Shifting the elephant — Can successful change be boiled down to a formula?

With Richard Tait and Renee Jaine

Change is a complex beast and doing it right requires attention to a variety of things. MartinJenkins Director Richard Tait and behavioural specialist Renee Jaine look at some formulas and metaphors that can help leaders when their change project doesn’t seem to be working.

Change is hard to make in all walks of life, including in our organisations. It often feels like a lot of time is spent trying to persuade our people that change is a good idea. While some people are by nature more adaptable than others, resistance to change is part of the human condition. There is comfort and security in familiar arrangements and stable routines, even when we know they might not be ideal.

In travels around organisational design and change over the years, we’ve encountered a formula that has really resonated — with us and our clients. This is because it describes some important factors leaders need to pay attention to if they want people to embrace something that will affect them and change their world in some way. From our experience it holds remarkably true in practice.

The Gleicher formula

Change is a complex beast and doing it right requires attention to a variety of things. Reducing this complexity to some universal theory seems like an oversimplification. But if you can suspend disbelief for a moment and play along, there’s a formula developed by David Gleicher in the 1960s (and refined by Kathie Dannemiller in the 1980s) that really does help leaders focus on the things that matter to people. It does this by recognising the underlying behavioural psychology of change. 
The variables are sometimes framed slightly differently, but here’s a common presentation of the Gleicher formula:

To elaborate on the different variables a little:
C = The likelihood of successful change 
D = Dissatisfaction with how things are now 
V = The clarity of the future vision for how things could be
F = Identifying the first concrete steps towards the vision
R = The resistance (essentially the perceived cost of moving away from the status quo).

The formula can be summarised this way — if the product of Dissatisfaction, Vision and First steps (the package of factors that will drive you forward) is greater than the Resistance (the perceived cost of change), then the Change is likely to succeed.

A checklist of essential elements for change

The point is not to think about it in strict mathematical terms. The Gleicher formula is essentially a checklist of three crucial preconditions for successful change — Dissatisfaction, Vision, and First steps. If you haven’t attended to each of those factors, and you have a deficiency in one or more of them, then your change project may be much harder to implement.

The weight of the different elements and the interrelationships and tensions between them are important. For example, some smouldering embers on the current platform (D) sometimes aren’t enough to make people want to jump off it if the landing place is uncertain (V). Similarly, getting from here to there can seem harder to people if they can’t see a clear pathway (F) right from the start — even when ‘here’ looks bad right now and ‘there’ looks pretty good.

In The Fifth Discipline (1990), Peter Senge talks about some of these issues in terms of tension and energy:

‘The gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision. We call this gap creative tension.’

So you may have a shiny and detailed vision of the future, but there is no tension if people don’t think there is anything wrong with the present. The resistance kicks in again because change involves, well, effort and uncertainty, and so it carries a perceived cost.

From maths to zoology: The Heath brothers’ elephant metaphor

Gleicher’s formula is underpinned by robust behavioural science insights, from Nobel winners such as Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman. (Renee wrote about Thaler’s insights on our blog earlier this year in Nudge or be nudged, while our Managing Director Kevin Jenkins wrote recently in the NZ Herald about Kahneman’s thoughts on ‘optimism bias’.)

Chip and Dan Heath give some (animal) life to Gleicher’s formula and the behavioural insights behind it with their metaphor of shifting an elephant. You can follow the full analogy in their excellent book Switch: how to change things when change is hard, but broadly the key factors they discuss map on to Gleicher’s variables.

For example, to get the elephant moving, you’ll need to convince it that the future destination is far better than the here and now. Translated to your organisation, this means you’ll need to build a compelling vision — V — that captures the imagination and the heart, in order to overcome resistance to change.

The elephant also has to be able to see the beginnings of a path before it — a viable way to proceed — before it will start to move. Again, this is F, the first concrete steps in the Gleicher formula.

Shifting real elephants

At MartinJenkins the ‘V for Vision’ lesson was reinforced for us a couple of years ago in a piece of work where we had defined the ‘case for change’ clearly in the form of an opportunity to do some things differently and get a range of benefits. But what we hadn’t done was put enough detail around how the new arrangement would work in practice.

Hello change resistance. We were left scratching our heads about why such an obviously good idea wasn’t embraced with open arms. Gleicher’s formula sheds light on this. The people who would be affected needed a bit more detail around how the future could work, so they could sense it better and see what was at the end of the path — enough to want to get there.

Ironically the deficiency here was because we wanted to co-design the detailed future with the people involved, once the change was made. At MartinJenkins our style is, for good reason, a collaborative one, as we think this is what makes changes stick, and we had wanted to give the client room to provide detailed input on the future state. But we found that leaving too much uncertain space here can mean less confidence about moving forward.

What’s missing?

So if your change project doesn’t seem to be succeeding, think about what might be missing in your particular context for change. Think about the tensions between the different elements in Gleicher’s formula — and the different forces tugging at the Heath Bros’ elephant.

The difference between success and inertia might be as simple as turning the dial on one key variable.

About the authors

Richard Tait, Director at MartinJenkins
Richard Tait is one of MartinJenkins Directors. His specialist areas are strategy and organisational performance, review and design. He works with a wide variety of clients to help them define their goals and priorities, understand what is driving their performance, and identify practical opportunities and solutions for lifting performance. Richard is known for his ability to quickly understand each client’s specific context, to identify the issues, and to communicate problems and solutions in an accessible way.
Renee Jaine, Behavioural Scientist and Consultant at MartinJenkins
Renee Jaine is a behavioural scientist who uses insights from economics and psychology to understand the drivers shaping decision making, and to design effective strategies for change. She has developed research-backed strategies for clients in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, addressing issues such as health and safety, education, and service uptake. Renee has also helped clients bring behavioural science insights into their public-facing communication materials, to drive significant improvements in engagement and knowledge recall.