Not long ago, I was talking with an executive at a large company, and he was concerned about a new effort being rolled out companywide. A team within the company had spent 18 months ironing out the details of an elaborate new process.
Two problems needed to be solved. First, it was important to educate enough people around the company to reduce resistance to the change. Second, upper management was concerned that if people felt they understood the change, then they might make adaptations to the new procedure that would ultimately undermine the effort.
The first of these issues is fairly well understood in change management. We know that people are generally resistant to changes. On the one hand, they have many habits that support doing what they have done in the past. Meanwhile, people are naturally wired to prefer the familiar. So, even if people have complaints about the way tasks have been done in the past, "the devil known is still better than the devil unknown."
The general antidote to unfamiliarity is education. The more information you provide to people about why a new program is being implemented and how it works, the easier it is to get people to buy into it. It is important to make the new program feel familiar and to give people a sense of why this program fits into a broader corporate mission.
The danger with this approach; however, is that you run the risk of creating a mistaken impression of people’s depth of understanding of the new program. As I discuss in Smart Thinking, most people suffer from a persistent illusion of explanatory depth, in which they believe they understand the details of the way things work better than they do.
This illusion applies to devices and objects, but it also applies to procedures within a company. In the process of learning about the new policy, people will be overconfident in their knowledge of the new system.
The danger of this overconfidence is that managers who were not part of the planning of the new process may make changes in the way the program is implemented in their groups. They will assume that they understand the system well enough that they can make "tweaks" that will enhance the function of that program within their group.
Why is that a problem? After all, managers within units know their employees and their job function better than a centralized group does.
Every new procedure is still part of a broader system. If an organization has thought through the downstream implications of a new procedure, then managers who make tweaks to the program may inadvertently undo safeguards that were put into place to avoid larger problems down the line.
When companies educate employees prior to implementing a new process, there are three things they can do to help manage this tradeoff.
The illusion of explanatory depth occurs because people often do not explicitly try to use their new knowledge right away. As a result, they are not aware of the boundaries of what they do and don’t know.
When teaching, it is important to quiz people frequently, so that they learn to calibrate what they know and what they don’t.
These quizzes can also be valuable for highlighting ways that a new procedure may interact with other aspects of a business. By asking these questions, it forces everyone to recognize that changes they make to a procedure may have unintended consequences.
Everyone likes to put their stamp on a new program. To leave room for units to have a way to take ownership of a new process, leave a few places within the program where individual managers can tailor the process to their unit. That way, every group can have some influence on the process.
At the same time, it is important to be explicit which parts of the process are open for personalization, and which parts must remain fixed. In this way, can protect the most sensitive parts of a new program.
Part of the problem with new programs is that they don’t always work. A failed program in the past can undermine people’s faith in the likely success of a new program. That, in turn, can influence the effort that people put into the implementation of the new program.
It is important for the group that created the new program to take feedback from the managers who implement that program and to be willing to make changes when there is evidence of unanticipated problems. When people are confident that their feedback will be heard, they are more likely to support a centralized solution to problems with a new system rather than striking out on their own to fix a problem.
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