, A Framework for Managing Change, I began by describing the Theoretical Domains Framework, which lays out an overall approach to managing change. In Part 2, I discuss how to help people change. I use the word “stakeholder” frequently because everyone affected by changes to an existing system has a stake in the results. Stakeholders range from senior managers to non-supervisory staff.

Part 2. Helping People to Change

Revising a complex system such as writing and revision requires that stakeholders change their behavior. Unfortunately, we all have good and bad reasons for resisting change—and subconscious reasons we’re unaware of. Before you can change an existing system, you must learn why the people who use it behave as they currently do, how you can motivate them to change, and what might prevent them from changing.

Kegan and Lahey (2001), two organizational psychologists, discuss these factors, and provide many examples of how subconscious factors prevent change. They refer to these as “competing commitments”, but you can think of them as the real reasons that underlie the stated (nominal) reasons someone proposes for their behavior. In this section, I’ll summarize their approach, supplemented again by personal experience.

Note: The many “schools” of psychology have different perspectives on behavior. If Kegan and Lahey’s approach doesn’t convince you, seek alternatives. For example, consider the Prosci ADKAR (Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, Reinforcement) methodology. What’s important is whether the insights a given method provides help you understand how to motivate change in your organization.

Resistance to change depends on both logical (rational) reasons, which are based on careful thought, and seemingly illogical (irrational) reasons, such as an exaggerated fear of undesirable outcomes. To motivate change, it’s less important whether a fear is logical than whether it has real consequences for how someone thinks and acts. For example, changing a process someone has managed for years can create real fear of a loss of power or of adding responsibilities the manager may not feel competent to manage. This in turn creates a plausible fear of being dismissed or demoted. Non-supervisory employees may fear changes in their social position, such as being moved to a new team of strangers who may not like or respect them.

These examples reveal mismatches between our logical and emotional sides. Even if someone is sufficiently smart and skilled to make the requested change, and will clearly benefit from the change, they may resist that change because of these kinds of fears. Kegan and Lahey suggest these fears are caused by competing commitments. Those commitments may be subtle, such as the desire to avoid new challenges they won’t meet, or overt, such as the fear of disrupting comfortable relationships with colleagues. (Both goals represent commitments to avoid disrupting the status quo.)

Working around hidden commitments is tricky, as they’re often rooted deep in our emotional core. Even when we recognize such problems, it takes considerable effort to find a reassuring solution and considerable time to muster the courage to change, particularly when becoming aware of the commitment forces us to challenge our self-image. Meeting that challenge requires a powerful trust that the person asking us to challenge our beliefs won’t abuse their knowledge. Embarrassment at exposing a secret weakness also raises significant barriers to admitting the problem. Being willing to be this vulnerable is particularly difficult if an organization’s culture doesn’t inspire confidence that managers have the best interests of their employees at heart. If you want to motivate change, you must behave in a trustworthy manner throughout the change process.

Note: It’s essential that you understand a problem before you try to solve it. False starts, in which you identify the wrong problem and develop an ineffective action plan, undermine subsequent trust.

Unrealistic expectations can increase the resistance to change. For example, the consequences of failure are usually less than we fear. Explicitly rewarding failures by reframing them as “debugging” a process is one way to do this. Breaking a large and intimidating task such as implementing a new review and revision system into a series of small, manageable steps greatly reduces the costs of failure in any individual step, making the overall task seem less intimidating.

Kegan and Lahey propose three steps to help someone change:

  1. Identify their competing commitments.
  2. Challenge their underlying assumptions.
  3. Take steps to change their behavior.

Identify competing commitments

To identify competing commitments, ask:

  • What is the stated commitment? For example, “to implement a new revision system”.
  • What actions or inactions stop us from achieving the stated commitment? For example, workers may focus on meeting deadlines for current work to achieve good performance appraisals.
  • What is the competing commitment? Here, it’s the perceived need to meet deadlines rather than learn new skills and implement a new system.
  • What justifies that commitment? Here, meeting deadlines may be essential if someone’s last performance appraisal criticized their completion times.

The first question tells us what we must achieve to make the work more efficient or satisfying. These benefits should provide motivation, but the second question tells us why that motivation may be insufficient. The third and fourth questions address how we try to justify our actions to ourselves and others. Once we understand those justifications, we can decide whether they’re valid or should change.

Challenge the assumptions

The answers to the four questions reveal obstacles to change, and the assumptions that justify those obstacles. For example, time spent learning a complex manuscript-management system is time not spent meeting a deadline, and introduces the risk of new errors, such as misfiling a manuscript. Such errors might plausibly have undesirable outcomes, such as damaging our relationship with an author or receiving a poor performance review. When competing commitments are based on the desire to avoid such negative outcomes, minimizing or eliminating the negative consequences becomes an important part of the solution. If the competing commitment relates to the desire to appear competent at one’s job, we can encourage the person to reframe their fear: “Will you be forced to master new skills without training or support?” If we can convince them that both training and support will be provided, this fear weakens.

In these examples, the assumptions are sensible. Challenging them successfully requires replacing them with more appropriate but equally sensible assumptions.

When assumptions relate to someone’s sense of self-worth, be particularly gentle. Nobody enjoys having their self-image challenged. You’ll find it more effective to ask someone to challenge their own assumptions rather than forcing you to become the challenger; doing so gives them a sense of agency and control. For example, don’t tell someone you’ll renegotiate deadlines for them and provide training. Ask them: “Would relaxing your deadlines relieve the pressure on your schedule?” Then provide an opportunity to renegotiate a deadline. Ask them: “Would providing training help you feel confident you can master the required skills?” If they agree, ask follow-up questions: “How much time would you need? What specific training, in what form, would help you most?”

Of course, negative responses suggest you may not have identified the problem that needs to be solved and may need to take a little longer to identify the real problem.

Take steps to change the behavior

Changing behavior takes several steps:

  1. Document the stated beliefs to confirm whether they’re valid.
  2. Identify evidence that undermines unproductive beliefs.
  3. Look for the source of the beliefs.
  4. Test the old beliefs and the proposed replacements.
  5. Evaluate the results and reinforce the new behavior.
  6. If necessary, revise your strategy and try again.

Consider an example. An editor who once missed an important deadline angered an author. Rather than receiving sympathy and being rewarded for learning how to avoid the problem in the future, the editor received a negative performance review. To challenge this lesson, emphasize the author’s forgiveness and willingness to continue working with the editor, and their explicit willingness to extend current deadlines to free up time to implement the new process. Provide an opportunity to negotiate a new deadline and commit (in writing) to not penalizing delays, particularly when the delays arise from debugging the new process. On the contrary, reward failures that lead to solutions that will help others avoid the problem. Sweeten this with a promised reward (such as cash or time off work) to compensate for the stress of learning a new system.

This process takes time, and you shouldn’t rush. You need to proceed efficiently to achieve the stated commitment, but pressuring someone who’s already reluctant to change their competing commitments only increases resistance. Also, try not to impose solutions. Leading someone to develop their own solution generally works better. Someone who designs their own solution is far more willing to use it, and that willingness often spreads to their colleagues.

What Comes Next?

In the other chapters of Implementing Onscreen Editing, I make the somewhat abstract principles in this article more concrete by illustrating how I applied these principles during real-world process changes. It’s important to note that those more concrete descriptions don’t include every detail described in this article. This reminds us that every organization differs somewhat from every other organization in terms of what must change. Some of the steps in this article won’t be necessary in some contexts; other contexts may require steps I haven’t described in response to issues I haven’t described. The challenge you’ll face is to learn which factors are and are not relevant for your organization, and which unique factors haven’t been described here or in my book.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the work required by changing a process, and can propose an implementation budget, ask for money to hire an expert who can guide you through the process more efficiently and with less stress. But if that’s not possible, as is often the case, following the steps in my book can greatly increase the likelihood of a successful implementation.

Further reading

Atkins, L., Francis, J., Islam, R., O’Connor, D., Patey, A., Ivers, N., Foy, R., Duncan, E.M., Colquhoun, H., Grimshaw, J.M., Lawton, R., Michie, S. 2017. A guide to using the Theoretical Domains Framework of behaviour change to investigate implementation problems. Implementation Science 12:77. https://implementationscience.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13012-017-0605-9

Hart, G. 2000. Effective interviewing: get the story. Intercom, January: 24–26. http://geoff-hart.com/articles/2000/interviewing.htm

Hart, G. 2011. Uprooting entrenched technical communication processes: process improvement using the kaizen method. http://geoff-hart.com/articles/2011/kaizen.html

Hart, G. 2012. Reimagining the review-and-revision process: a case study of improving the speed and accuracy of technology transfer. Intercom February: 22–27. http://geoff-hart.com/articles/2012/kaizen-long-version.html

Hart, G. 2019. Implementing onscreen editing. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec. http://geoff-hart.com/books/implementing/implementing.html

Kegan, R.; Lahey, L. 2001. The real reason people won’t change. Harvard Business Review. November 2001. https://hbr.org/2001/11/the-real-reason-people-wont-change

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