We live in a world of continuous change. Actually, as Heraclitus said, “the only constant is change.” Changes are everywhere: in our personal or professional life, individual changes, and collective changes. Technological innovations, the need to deliver results as soon as possible, competitiveness in a global space, the energy crisis, etc. are forcing organizations to continually change in order to survive.
It is important to note though that when we say organizations must change, what we are really referring to is that the people must change. The success or failure of a change doesn’t have to do with the quality or implementation of a new technology, tool, or process, but with the level of adoption of the people who use it. This is why it is necessary to understand how prepared an organization is for change before undertaking and/or investing in it.
In 1987, Beckhard and Harris (1987) adapted the original “Formula for Change” to a more modern equation to identify the forces that condition, for or against, the success of change in an organization based on how people perceive each of the aspects associated with it. They established what they called the Change Equation:
C = [D x V x F] > R
- C is the Change
- D is the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, referring to how necessary and urgent the change is perceived to be.
- V is the vision of what is possible. How attractive or desirable the proposed change or future state is in relation to the benefits or improvements that each individual will obtain once the change is adopted?
- F is how practical, comfortable, and easy the first steps are for the people who are going to have to go through the change.
- R is the resistance to the change. What is the perceived ‘cost’ (magnitude, effort, complexity, risk) of the change?
In summary, in order for people to be motivated by change, they must have the perception that it is worth the effort to achieve the final result. Therefore, the factors on the left side of the equation must weigh more than the right. It is not an algorithm that will magically provide guidelines for a change to be successful; it’s a qualitative evaluation that will provide a realistic understanding of the effort required to manage the change and will allow organizations to identify points of resistance.
The more people are satisfied with the status quo, indifferent about the outcome of change, or perceive change as difficult and involving more work, the more they will be reluctant to change. Seems logical. Before taking on a big organizational transformation (with a high R score), you have to invest in the following:
- Create a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo; demonstrate why we cannot continue like this
- Effectively communicate the benefits for each person, not just for the organization. Address the “What’s in it for me?”
- Make it easy for the people who will be impacted. Find ways to make the adoption of change as comfortable as possible.
It is also important to consider other influences. For example, previously painful changes can greatly increase the R and reduce the V. Each change should leave us more prepared for the next one; each change must enable the R of the next change (the perception of the magnitude of the change) to be smaller. With each change, we must dare to change more. Daring to change, therefore, is the greatest challenge of change.
When considering the Change Equation, it’s logical to conclude that small changes are more likely to succeed than large transformations. Or, to put it another way, large transformations are more likely to succeed as a sequence of small changes. When perceived as a lot of small changes, the elements on the right side of the equation will likely weigh significantly more than the perceived cost of the change (R). This is the goal!
The benefits of iterative change are clear:
- Lower risk. The smaller the change, the more limited impact.
- Greater possibility of sponsorship and change leadership since the business repercussions are limited.
- Possibility of quick wins or early successes that involve more people with the change.
- Greater capacity for involvement based on continuous learning through the ability to quickly learn what works and what does not.
- Greater capacity to align the change with evolving strategic needs since strategies today cannot afford to be static.
- Ability to fail fast… and cheap! Make decisions quickly, continue with what works, abandon what doesn’t work, and pivot towards something else when necessary.
In short, the Change Equation is a good starting point to measure how prepared an organization is for a change and to correctly define the change strategy.