Don’t let business change be like New Year’s resolutions

Diet, exercise, and other common themes dominate most New Year’s resolutions.  Resolutions are fundamentally about change.

The change formula - Mike Russell

Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions are like a coin.  On one side are the plans to make personal or business changes for the next year.  On the other side are the many jokes about failed resolutions.

Planning is good.  But why do so many plans that involve change, especially New Year’s resolutions, fail?


psychology of change - Mike Russell

The formula for change

There is actually a psychological “formula” for change.

  • The pain of the change must be less than the pain of not making the change.
    immediate pain of change < immediate pain of not making change
  • The pain of change must be much less than the gain from the change.
    immediate pain of change << future pain of not making change and/or benefits from making change

In the second case, immediate pain must be much less than (<<) future pain from no change or future benefits.  The pain of change is far more “real” because it is “near.”  Something in the future is “out there” and may or may not happen.  Betting on “maybe” benefits must be overcome by a big enough payoff to justify feeling pain now and taking the risk.

If the mental “formula” does not work, we will not take action.  If we encounter pain and the promise of a better future isn’t strong enough, we will stop taking action.  And our change plans will fail without action.

Why resolutions fail

Thinking about change - Mike Russell

Failure to follow-through due to the change formula is why resolutions about diet and exercise, for example, often fail.

To get the gain from diet changes, I often have to forgo pleasure from foods and drinks I like, right now.  On the other hand, the change in health or weight is slow.  The loss of eating pleasure is immediate and daily or even hourly.  The benefit is more weekly and likely even monthly.  I may not even see any change initially.

To get the gain from exercise, it’s mostly the same pattern.  Exercise now but see benefits later.  The difficulty of exercise, especially when beginning, is immediate.  Results are a vague promise.

And that’s why most New Year’s resolutions fail.  The change equation is not in your favor.  It takes strong vision, discipline, and accountability to turn the equation in your favor.

Business changes are not any different.

Business change is like New Year's resolutions - Mike Russell

Business change is no different.  The change formulas are often weak or reversed in favor of no change.  People asked to make change often do not see the formula clearly.  They easily visualize and understand immediate or near-term pain.  They often see little personal future benefit.  Making change harder is that people making the change have not initiated the change.  These things combined mean there is little ownership and motivation for change.

As a leader, you can overcome this.  Think like a marketer.  Marketing is about psychology, and psychology is key to change.

You will be “marketing” change.  Therefore, pain and gain must be a key factor in your internal communications.

You must express the need for and benefits of the change.  Most leaders do that.  What most leaders do not do is explain the rest of the “equation,” and that kills change.  Explain clearly and in a way relevant to those making changes:

  • the pain of not making the change, and
  • the benefits of the change are bigger than the pain of going through the change,
  • AND acknowledge that there will be some “pain” to get through on the way to the benefit … then support them through the pain.

Business-wide commitment to change requires a business-wide understanding of pains and gains.  You must explain the change equation in a way that everyone can understand.  If you can’t do so, work on it until you can.  Otherwise, you can’t expect success.

Climbing the mountain of transformation - Mike Russell

What about transformation?

Transformation is fundamental change.  Fundamental change requires often requires major upfront pain.  The formula must have truly significant and relevant future benefits to overcome the big upfront cost.  Make sure the formula shows a future that dwarfs the present.

By Mike Russell


For more about business change see Wrong Until Right – How to Succeed Despite Relentless Change