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How To Make Change Stick

January 11, 2018

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Emma Proud

Director, Organizational Agility
Mercy Corps

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn

If you want to heat a bathtub of cold water, you would not take out a couple of cups, heat them up and pour them back in. The temperature of the bath water would barely change, and the water from the cups would very quickly be cooled. Instead, you would be better heating the whole tub.

We don’t always think about this logic when we train our leaders. We often take managers away from normal work, energize them, fill them with ideas and best intentions, and then return them, putting a ‘changed person back into an unchanged world’.

Like in the bathtub illustration it’s hard, on return, for the managers’ changes to stick. A whirl of emails and meetings, a team who has no idea what the leader has learned, a human (and systems) tendency to get pulled back to the attractors of previous behavior. Despite best intentions, the change quickly wears off.

How, then, can we learn from the bathtub analogy?

At Mercy Corps, we are putting together a program to develop our managers. It will give simple practices and habits that will help us embody our culture (see this post and this video for more on what that looks like). So managers’ daily words and actions set a compass setting, then create the space and confidence for teams to ‘think big and disrupt’, and to ‘insist on seeking out new and better ways of doing things.’

We’re trying to work out how to do this in a way that heats the whole bathtub. I love the challenge of taking a systems approach to people development.

What else is in the bath that could cool, or heat the managers’ cups of water? Teams and peers, as well as formal reinforcing mechanisms.

We will experiment with methods for working with teams that incorporate neuroscience and behavioral economics (nudges).

An early idea is that we will generate short videos to let teams know what their manager is learning. This will give teams a sense of what to expect from their manager – what their manager will be practicing – so teams can anticipate and practice themselves.

Managers will be given guides to facilitate conversations about each practice with their teams, which together they can ‘sprint’ on to test in practice. This is intended to tap into the power of teaching. When someone knows they are going to shift from listening to telling, their ‘social brain’ lights up, which helps cement learning and helps the ‘teacher’ make connections so they will use it more.

We tend to use the term ‘peer pressure’ as a negative concept, but peers can be a massive force for good. If others are learning and practicing the same things as us and overcoming similar challenges, it can go a long way to motivate and maintain momentum. We are going to experiment with a couple of ways of using this. What will work best? An online social learning platform? A What’s App group? Regular calls for a cohort? Or in-person groups?

I’m really looking forward to experimenting in a few pilots to test what works. And iterating to get better of course!