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How to Get People to Change — the Human Side of IT Projects

According to a recent study by the Standish Group, only 29% of Information Technology (IT) projects are completed on time and within budget. I believe that a large number of the remaining 71% of projects get in trouble because they don’t adequately consider the human side of the projects. Good CIOs recognize that Information Technology is ultimately about people and change—software and hardware are just a means to an end. Implementing new systems requires people to change. The change, in fact, is often the most difficult part of a project. This article provides a perspective that may help you facilitate change, and in some cases may help you understand why intended change isn’t happening.

There are three things required to get a person to change:

1. The person must be dissatisfied with the status quo.

2. There must be a clear, well understood vision of what life for the person will be like after the intended change, and that vision must be perceived by the person as positive.

3. The first steps for change implementation must be clear to the person.

As an analogy, think of a big boulder that has to be moved. You can apply pressure to one side of the boulder, and eventually, with a lot of effort, it will move. But think instead of a boulder on the side of a hill. The slope of the hill represents the perceived difference in appeal between the current situation (the uphill side) and the future vision (the downhill side). The boulder “wants” to roll downhill—gravity compels it. But inertia and friction cause the boulder to stay where it is until the first steps are taken to push the boulder in the right direction. Once the boulder starts to roll downhill, however, the momentum for change builds, and the boulder continues to move in the downhill direction as long as the slope (the quality of the vision, and its “goodness” relative to the status quo) remains steep enough. It takes significantly less effort to roll a boulder down a hill than it does to move the boulder on flat ground—you just have to start it rolling, and it continues on its own.

Similarly, people want to move toward a better life, but inertia and fear of change cause them to continue to do what they have always done. If you make the first steps clear and easy, however, then the people will begin to change. Their enthusiasm for the change will depend on the perceived benefits of the vision over their perceived status quo. Note the two uses of the word “perceived” in that last sentence. If you don’t do a good job of explaining how good the future is, and if you don’t convince them that they should be unhappy with the status quo, then the perceived difference won’t be enough—no matter what the reality is.

There’s a group effect too. Once a few boulders start to roll downhill, you can get a landslide effect that takes other boulders with it. The analogy is apt: once a few key individuals start to change, their enthusiasm promotes change among their peers.

All three requirements—dissatisfaction, vision, and clear first steps—have to be met. The absence of any one of them will prevent change from occurring. People who are satisfied with their current situation have no reason to change, and will be reluctant to try. People who don’t understand the future vision have nothing to move toward, no matter how dissatisfied they may be (Unfortunately, perhaps a more common corporate problem is not the lack of clarity of a vision, but the confusion that results from too many conflicting visions.). And even if someone is dissatisfied and has a clear picture of what’s better, nothing will happen until the first steps are made clear.

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