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To Change Minds, First Change Hearts

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By Ed Powers, COO at Cateway

Sometimes you read a book that immediately goes in the place of reverence on the bookshelf. It sits alongside your collection of favorite works that have spoken to you deeply over the years. These are books most likely to be dog-eared, highlighted, and underlined on multiple pages.

That’s how I’m feeling these days about John Kotter’s The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizationswhich he co-authored with Dan Cohen in 2002. It’s the sequel to Kotter’s book Leading Change, but building on his eight-step approach with a multitude of stories of organizational transformations done right and wrong. In today’s world of chronic uncertainty, many organizations that survived the initial bloodletting of the Great Recession have been forced to make more dramatic changes to sustain their organizations. Kotter’s research suddenly has renewed relevance.

As an engineer, I’ve never been comfortable with the “touchy feely” stuff. That was always the work of HR who used terms like “change management” as a euphemism for downsizing. My focus was always on the data. If a decision has to be made, it has to be logical rather than emotional—just figure it out and do what has to be done.

Kotter says successful change isn’t a matter of the mind, but of the heart. “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings… The flow of see-feel-change is more powerful than that of analysis-think-change.” He goes on to describe several examples of successful transformations that began by capturing the attention of senior executives in an entirely different way. Rather than telling executives the need for change with PowerPoints and reams of financial analysis, they showed them the situation, stirring an emotional response and a commitment to action. Kotter calls this Step 1: Increase Urgency. Without the right people having a strong personal connection to the problem, significant changes never get off the ground.

Kathryn, one of my consulting colleagues, shared a great example of this the other day. She told a story about how years ago she managed a team of software developers who were creating what she felt was an overly complex user interface. She had difficulty convincing them that there was a problem—after all, what they designed made sense to them. She decided not to tell them, but show them. She put the developers in a room with a TV and put a computer and a video camera in another room. She invited an administrative assistant (working for a prospective customer) to come in and use the computer while the camera recorded the process. Kathryn explained a situation in which her boss had called and assigned her to do a very simple task while he was out of the office. She had to figure out how to use the software and couldn’t call him to ask how. This was a likely scenario for prospective customers.

Of course, the admin assistant struggled… and struggled… and struggled. All the while, software engineers in the other room could only watch and get equally frustrated. Kathryn thanked the assistant for trying and brought in another, asking him to do a similar task. Same result. The engineers got the point. Well before the experiment was over, they were in the midst of animated discussions and had redesigned the user interface before they left the room.

No amount of statistics, charts, or logical arguments would have produced the same immediate action. It took tapping the developers’ feelings—frustration, embarrassment, and a sense of pride that they could do better—to motivate them. That’s Kotter’s whole point. Unless people get emotionally involved in solving an important problem, it will never get addressed.

We technical people struggle with this concept. Perhaps it’s our logical, left-brain dominance or our tendency towards introversion and conflict avoidance. For real changes to be made, however, we need to step outside our comfort zone. We must first fan the emotions of the people who can make something happen and then follow up with the analysis, make the business case, plan and execute.

So think about it. Are you having difficulty getting people to see a problem or make a change? Remember heart first, then mind. Recognize the need and be creative about showing instead of telling.


  • Comment Link Ed Powers Monday, 24 October 2011 14:53 posted by Ed Powers

    Excellent example, Elaine! Thanks for sharing that and the book recommendation--I'll see if I can Kindle it! :-)

  • Comment Link Elaine Friday, 21 October 2011 22:27 posted by Elaine

    I couldn't agree with you more. I'm an engineer too, and I've worked in high tech my whole career. Back in the late 80's, I participated in a survey of salaried female employees in my organization -- to try to get at why so many women were leaving. There were statistics galore, cut by length of service, function, etc... The women who participated in the survey were adamant that only the data should be presented because that is all the execs would listen to. However, when I had the opportunity to help present the information, what I observed is that eyes glazed over when we said things like "44% of female employees experience subtle discrimination". But, when we talked about the boss who asked his employee's husband for permission to give her a raise, everyone sat up and paid attention.

    "Switch: How to Change when Change is hard" is a very readable intro to a lot of recent research on what really motivates people to change -- both personally and professionally.


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