Elephants and race cars for change

How can you motivate the elephants in your knowledge management projects? When should you drive your change projects like a race car?

These aren’t questions I ever anticipated asking myself, but since reading Chip and Dan Health’s “Switch”11, they have been on my mind.

Change management might have been a topic of study and discussion for decades, but it continues to be a challenge for most knowledge professionals; in fact in APQC’s (American Productivity and Quality Centre) recent survey, change management was one of the top three topics Knowledge Managers wanted to learn more about in 2023.

For years when thinking about organisational change, I have referred to Lewin’s “unfreeze, change, re-freeze” framework and Kotter’s 8-step process, but recently Chip and Dan Heath’s 3 rules for change have been useful.

In “Switch”, the Heaths remind us that although we all think that we’re rational creatures and approach change in an analyse-think-change process, in fact we are far more likely to see-feel-change. When people don’t support your change after you have logically explained the reasons for it, this is far more likely to be because they don’t feel enthused, than because they don’t understand your reasons.

Instead of relying purely on data or rational reasons for change, the Heaths recommend that we take a holistic approach and (1) direct the rider2, (2) motivate the elephant, and (3) shape the path for change. If you appeal primarily to your team’s ”riders” (their logical brains), they will lack sufficient motivation to do the hard work needed to change.  “Elephants” (our emotional brains) may be lazy, skittish and prefer quick pay-offs over long term gains, but they provide the energy and drive to motivate us through the stress of change and, indeed, if the elephant disagrees with the rider, the elephant will win against the rider because self-control is an exhaustible resource (as anyone who has been making decisions all day and then tries to decide what to cook for dinner will know). 

Previously managers have tried to inject some emotion into the change management process by creating a “burning platform” for employees, aiming to paint such a gloomy picture of life without the change that employees can’t help but leap off the platform and change (“If we don’t do X we can’t compete, and you will all be out of work!”). Unfortunately, more recent research suggests that creating negative emotions in this way only tends to work for quick, simple changes. If you have worked in knowledge management for a while, you will know that very few knowledge projects require such simple compliance-focused changes. 

When we need people to solve more ambiguous, larger problems and embed new complex changes to the way that we work, we need to find ways to encourage open minds, creativity and hope. When we need to find ways to encourage teams to be interested, to investigate, to get involved, and to learn new things, we need to instil positive emotions such as pride, joy, contentment and love.

Lastly, the Heaths remind us that even when we motivate our elephant with positive emotions, most change projects will inevitably go through a “foggy” period in the middle. Good leaders need to anticipate this sense of failure and frustration and be prepared to coach their teams through it (fostering the “not yet…” learning mindset), to avoid their teams’ elephants feeling defeated. This isn’t to say that they should accept poor performance, more that a difficult period is a natural way-post on the journey to a new way of working, which brings me to my second new rule for change, from Mario Andretti, race car driver: “If everything is under control, you are going too slow.

What do you think? Do you motivate the elephants and drive your change project like a race car? Have you experienced change projects where “motivating the elephants” was a priority and if so, was the change easier as a result? How do you remember the elephant when planning change? How do you encourage your teams to accept the lack of control in the practice phase of a change project? I’d love to hear about your experiences and top tips. Email me at helenerussell@theknowledgebusiness.co.uk. And if you are interested in KM, change or motivations, don’t forget to join the Knowledge and Information Management special interest group and join the conversation.

  1. ISBN 978-1-84-794032-2 ↩︎
  2. This idea of rider and elephant is a reference to the rational and emotional parts, respectively, of our brain, first expressed in this way by Jonathon Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis. ↩︎

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